Global Glance: March 20, 2017
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Air Pollution Gives Rise to a New Global Market That’s Both Laughable and Disturbing
Back in 2014, Radius published a blog post by Ping Chen on air pollution in China, in particular its effects on the ability of foreign-owned businesses to place expatriate workers in Beijing. The post was written on the cusp of a Chinese government initiative that would invest the equivalent of about $8 billion to improve Beijing’s air quality by among other things reducing the number of coal-burning power plants and limiting passenger-vehicle traffic.
A 2017 article in The Economist explains that the initiative was part of a wider government plan known as the “war on pollution.” The effort achieved “some headway in improving [China’s] environment,” including making the country’s legendary smog “at least a bit lighter.” A graphic in the article shows a notable decline in air pollution (measured by particulate matter, or PM) from near the start of 2014 to late 2015, when PM numbers began to rise again. The culprit, The Economist notes, was (and continues to be) a recent “rebound in heavy industry” in China, including increased production of steel, iron and cement.
An article last week in The Guardian indicates that there’s another reason for China’s recent “extreme air pollution events,” or “airpocalypses.” The Guardian says that scientists at Georgia Tech have found global warming has precipitated Arctic ice-melting and unusually heavy snows in Siberia, both of which “are changing winter weather patterns over east China.” Basically, air masses are sitting over China like stalled traffic, “trapping pollution and leading to the buildup of extreme levels of toxic air.” The article adds grimly that air pollution is responsible for 1.4 million deaths in China annually. That number could grow given that Georgia Tech researchers “concluded that ‘extreme haze events in winter will likely occur at a higher frequency in China’ as climate change continues to heat up the Arctic.”
To see some photos of China’s air-pollution problem, check out this Business Insider article, which includes a particularly eerie shot of three couples dancing in a dark miasma. The dancers, and virtually every other subject in the photos, are wearing surgical masks as protection against smog. Wearing these masks is a cultural trend in China and other East Asian nations, as a 2014 Quartz article explains. Quartz confirms what most viewers of the Business Insider photo piece will have suspected: that “woven-cloth surgical masks provide minimal protection from environmental viruses” and (presumably) the ill effects of particulate pollution.
The Quartz article suggests that the popularity of surgical masks in East Asia may be rooted in “Taoism and the health precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which breath and breathing are seen as a central element in good health.” These precepts predate “the germ theory of disease, and [extend] into the very foundations of East Asian culture.” (Interestingly, the article notes that some studies have found masks now also function for some — especially women — as “social firewalls” intended to discourage human interaction and harassment.)
All of which brings us to a remarkable new global business trend: the canning and selling of “fresh” air. Reuters reported last Friday that amid government pledges to clean up China’s smog crisis, “a state-backed firm is doing brisk business selling 48 yuan ($6.95) cans of fresh air bottled in a forest in western China.” In other words, the Chinese state has found a way to cash in on its own air pollution. In a passage fit for a heavy-handed satirical novel, Reuters quotes a sales person for the Chinese air-canning company: “We set up a factory in Ningdong Forest Park in Shaanxi province and compress air directly into the bottle. … Consumers will feel like they are breathing in the forest.”
Not surprisingly, there has been according to Reuters “widespread criticism” of canned air on China’s social media platform Weibo. But critics apparently haven’t significantly reduced demand. Reuters says the “the first batch of Qinling Forest Oxygen-Enriched Air [has] sold out.”
For surreal photos of what appear to be members of the Chinese military inhaling the canned air, check out the incomparably titled article in SINA, “Air from Mount Qinling sells at 18 yuan per bottle, ‘smells like forest’.” One picture’s caption reads (verbatim): “Liu Changrong, head of local forestry bureau said that the idea of selling air first came to their mind about one year ago, when the smog in Xi’an was severe. After investigation, the bureau built an assembly line to produce bottled air with about 300,000 yuan ($44,117 USD).”
That “local forestry bureau” just may have come up with the idea to “sell air” to fellow Chinese citizens on its own, but I doubt it. CNN reported back in 2015 that a Canadian company called Vitality Air shipped 500 canisters to China “filled with fresh air from the Rocky Mountain town of Banff” and the cans sold out in two weeks at a the equivalent of $14 to $20 a pop.
That article says Vitality Air’s cofounder Moses Lam “came up with the business idea [in 2014] after listing a bag of ziplocked air on eBay, which sold for 99 cents.” He’s quoted as saying, "We wanted to do something fun and disruptive so we decided to see if we could sell air." Lam says that Canadians buy canned air more or less as a gag, but adds, “"In North America, we take our fresh air for granted but in China the situation is very different."
An article published about Lam’s company and similar ventures was published in Mashable five months after the CNN piece. By then, Vitality Air was “scrambling to keep up with demand from China,” with a local representative quoted by CNN as saying: “Our Chinese website keeps crashing. We are getting orders from all over the country, not just from the wealthier cities. When the air is bad, we see spikes in sales.”
CNN rightly emphasizes that while the business of selling canned air in China is basically absurd, it is also part of a trend of China’s “growing upper and middle classes willing to spend on the finer things in life.” The demand for the canned air also springs from a deadly serious health crisis. The article quotes a director of the World Health Organization as saying, “Urban air pollution continues to rise at an alarming rate, wreaking havoc on human health.” One Canadian expat based in Beijing told Mashable that he first “received a can of air for Christmas as a joke from a friend from home” but now he is “addicted.” He spoke on condition of anonymity since he was embarrassed that he keeps a can of air at work to relieve stress.
Mashable points out that Vitality Air “is just one of a variety of companies” selling canned air in China. The New York Times published a story on the trend a few months later, in October of 2016, noting that “sales of bottled air from fresh-smelling places are taking off,” not only in China but in other “smog-choked [Asian] cities.” The Times says that one Australian company “plans to ship about 40,000 containers a month to China starting in December, and then expand to India, Malaysia, Chile and the Middle East.”
Peddling canned air, then, is a global business trend that’s at once laughable, deplorable, understandable and terrifying. Canning air in factories, and shipping those cans long distances, will only increase global warming and pollution, the very problems canned air tries to address, however fleetingly. The CNN article quotes a professor from a Hong Kong university, who makes the critical if obvious point that “buying bottles of air [is] not a practical solution to China's air pollution. … We need to filter out the particles, the invisible killers, from the air.”
It was at first easy to laugh off canned air from my desk in Boston — where skies outside my window were at the time clear and blue — and rest assured I laughed plenty when I first came across that Reuters article on Friday. But it’s not easy to laugh after reading about the problems that gave rise to the surreal canned-air market, or about the Beijing-based technology worker Pan Li, who told the Times that canned air made his “lungs feel clean,” and that in his polluted environment he’s “willing to try anything.”