Dust Days

“People don’t come to Beijing because the weather’s nice, or because they think “that’ll be a nice place to live!” People come to Beijing because they want to make money.”

October, with its pagan harvest roots and Halloween vibe, has always been a great time for storytelling. For the last couple of years I’ve tried to set some time aside in October to read creepy tales and horror stories. Last year it was A.M. Keen’s Witch*, some of HP Lovecraft’s tales and David Wong’s comedy-horror John Dies at the End. This year I’ve read The Invisible Man by HG Wells and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Next on my list is Dracula.

By far the scariest book I’ve read this month is something altogether different, though: High Tide by Mark Lynas. It’s not some fantasy-horror about deep sea demons or biblical tidal waves. It isn’t even fiction. It’s a book about climate change. The theme is clear: it’s happening. It’s getting worse. And, most frightening of all, pretty much bugger all is being done to stop it.

I’ve never been sure why so many people are willing to believe in a god despite zero evidence of its existence, while easily as many people adamantly refuse to believe that those polar bears weren’t swimming a few years ago. I think the answer has something to do with morons.

A friend of mine once said about smokers, “I’ll bet if that gooey black shit was growing on the outside of their body, they’d soon quit!” I disagree. I think people, as a rule, have a pretty huge capacity for self-delusion and self-imposed ignorance.

“What gooey black shit! Wtf are you on about? Got a light?”

When Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze were hired to do a horror movie for one of the Hollywood studios, they  drafted a script that included pollution and cancer and nuclear war: all the sorts of things that people should be genuinely afraid of. Supernatural horrors are only frightening until you put the book down or turn the movie off (although, having said that, my mum once slept with a bible under her pillow after watching The Exorcist). The list of recorded deaths involving ghosts and vampires and children of satan is so short that you are literally 100% more likely to shit yourself to death worrying about them than to be killed by one. When it comes to cancer or nuclear war, your odds ain’t so great.

High Tide devotes one chapter to the UK, with particular emphasis on flash flooding. Two chapters are devoted to America (the Alaskan pipeline and hurricanes in Florida). “In truth,” says Lynas in the preface, “I could have written this whole book about the United States.” He probably could have written the whole book about the subject of one other chapter, too. A chapter that opens in Beijing during a ‘dust day’.**

Beijing is an amazing place. A fascinating city. But to say that it’s a pretty pleasant place to live is kinda like saying that John Wayne Gacy, despite his many faults, was a pretty pleasant children’s entertainer. I’ve met people who’ve lived in Beijing for anything from three years to seven years, and I always ask the same thing:


The answer is usually either a slightly nervous: “Haha, I don’t know, really!”

or an open and honest: “Money!”***

The guidelines for air safety here in the ‘Jing is that an Air Quality Index score of anything above 150 is ‘unhealthy’, and that 300 is ‘hazardous’. If the AQI measures 300+, a lot of companies tell employees to stay at home with the windows shut and avoid going outside at all costs. Some companies even pay foreigners ‘danger money’ just for working here: a golden handshake that comes with a sticky note reading “thank you so much for living in a bit of a shithole.”

As I’ve said before, Beijing has been a good testing ground for me: especially when it comes to testing my patience. After mid-autumn festival, the factories started working overtime to belch out a fresh batch of hazy grey smog, and the AQI measured as high as 320 one day. I dragged myself into work to muster enough professionalism and enthusiasm to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar to a coughing, spluttering three-year-old, and then dragged myself home again.

Something that a lot of Chinese people, usually ones who’ve never been abroad, say is that twenty years ago the sky in London used to look like Beijing. I’ve no idea if that’s true. Twenty years ago, I wasn’t in London. I was living in the Rocky Mountains, where fresh air wasn’t much of a problem.

What I do know is that if I had lived in London, and the sky looked like that scene from Insomnia where he shoots his mate because he can’t see anything, the last place I’d be going would be into work, especially to teach a single three-year-old kid with the cough of a sixty-year-old chain smoker.

The Invisible Man is about ‘science gone wrong’, and Metamorphosis is about ‘nature gone wrong’, but High Tide shows something even more terrifying: what happens when we go wrong? Both the characters of Griffin (in the Invisible Man) and Gregor (in Metamorphosis) pay a high price. What is our price going to be? What is our gooey black shit?  What are the still unseen (and therefore ignored) long-term effects that are happening, and will continue to happen, while we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge or correct our mistakes?

Don’t ask me. I just work here.

*(I actually thought I’d be adapting it for the big screen for a friend to direct, but that’s another misadventure entirely)

**(the author investigates how much of northern China’s fierce dust storms, droughts and desertification is down to global warming, and how it affects the capital)

***(a lot of ‘Jingers earn more than I do, which maybe makes choking on grit and feaces slightly more bearable, I dunno)