The mechanics of smog.

Fall drags on with a late summer sweetness in Ningbo, until, in a matter of days, the winds arrive and they drop the temperature by ten degrees Celsius.

October proved remarkable in its… misdoings.

We failed in getting our oven repaired after the manufacturer failed to deliver the new parts twice. I painfully yielded to a new one and dare hope the old machine will be torn apart efficiently, most likely deluding myself. We have a lawyer in the house striving to get our money back from our favorite swindle. There’s hope but not too much. And, finally, he got elected. There is enough attention on the topic as it is, so let’s not dwell on the horrifying matter.

Fall in Ningbo has also rhymed with the return of the smog. Low temperatures, increased humidity, traffic jams and never-ending construction sites blend into an outstanding 120 Air Quality Index (AQI) average. Some say we’re being paranoid and most of it is pure fog.

Technically, the most common fog, “radiation fog” is the result of moist air meeting colder ground, forming droplets of water which hover above the surface. When the air is filled with dust, smoke and other particles however, the phenomenon intensifies as the droplets stick to these particles, making them bigger and diminishing visibility, thereby creating a “wet haze”.


Dry smog is quite rough. Fog, sadly, brutally enhances it.

You’ll see the surrounding mountains on the good days, a kilometer away from you on the bad and half a kilometer on the worst.

The latter are the ones when I finally concede defeat and take a step back from my bicyclism. I charge up on podcasts and wait at the bus stop in the most colorful and thickest clothing combinations I can muster. When the windows aren’t covered in mist, the whole world is begging for a stare.

Most people don’t wear a mask (many stick to the useless surgery ones) or look at the AQI in my own maniac fashion or gasp in horror at the lack of visibility. 没办法 . It is what it is. We do get blue sky sometimes, and stars, and “we’re still better off than in Beijing”. Mean figures indicate you are right, I’ll admit it (my only winter there was surprisingly wonderful though).

The throat aches in either case, but it’s only a short-term plague for me. Still, eight million people living like this for years.

Back to the windows. Wealth buzzes its way through SUVs, multiplying sky-scrapers, louder stereos, brighter and synchronized light arrangements on the nocturnal skyline. They mirror radiant sunflower fields into the black river.

We hug it all, despite the cost for our health – an estimate one million people die prematurely of air pollution related disease every year in China-  and for our environment, when patches of the city outskirts are covered in construction waste. The solution in the close future will consist in tidying the mess up in controlled landfills or burning it -reducing is another matter.


Considerable efforts have been undertaken in other areas. The PRC is the world’s biggest investor in sustainable development technologies and renewable energy. It is also boosting its regulation capacity to impose particle catalysts on cars and enforce tighter fuel standards starting from 2017.

Everyone’s interest coincides in mitigating this toxic cloud. I wonder, however, if the measures to absorb it will ever match with the speed and hunger at which citizens create and possess and single use more and more. Which they are entitled to, but at which cost (my reasoning is far from restricted to developing countries)?

Even the slightest challenges towards ubiquitous behavior feel like charging on the battlefield. On the rare event I trip to the supermarket, I struggle to use my own bags for veggies and keep my cool if the veggie people impose their own single-use packaging, giving me explanations which my frail Chinese cannot comprehend. In today’s case I stormed away, letting out a dry “Well I don’t want your lemons anymore!” (very undiplomatic of me, granted). This is a seemingly insignificant event, but it is symptomatic of how much ground and thinking there is left to cover before people begin to question the status quo. (I am firmly convinced the supermarket should have yielded, not me.)

In the meantime, I steer towards the market where I can use whichever recipient I want and reexplain why I do so. If the air is breathable, my mental health commands I ignore my lungs and return to biking. I scroll back to photos in France, to anything where the AQI is below 20, and to that unbelievably constellated Tibetan sky I saw in 2013. And of course there’s the clueless cat. I’m jealous.


On the murky days, Riley gets massive sneezing crises and consumes hundreds of tissues thereby atomizing my waste reduction goals. I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry. Mostly I laugh, nervously.


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