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Extraordinary Pollution in Beijing, Lights Out at the Superbowl, and Other Signs of the Apocalypse

Extraordinary Pollution in Beijing, Lights Out at the Superbowl, and Other Signs of the Apocalypse

By Dennis Loo (2/4/13)

From Global Post: A January 12, 2013 picture taken in the daytime, showing sunlight being reflected in a Beijing building's window. - [/AFP/Getty Images]

Two items in the news:

On a scale of 0 to 500, with 500 being the top of the scale with extremely polluted air, last month Beijing recorded days as high as 755, with the best days in that spell of horrid weeks in the 300s, the latter a level considered hazardous. The smog coming from the coal-burning plants that surround Beijing to fuel the building and industrailization frenzy there may be the cause of the dramatic sunsets we saw in L.A. this past week.

Last night, just after a record-setting 108 yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Raven's returner Jacoby Jones, the lights went out at the Superdome in half the stadium, delaying the game by close to eighty minutes altogether. CBS, which had cut out all sideline reporters from its football broadcasts in order to save money, was left without anyone to comment and inquire about the situation or the reaction to it among the people in the stadium for the duration of the outage. Whatever the specifics turn out to be for this outage, this is quite clearly an example of the U.S.'s failing infrastructure. We literally have bridges that are falling apart and the electrical grid isn't being repaired.

What is the connection between these two incidents or situations? Amidst the Superbowl's hoopla and self-congratulatory nationalism, the nation's signature athletic event, with the military being honored every which way for continuing to wage - unjust - wars abroad, the lights go out. Hellbent on "improving living standards" Beijing looks like the film classic Blade Runner's dystopic Tokyo, only much, much worse, literally killing people with the air that it's spewing out. This, among others, is the result of the policies of those who fought Mao Zedong tooth and nail to implement what Mao and his closest supporters - the so-called "Gang of Four - correctly derided as the path of the "capitalist-roaders." What has been happening in China since Mao's death in 1976 are the nightmares of capitalist restoration, under the signboard of socialism. It is socialism only in word. It is capitalism through and through.

In Globalization and the Demolition of Society, I quote Washington Post columnist and former designated "liberal" on CNN"s Cross-Fire show, Michael Kinsley, who wrote in 2008 in defense of Lawrence Summers, ex-World Bank President, being floated at the time by the incoming Obama Administration for Treasury Secretary and who came under fire - appropriately so - for signing his name to a memo while World Bank head that advocated the economic "logic" of exporting toxic waste dumps to Third World countries. Said Mr. Kinsley:

[Lawrence] Summers's main point was that life and health are worth less in poor countries than in rich ones. He measured that worth by the earnings lost when a person is sick or dies prematurely. But another good measure, maybe clearer, would be the amount a society will spend to save a life. Treatments that are routine in the United States, although they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, are simply not available to citizens of poor countries. You get cancer and you die. Of course this should not be true, but it undeniably is true, and rejecting the idea of poor countries earning a little cash by “buying” pollution from rich ones will do nothing to make it less true.

If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. This sounds brutal, but it is not. Or rather, it is less brutal than reality. Turn it around: If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save. For what we spend in the United States to save a single life, you could save dozens or hundreds of lives in poor countries. So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one. . . .

If a city in a rich country is very polluted and a city the same size in a poor country is not, you will save lives—in the rich country this time—if some of that pollution can be moved from the rich country to the poor one. And the money the rich country pays the poor one can save even more lives in the poor country.

The general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries. The richer a country is, the more of them it can afford. And if rich countries like the United States had had to meet some of the standards being wished upon poor countries today, we would still be poor ourselves.

Every economic transaction has two sides. When you deny a rich country the opportunity to unload some toxic waste on a poor one, you are also denying that poor country the opportunity to get paid for taking the toxic waste. And by forbidding this deal, you are putting off the day when the poor country will no longer need to make deals like this.[i] [Emphasis added.] (Pp. 25-26)

Kinsley, like Summers, who famously declared while Clinton's Treasury Secretary that "We're all Friedmanites now," meaning, even the Democrats are neoliberals/free market proponents, thinks that only the rich can enjoy unpolluted air. This reminds me of the movie Total Recall which is loosely based on the Philip K. Dick story, about a colony on Mars where only the rich can get clean air and the proletariat has to endure polluted air that causes birth defects and grotesquely malformed faces and bodies.

Maintaining the infrastructure - bridges, roads, dams, etc. - and protecting public goods like the air and water, are languishing under neoliberal policies that tout the virtues of private goods and private needs and ridicule the very idea that there are such things as the public welfare outside of private profit-making opportunities.

Fiction and real life conspire to outdo the other...

My use of the term apocalypse in the title is tongue in cheek. But the reality of global disaster is not an exaggeration.

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