I still remember how puzzled my classmates and I were when our teacher from England urged us, over and again, to be more excited to repeat after her: “It’s a fine day today.” She was obviously displeased to see the indifference in our tone when uttering those words.
We, a class of some 20 beginners of English-language study in Tianjin, simply couldn’t understand what it should matter to have a fine day. We had fine days almost all the time, as long as it did not rain or snow, so what was there to be excited about when we had a fine day?
Back in the early 1970s, we could never anticipate that four decades later we should miss the fine days we used to take for granted, and we should have to fight a war to win them back.
Yes, smog has become so prevalent in China today that a flash of fine day could make a news headline in our media. And Premier Li Keqiang had to “declare war against pollution” at the current session of the National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature.
It seems we are being punished by our own ignorance, negligence, and misconduct in our pursuit of economic development and wealth over the past few decades. In our eagerness to emulate industrialized countries, many of us developed a sense of vanity to gain affluence by having big houses and private cars while ignoring the civilization of leading a low-carbon life.
Then, the urbanization drive spurred our cities to grow taller and bigger without subtle plans for a more rational social structure and road network. Too much focus on domestic gross product (GDP) distracted our attention away from sustainability, environment and other elements critical to social progress.
Part of the result of all this is the dense smog and haze that now chases us everywhere, depriving us from the pleasure of breathing freely. And, we feel nostalgic for the good old days of blue sky and clean air.
But this is no time to be nostalgic and complain. As none of us can tolerate smog any more, the war against pollution involves us all. Every member of our civic society has a share in the fight to win this war.
For instance, we in Beijing have witnessed the skyrocketing ownership of motor vehicles in the past decade. Statics shows that by 2013 there were 5.43 million motor vehicles registered in the Chinese capital vs. 2.58 million in 2005.
Despite government efforts to curb the increase in car ownership and restrict the traffic flow by banning private cars in urban areas one day a week, many thoroughfares are still reduced into parking lots with heavy congestions from time to time. That creates a lot of pollution.
Can we do something about it? Of course the government and city managers and planners have their duty and responsibility to work out smarter programs to reduce energy consumption and motor vehicle exhaust, so as to clean the air. They should make the public transportation facilities more convenient so that more people will opt to use public traffic instead of driving their own cars.
Yet we ordinary people also have a role to play. Another statistic reveals that with a bigger population size and more motor vehicles than Beijing, Tokyo has enjoyed relatively smoother traffic and does not see as many traffic jams as the Chinese capital. One trick is that an average car in Tokyo travels 10,000 kilometers a year, one quarter that of its Beijing counterpart.
Drivers in more than 100 Chinese cities have followed the European example to quit driving cars on every Sept. 22 since 2006, and called on people to have at least one “no car day” a month. This is not something big, but it shows what an average citizen could do to help ease traffic jams, reduce energy consumption and improve air quality.
We can do more than that. We can check our sense of vanity to not brag about our affluence with big houses and fancy cars. We don’t have to consume more energy than what satisfies our basic necessity. We should be wise enough not to emulate others’ model of extravaganza. And we may supervise related organs in their enforcement of energy-saving programs and regulations and put up our suggestions wherever necessary.
Probably the nasty heavy smog days are a turning point. The pollution has cornered us to no retreat and we must fight for a way out. If every Chinese is involved in the war against pollution, we’ll surely win it.
Xiong Lei is a guest professor of journalism at Renmin University of China.