Income inequality is a point of contention in the United States. Air inequality is the latest flashpoint in mainland China. Is the latter condition a harbinger of our environmental future?
China's rapid coal-based industrialization has produced periods of dreadful air pollution over its major cities, causing inhabitants to take desperate measures to escape serious respiratory damage. Face masks are frequently the first line of defense, but their dilutive capacity is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of atmospheric pollutants. The only reliable, albeit temporary salvation is an indoor environment serviced by an air purifier able to remove the worst impurities.
Here is where Chinese civil unrest bubbles to the surface. Political leaders and their wealthy constituencies have expensive air purifiers in their homes and offices. Furthermore, when heavy pollution strikes a Chinese urban center, the American Embassy advises all its countrymen in the vicinity to acquire air purifiers and remain mostly indoors.
That is all well and good for Americans, the majority of whom are well paid embassy employees, or affluent businessmen, expatiates, and tourists. But what about the local Chinese?
Top of the line airs purifiers run between $2000 and $3000, and basic standard models range from $320 to $480 a piece. Meanwhile, the average annual family income of the 712 million urban Chinese is $2100. Do the math! No wonder the grassroots harbors bitter resentment towards political leaders who enjoy first class indoor air quality while overseeing a sluggish pace in outdoor pollution abatement.
Even if the typical Chinese family could afford a purifier, the best projection is that by 2016, some 17 million devices will be produced for sale annually, still well short of need. Moreover, many Chinese would continue to be unable to monetarily afford clean indoor air as temporary respite from lung-searing smog. Their main hope would lie in China meeting its principle challenge of significantly diminishing its air pollution currently linked to a record number of respiratory-related deaths.
Meanwhile, an unsettling question arises from China's miasmic plight.
Will having to pay to breathe be the ultimate fate that awaits citizens of any nation that allows air pollution to spiral out of control? A word to the wise should be more than sufficient.