Lately there has been a barrage of pollution-related news stories regarding the bad air quality present in China. Much of this is related to a recent news article that purported that China was televising their sunrises on massive screens due to air pollution. This photograph which was falsely captioned, is actually a tourism ad played daily in Tiananmen Square’s big screen. Unfortunately, there is some truth to this story, as it is now commonplace for Chinese citizens to wear face masks in order to filter at least some of the harmful particulates out of the air. Further, air pollution contributed to over a million deaths in China in 2010, and lung cancer rates have quadrupled over the past thirty years. Knowledge of the impact of air pollution on health is not new, but the international community has not taken much heed to it. That is, until now.
While pollution has been filling the skies in China, we have ignored the fact that we actually live on the same planet. But as China’s pollution begins to lick at North America’s West Coast, the distressing reality is becoming tangible in our minds and busy lives. A recent article in Time Magazine discusses how the pollution in developing countries is from goods exported to West. Fortunately, there has been some discussion about the need to “understand the full life cycle of all the goods and services we are purchasing and selling”. However, I suspect that we are still quick to blame this issue on the readily apparent causes of China’s unhealthy state of affairs: a lack of effective air pollution policies, heavy reliance on coal, as well as the now widespread use of personal vehicles. Again, while this may be true, there tends to be an area that is left unsaid. That is, the issue of pollution in China is systematic, and a wider sociological lens is useful in identifying the problems and solutions.
China’s air pollution is heavily related to the mass production of all of the trinkets and toys that consumers here in the North America must have, and then later throw away. As we are pressured under the oppressive economy, more and more of us have had to look at the bottom line in our bank accounts and do what we can in order to maintain our lifestyles and make ends meet. While many people would like to choose to support local businesses and goods, this is becoming more and more out of reach. Products are no longer made to last, rather they are often engineered to be irreparable and easily replaceable. We have seen the closing and merging of small and medium businesses as they have been cannibalized by big box giants. Surely, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who has not purchased something at one of the many conveniently-located Walmarts or dollar stores. Furthermore, over the past 20 years, the socioeconomic inequality in Canada has only widened despite being one of the OECD countries to not only weather the recession of the 1990’s, but excelled. Unfortunately, the majority of the population did not experience this promised “trickle-down” effect.
We can try to do our best to select what we buy wisely, but our greatest role would be in influencing policy to promote fair trade. Our consumerism is easy when the effects don’t happen to us or are not readily visible. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. However, as the Global North, we are enforcing and supporting a modern form of colonialism, that is founded upon the oppression of other humans and nations in order to acquire cheap goods. Those in the Global South who must compete in a global market are faced with contract conditions under which they lack the negotiating power, since the competition for these contracts are foundational to their developing economies.
It is easy to blame China and other developing nations that produce and supply cheap goods for exhibiting an extreme lack of environmental responsibility. However, as a member of the OECD nations, we have a responsibility in international business to enforce and apply the pressure needed to ensure safe working conditions, as well as ethical business practices that protect the environment. That means that corporations in North America must be willing to make a little less profit, and instead invest and distribute their great wealth through principled business contracts that allow for the building of a strategic plan and infrastructure to protect the environment. In the state of practice as it is now, we are merely exploiting other humans and nations for their labour, their environment, and ultimately their lives.