The Shanghai Bubble

Traveling to and living in Shanghai was an incredible experience. Adapting to a new culture and language, trying different foods and kinds of drinks, and exploring such an incredibly huge and diverse city was amazing to experience.

One of the qualities of life in China that I was most interested in experiencing for myself was the environment of the city. Flying to Shanghai, I was intrigued to see the plane land at Pudong so I could watch the air transition from clean to the quality a citizen on the ground experiences.

Due to my flight and the time change, I actually arrived in Shanghai

Shanghai at Night

When I woke up the next day, I wasn’t surprised by the sky’s lack of clouds or blue, but rather the sun itself– its normal color transformed to a hot, neon red through the lens of heavy pollution.

For the first week or so, I was captivated by this difference. I quickly downloaded an air quality app and neurotically checked it several times a day for air quality index and pm2.5 readings.

Air quality index, or AQI, is a general measure of the amount of pollution in the air. When the AQI is high, you are more likely to experience negative health effects.

At first, I strived not to go outside during poor AQI and pm2.5 periods. However, even as an Environmental Science and Policy major actively studying environmental pollution in Shanghai, I eventually became more and more used to the air, and the idea of exposing myself to it. After all, while some days were better than others, the heavy cloud encompassing Shanghai was there to stay.

Life went on for me and everyone else. Throughout the city, we all had classes, work, and our daily lives. It was a weird feeling, enjoying my time abroad in an environment I knew was slowly killing me.

Experiencing life in a city facing such a pollution crisis had an incredible impact on my perspective, even out of academics. After traveling back to the states at the end of the semester, it was odd in a way to see my fascination with pollution looking back at me in other faces– the most frequent question I was asked about living in China was how it felt living in a literally toxic environment.

It is an interesting time to travel to and study China, simply due to the current political and social climate. Simply by listening to President Donald Trump, we can hear his competitive attitude towards China.

I can sometimes hear this competitive spirit when I speak to people about China’s environmental issues. People want to hear how awful life is. How gross the air is, about food insecurity due to soil pollution, about algal blooms, or desertification. And we want to feel good about America in comparison. “Yes, maybe China is doing better economically, but think of the environment!” And, usually, the conversation stops there.

We don’t want to talk about China being the number one installer of solar panels in the world; or the government’s massive investment in to the development of solar, wind, and other renewable energy. And sometimes we don’t even want to think about how the environmental problems China is facing today are affecting and killing real people.

But most of all, we don’t think about how some regions of the US are facing similar struggles today. To travel to Shanghai, I left my family in Utah, in the midst of some of the highest AQI and pm2.5 levels we had seen in the state’s history. In fact, Salt Lake City is ranked with having the 6th worst air in the country, with an F ranking in both particulate matter and ozone pollution.

Before I left, I certainly saw families wearing face masks and had trouble seeing more than two cars ahead of me on the Interstate. I won’t lie and say our cases are as extreme, but they are far from ideal, especially with the host of reforms President Trump is already putting into place that limit environmentally friendly policies.

As an American citizen, I lack much power to influence the industries and governmental forces causing China’s environmental crisis, but we can certainly positively affect domestic examples… and there is no time more important to act than now.



Sable Liggera, ’17, is an Environmental Science and Policy and East Asian Studies Double Major. They were a Global STRIDE and spent their JYA in Shanghai, China. Last summer, they interned at NOAA’s Coral Reef  Conservation Program. They are currently a member of the Global Impressions Editorial Board.

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