Environmental degradation in Beijing: an issue of social justice?

Beijing has long been considered one of the most polluted cities in the world, often characterised by a thick grey smog engulfing the city.

The responsible pollutants come from a number of regional sources, including exhaust emission, coal burning, and dust storms, with effects most apparent within the city. A new effort to combat this public health hazard is the Environmental Police Force.

This new regulatory agency will focus on rubbish incineration, certain barbecues, and the burning of biomass. While this effort has potential to curb some irresponsible practices in a city already so consumed by pollutants, addressing these smaller problems seems unlikely to cut down on larger, more systemic causes of global warming.

Furthermore, the creation of this police force comes at an unusual time, as United States President Donald Trump assumes office during the planning and implementation of this policy, when it will likely receive the most attention. In the past, Trump has gone so far as to blame China for inventing global warming. This kind of incendiary remark will not likely be met well by a stronger focus on climate change in the Chinese capital. While climate change denial is by no means a reason to curb efforts to fight for the environment, the kind of stopgap policies that will be enforced by the police force, coupled with the amount of press coverage and effort associated with adopting a second police force seems, if anything, provocative.

Dr Paul Alberts from Western Sydney University was asked to comment on this story. In the past, he has done research concerning the relationship between environmental policy and biopolitics.

He wrote, “the city of Beijing has established an environmental police force to improve its notoriously poor air quality – perhaps a sign of things to come for many polluted cities and regions, and not just China. Environmental laws have been around for many decades, but the economic activities of vast populations now damage standard conditions for everyday life. Policing is an attempt to bring in the state to moderate the rising contradictions – but this merely signals the increasing political contention: that subjects are asked to conform to economic norms which deny them a determining role in systems of production, yet are also expected to passively suffer deleterious conditions to the degree allowed by the state. Environmental degradation is becoming an issue of justice, and perhaps then a line of fracture between the state and citizens in industrial nations, who are now biopolitical subjects whose health is now rendered part of the global ‘commons’ put at risk.”

This kind of argument calls into question the human rights of citizens who are subject to the exact level of pollution allowed by the state. This is especially relevant in instances where the commercial interests of the state, such as those associated with broader, more systematised industrial pollution which can boost the country’s GDP, go relatively unregulated compared to the increasingly policed activities of individuals, such as open-air barbecuing.

This dangerous gambling with public health in the interest of state goals is only one example of a shallow, environmental policy more oriented towards the appearance of change than meaningful measures to stop dangerous pollution from occurring. In order to effect real change, sacrifices to economic productivity and to state interests will have to be made.

Pollution is rarely done without purpose, and the purpose is in most instances to make money. Most often, pollution is considered a disadvantage of activities such as running a factory, burning wood, or driving a car.

We need to start thinking about running factories, burning wood, and driving a car as disadvantages to pollution.

Only then can we decide if the pollution is worth it.

Image: Penyulap

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