ARBOR OUTLOOK: Beijing to Pittsburgh to 30A: Emerging market stress

Published: Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 05:18 PM.

Imagine the consternation and dismay of South Walton residents if the carcasses of 13,000 pigs were found floating in the Choctawhatchee River, headed for the Gulf. Such was the recent plight of residents who live near the Shanghai River in the Chinese city of the same name. Indeed, the process of transitioning from an emerging market to a developed nation is not without its difficulties.

Peaceful, pastoral communities in southeastern China, towns with breathable air, exert a powerful psychic pull on the 20 million or so residents of Beijing in northern China, a city with arguably the worst air in world history. One small province is now purchasing television advertising encouraging citizens to leave the polluted cities and return to their peaceful little agricultural province. The commercial touts verdant green hillsides and breathable air as enticements. 

Many of China’s problems mirror issues that plagued the U.S. during our own industrial revolution, but of course, China’s changes are on a grander scale. Think of the U.S. Rust Belt on steroids. 

A recent report from NPR states that pollution in Beijing is so dense that drivers frequently cannot see the car directly in front of them. A doctor interviewed on NPR says that simply breathing daily in Beijing is the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Some residents and schools have begun building bubbled domes with air filters over their living space to improve breathing conditions. The Economist reports that pollution readings earlier this year have been staggering, even by Beijing standards.

“On January 12th … Beijing residents … suffered a day of astonishingly bad air,” writes an Economist reporter. “Pollution readings went, quite literally, off the charts … Those previously unseen numbers were hard to believe, but they did seem to match well enough with the noxious soup we could see, smell and taste outside.”

Not in our back yard, right? It’s easy to forget that the soot in Pittsburgh was at one time so pervasive and thick that it blackened the faces of all its downtown residents and turned day into night. Alexis Madragil of The Atlantic writes, “As America became an industrial power during the 19th century, Pittsburgh emerged as the seat of metalworking, iron and then steel…Soot and smoke covered the city.  There was no blue sky.  Travelers from around the world visited Pittsburgh to see the wonder of American capitalism.  The stories they tell are like — exactly like — the ones you hear today about China.”

Madrigal also writes, “Another traveler recounted, ‘Everybody who has heard of Pittsburgh knows that it is the city of perpetual smoke, and looks as if it were built above the descent to ‘the bottomless pit,’ that is to say, hell.  And yet, this dirty power also happened to make a lot of people a lot of money.’ ” The article also notes that Pittsburgh “did not enact smoke controls until 1946.” Pittsburgh was described in 1868 by Boston writer James Parton as “hell with the lid off.”

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