Andersen: Do they breathe in China? |

Andersen: Do they breathe in China?

Paul Andersen

Prosperity at all costs is a zero-sum game. No one wins when the human costs cancel out the designated social good.

If economic well-being were the only or the highest value we seek, then the quest for prosperity would be all or nothing. What’s happening in China today clearly dispels that notion.

The New York Times reported recently that air pollution in China endangers huge populations. The gushing of toxic smoke and fumes as a byproduct of industry is literally killing those whom industry is supposed to benefit.

The Times reported, “BEIJING — The boy’s chronic cough and stuffy nose began last year at the age of 3. His symptoms worsened this winter, when smog across northern China surged to record levels. Now he needs his sinuses cleared every night with saltwater piped through a machine’s tubes.”

The article describes how the boy’s mother almost never lets him go outside. When she does, she usually makes him wear a face mask. She describes the difference between Britain, where she once studied, and China as “heaven and hell.”

Perhaps the Chinese will embrace clean air and green living one day. They are certainly rich enough to do so already. But if they don’t, then one forecaster predicts that by 2030 the Chinese will produce more carbon than the whole planet did in 1970.

The Times reports, “Levels of deadly pollutants up to 40 times the recommended exposure limit in Beijing and other cities have struck fear into parents and led them to take steps that are radically altering the nature of urban life for their children.”

Some schools are canceling outdoor activities and field trips while parents with means, some of them visiting Europeans and Americans, are choosing schools that provide air-filtration systems.

“Some international schools have built gigantic, futuristic-looking domes over sports fields to ensure healthy breathing,” the Times reported. Pictured are children “playing” in these domes as if they are outdoors romping on natural playing fields.

Not only is the health of children imperiled, but any exposure to the outdoors becomes almost unthinkable. Today’s unbridled drive for prosperity in China is separating children from the natural world, which many will equate to a threat to their health for years to come.

In China, the costs of air pollution are not part of the calculus for industrial development. Worldwide pollution of the ocean is similarly discounted throughout the industrial world, where the output of pollutants is not weighed against profits or Gross Domestic Product.

Taking from the commons — our mutual stewardship of land, air and water and of all the goods and materials provided there — to enhance personal and national wealth is an entitlement for industrial societies. But when pollutants denigrate the commons so that people can no longer lead healthy lives, a fundamental compact is broken.

A Deutsche Bank report released in February said the current trends of coal use and automobile emissions in China show that air pollution is expected to worsen by an additional 70 percent by 2025.

“Some children’s hospitals in northern China reported a large number of patients with respiratory illnesses this winter, when the air pollution soared. During one bad week in January, Beijing Children’s Hospital admitted up to 9,000 patients a day for emergency visits, half of them for respiratory problems,” according to the Times.

In the U.S., we have a similar issue with fracking. The oil-and-gas industry denies there is ill effect from puncturing the skin of the Earth and injecting it with toxic chemicals, but science only knows so much about deep geological structures and complex groundwater patterns.

Some people in Rifle have learned from empirical evidence that fracking is a threat to their streams and well water. Their health risks are bargained away to satisfy America’s gluttony for gas and oil.

“I hope in the future we’ll move to a foreign country,” the mother of that wheezing child in China told the Times. “Otherwise we’ll choke to death.”

When the place you call home becomes unlivable, prosperity becomes a dirty word. The cultural frenzy for economic growth pales as we discount human sacrifices to our short-term wealth.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at

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