I looked down with wide eyes at the tissue and saw a layer of black and gray—as if someone had taken a pen and scribbled all over it. I hadn’t noticed it before, but there it was, staring back at me. The air in the city turns the inside of your nose black with pollution. It certainly isn’t a surprise, but it’s a disgusting—and a bit chilling—thing to recognize.
Last week was a bit of environmental wake-up call. My girlfriend was visiting, and it took a fresh pair of eyes—and nostrils—to remind me how filthy it can get in Delhi (and, really, India at large). It isn’t as though you can ever ignore the pollution, but once you get used to it, you ease up on the fretting. Most of the time, the pollution level falls between the categories of gentle haze and light fog. Some days, generally in the afternoon or right up to dusk, the air becomes clear, and I feel my mood swing toward the stars. I see neighborhoods I usually can’t. The sun shines a little extra warm. The air feels crisp and clean.
Then night sets in, bringing with it the cool air that seems to facilitate the onset of the Thickness. Some mornings you can barely see a mile down the road. Some evenings—almost always the worst time—visibility drops to a half-mile. Bilious clouds of haze and pollution hang in the air. You can’t make out the faces in the cars stopped at the opposite side of the traffic light; they’re just shapes.
The most common way I get around is by using auto rickshaws, small, open-sided, go-kart-y things that zip through city traffic. They’re cheap and easy, but they expose you to the elements. Some days this means a beautiful breeze, but on many others my eyes burn, turn red and water. My nose is constantly running with the dreaded black stuff. My throat is sore. I am aware of the air in a way I hope never to feel air again after I leave. Some days I run up three flights of stairs to my apartment without feeling my heart rate increase a beat. Some days I walk slowly up the stairs and find myself wheezing and out of breath at the top—I always worry that maybe I’m falling out of shape, and then I look out my window and remember that dreaded Thickness is out there, mucking up everything.
It was a real shame going to Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal (and Agra Fort, an equally lovely piece of history), and finding even worse air quality—a product of the city's recent industrial history. If we had stayed to catch a nighttime view of the Taj Mahal from one of the nearby rooftop hotels, we wouldn't have been able to see it through the haze. While sitting in the train station we couldn’t even see the parking lot welcome sign less than a hundred yards away.
The environmental debate around the world has taken a bit of a twist in the last few months. Increasing doubt about the real world ramifications of global warming has edged into the informed discussion—a different tone than the “We’re not affecting the environment at all” loonies, and one that has begun to stick. The debate is at the center of a chapter in the recent Superfreakonmics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, and it splashed along the pages of this week’s The Economist.
No one knows what global warming is going to do. And there is room for debate about whether developing countries with an opportunity to bring millions of people out of poverty should sacrifice any of that opportunity for something we don’t understand, can’t predict and can’t rally our own publics around. Too often in the West, it seems that this is just glossed over as irrelevant because the world is going to end 2012-style. It’s as if the millions of people climbing out of poverty from Brazil to China to India aren’t factors in the discussion. This is much more than some sort of selfish business decision; these nations know that curbing emissions will slow their growth, thus slow their ability to increase the quality of life for their citizens.
China’s announcement that it will be reducing emissions caused quite a stir here, as India’s perceived bond with China as a partner in pollution was upended without warning. On the other end of the green spectrum, the constant stories about China’s accelerating green technology seem to send shivers through the American business and media communities.
From the United States it looked as if China was beginning to unleash a hungry, innovative business class to get ahead on what might be the Next Big Thing in the business world. But now I understand the urgency. This full-steam-ahead approach comes from a capital that is unparalleled in its poor-air quality, rating even worse than Delhi. It is compelled to act—even the people are nervous about pollution. Quantified destruction from global warming is still only hypothetical, but my black boogers are real. Pulling those millions out of poverty is all well and good, but doing so at the expense of public health is counter-productive. The pollution hurts everyone—rich and poor, urban and rural. There is no class divide for air quality.
There is an exhilarating sense of dynamism in this country. People have a sense of the moment and this is the moment. The emerging generation of twentysomethings is like our grandparents—the first to go to college, the first to leave the farm, the first to make more than their parents, the engines driving their country to a position of world prominence. People work six full days a week. Kids spend all day in school and all evening with tutors. They want to succeed for themselves, their families, and their country. People know it, talk about it; the self-awareness is startling. They are ready for their close-up. But right now that close-up is obscured by the thick scrim of smog.
Delhi is littered with “Clean Delhi, Green Delhi” signs advertising some new environmental initiative, a laugh-worthy symbol in a city whose weather is often listed by Weather.com as “Smoke” (not “Fog,” not “Cloudy”—“Smoke”). As the economy thunders ahead and more and more cars creep onto the already-jam-packed city streets, I hope people start to get that twinge of urgency. Green seems to be just a buzzword to toss about; there aren't even recycling bins in this country (if there are, I haven't seen them).
The government, private enterprise and the voters need to act. I’ll even toss out a simple first step: public trash cans. If you can get trash off the streets, not only will the city be cleaner and more hygienic, but the ubiquitous trash fires that burn day and night will be much easier to limit and crack down. India needs to make its move —not to catch up with China, not to appease the West, not even for global warming, but for the sake of itself.