Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Forget the Tsingtao, I’ll take a six pack of air

Having seen recent pictures of Salt Lake City, which is sitting in the middle of some pretty awful pollution funk, we can’t be completely pointing fingers at our friends in the East and tsk-tsking their terrible air quality. Still, from what I read about Beijing, spending any time there at all will choke you up. (Remember how during the 2008 Olympics the Chinese government jumped through all sorts of non-fossil fuel-fueled hoops to make sure that visitors (and competitors) didn’t have to equip themselves with oxygen tanks?)

The current air quality is the worst it’s been in almost 60 years.

In a remarkable record of dirty air, 24 out of January's first 29 days this year had air classified as hazardous. And the skies have still not cleared. (Source: ABC News.)

I’m actually surprised that the air quality was this bad in 1954, since there couldn’t have been 10 motor vehicles that weren’t army trucks in the country at that point. Still, they were probably burning some really nasty stuff to stay warm back in the day. I was in Berlin over New Year’s 1989-1990, when Eastern European (formerly Communist Bloc) countries were staying warm with some very sulfur-y coal. There was a thick brown haze over the city that you could almost taste. And the smell…

I’ve also been to LA, and can even remember a time when Boston would regularly suffer from some sort of climate inversion that would produce some pretty serious pollution.

But on a day to day, year to year, decade to decade basis, we ain’t seen nothing that compares with Beijing, with all that industry burning all that yucky coal, and all those new drivers with their pedal to the metal.

Visibility is reduced to 100 yards in downtown Beijing. Travel has been disrupted with more than 100 flights cancelled, at a time when millions start the journey home for Chinese New Year.

Of course, where there are problems, there are solutions. Or, if not exactly solutions, there are opportunities to capitalize on the problems.

Enter Chen Guangbiao and his cans of fresh air, called, cleverly enough, Fresh Air.

Chen is a wealthy entrepreneur, and he’s actually not trying to con folks into thinking they can crack open a can of air and get a whiff of revivifying air. (Why am I thinking of the Salem cigarette ads of yesteryear that claimed “Take a puff, it’s springtime”?) What he’s trying to do is “stimulate awareness of environmental protection among government officials and citizens.”

"If we don't pay attention to environmental protection, in 10 years every one of us will be wearing gas masks and carrying oxygen tanks on the streets," Cheng told ABC News. "By that time, my canned fresh air will be a necessity for household," he predicts.

“Toxic smog” is no joking matter, of course. With it comes all sorts of ills: pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma. Which doesn’t actually make me want to grab my mask and jump on the next Air China flight out. Especially when the government is sending out texts telling folks to stay indoors.

Masks have become a big seller in Beijing, where an average of 100,00 have been sold each day for the last month.

But the number of Chen Guangbiao presents his company's canned fresh air at Beijing Financial Street on January 30, 2013 in Beijing, Chinamasks being sold is nothing in comparison with the cans of Chen air, which are completely flying off the shelves (which they may well be doing, since they’re almost lighter than air).

[Chen] says 10 million cans have sold in the last 10 days as pollution levels climb to record highs. (Source: Daily Mail.)

Chen, who made his money in recycling, is on a mission:

'I want to tell mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies: don't just chase GDP growth, don't chase the biggest profits at the expense of our children and grandchildren and at the cost of sacrificing our ecological environment', Chen said.

Chen is not lacking in ego and/or humor. The cans say “Chen Guangbiao is a good man.’

Good enough, anyway, to give the sales proceeds “to poor regions of China, and places of historic revolutionary importance.”

Here’s a fellow who’s supposedly worth $740M, and he’s funding “places of historic revolutionary importance”. A page out of the Little Red Book, and a tip of the Mao cap to Citizen Chen.

When someone can become an almost billionaire, while honoring the Long March or Mao’s swim in the Yangtze, the world is indeed a wondrous place.

Just wish it were a bit less polluted. Hope that Chen Guangbiao never has to really go into the Fresh Air business.

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