Airpocalypse Now: I Love the Smell of Emphysema in the Morning

January 14, 2013

So yeah, we’ve been having a bit of bother here in Beijing with our air. Not exactly a new development, although this particular episode is rather alarming when you look at the numbers. If you’ve seen the press coverage, you’re probably aware that the tracking system the municipal government here uses to measure air quality is based on an old story about Da Yu, China’s most famous and beloved flood engineer.

As the story goes, one day Da Yu was scouting locations for a dam with one of his assistants, who had chosen three possible sites. The first possibility was a wide expanse where the river was relatively calm. “Not optimal,” he told his assistant. “Too wide. The expense of building a dam that wide would be too great.” The assistant was ashamed that he had failed in his task.

Arriving at the second location, a narrow expanse where the water ran fast and the riverbed was littered with boulders, Da Yu once again shook his head. “Not optimal,” he intoned mournfully. “Too narrow. The water is too turbulent and the riverbed would make construction difficult.” The assistant was now terrified of the price of ultimate failure, but he knew he had one chance remaining.

The assistant was in luck. The third location was neither too narrow nor too wide, and the riverbed was stable and flat. Da Yu nodded appreciatively and began surveying in earnest, and the assistant breathed a sigh of relief. This is the source of the well-known Chinese saying “When the situation is optimal, breathe deeply in satisfaction.”

Thousands of years later, the “Beijing Smog Index” (theĀ B.S. Index for short) breaks down particulate matter (PM) into three categories. In honor of Da Yu’s significant contributions to China, the three categories or, as they’re called, “Zones,” correspond to a given level of PM in the air. If the PM level is greater than 300, this is Zone 3, deemed “not optimal” as was the first location inspected by Da Yu. If the measured PM is between 50 and 300, then we are in Zone 2, deemed “optimal” as was the third location inspected by Da Yu. Any value of PM lower than 50 is Zone 1, deemed “not optimal” as was the second location inspected by Da Yu.

Some foreign critics of the BS Index have openly questioned the assumptions of Zone 1 recommendations. They suggest that very low PM readings are, in fact, very positive outcomes that should be encouraged and certainly not labeled “not optimal.” Professor Hao Hao, head of the Smog Department of the China Academy of Astrology, Elixirs and Feng Shui (AEF) strongly disagrees:

These critics simply do not understand China, and their challenging of our historical traditions is deeply offensive. Moreover, everyone knows that carbon dioxide is a natural substance necessary to sustain life on the planet. To quote U.S. Senator James Inhofe, “CO2 is plant food!” If the PM level drops too low, there could be catastrophic consequences.

No matter your opinion of the BS Index, there is no doubt that the air quality in Beijing right now is not optimal. In fact, if one were to proportionally extrapolate out additional zones for the BS Index, we would be hovering somewhere around Zone 17 at the moment.

If you’re looking for some good photos of the current Airpocalypse, try the Wall Street Journal China blog.

I know a lot of folks are bitching and moaning, coughing and hacking these days. As the air has gone from Blade Runner to The Mist to The Fog, public opinion has certainly taken a hit. But you know, it could be worse. This could be a post-apocalyptic hellscape teeming with killer androids, or a community slammed by ravenous inter-dimensional critters. And let’s not even get into the zombie and other undead scenarios.

The point is that, contrary to the BS Index, we are sort of in an optimal zone. The air isn’t so bad that it’s melting our automobiles or skin, but at the same time, it’s really creepy to look at. We can all enjoy a few days of trading photos with our friends overseas, boasting about how we survived the 2013 Airpocalypse. “See? I told you Beijing was still a hardship post.”

For those of us too young to have participated in a war and lucky enough to have avoided joining a violent street gang, it’s tough to establish street cred. Sure, I have it automatically by being a blogger {cough cough}, but the rest of you have to go through life without the respect you crave.

Airpocalypse is a gift. Get your mobile phones out and document this bitch. Get a pic of yourself next to a shrouded famous landmark. Ham it up by hacking on camera. Next month, go get a chest X-ray and use the clouded results as a screensaver, and post a JPG to Facebook.

But if anyone asks you about Airpocalypse, just shrug, play it cool, and say “Of course, the air is not optimal, but like Da Yu, I’m going to tough it out and stick around until the job is done.”

6 thoughts on “Airpocalypse Now: I Love the Smell of Emphysema in the Morning

    1. Stan Post author

      That’s a good one. I never get good ideas like that until after the fact. Actually, I usually don’t get good ideas like that at all . . .

  1. Kevin

    I am sorry but after 13 year’s here in China and being born and raised in the Los Angeles area, it will always be Grauman’s Chinese Theater to me. Maybe it would be better if TCL used their Chinese name.

      1. fdawei

        That would be the gentlemanly thing to do, but when your country and its companies strive to leave their huge footprints everywhere, don’t expect a low-key gift.