James Durston: Stop whining about Hong Kong's air pollution

James Durston: Stop whining about Hong Kong's air pollution

Hong Kong's clean-air campaigners need to find something less irritating to do with their time

James DurstonAs I walked through Kowloon Tong MTR station the other day, I was hit by a pungent, noxious, burnt-hair kind of smell. I looked around for whoever was setting fire to dogs, or burning tires. Nothing.

I looked at the other commuters. No one else was grimacing.

I asked my friend, what the hell is that smell?

“What smell?”

And that is the story of Hong Kong’s air pollution: Yes it’s bad, but people, be it through acclimatization or deliberation, just get on with life.

Or at least, we try to. Every now and again a small, squeaky-voiced contingent of "air defenders" pops up out of the smog to remind us that just breathing in Hong Kong is equivalent to smoking five cigars every minute. Or something.

What am I going to do? Not breathe?

These self-imposed guardians of the atmosphere like to wheeze through their surgical masks about how the “suspended particulate matter” is killing all the pygmy newts, or causing babies to develop square freckles, or evolving lungs backwards. Or something.

But guess what; that’s life in a growth economy. That’s life when you have China for a neighbor -- nearby Chinese towns and cities make up 80 percent of the tonnage of pollution in Hong Kong.

And that makes it all the less rational to go on about what Hong Kong can do to make its air cleaner. It's very little.

Even if we could, is it necessary? 

When The Blacksmith Institute compiled a top 10 of the world’s most polluted cities in 2007, Hong Kong didn’t get a mention. It didn’t even make the top 30.

OK that was a few years ago, but in this light, I think we should be jumping up and down, hyperventilating for all we’re worth. We are breathed and spat on by the Pearl River Delta every day and we’re still not in a “most-polluted” list? Cause to celebrate, not gripe, surely.

There have been fears that all this fuss over Hong Kong’s air might cause a brain drain. A recent survey by the Civic Exchange found that one in four Hong Kong residents are thinking of leaving due to the air pollution.

If that’s true, good riddance to them. For everything that Hong Kong offers -- low tax, good career opportunities, great night life, superb beaches and countryside -- they choose to focus on the air? That’s like running out of Megan Fox’s bedroom because you don’t like her wallpaper.

And if there was no Clean Air Network (CAN) and others like them insisting on how crappy it is to breath in Hong Kong, would the air quality here be anywhere near as big a deal? Or would we all just get on with our lives in this awesome city?

Funny, too, that the same Civic Exchange survey also found that people are discussing Hong Kong’s air pollution less than they were in years past, with many never discussing it at all.

If it really was that much of a concern, wouldn’t everyone be thinking of leaving, not just 25 percent? Wouldn’t we all be talking about it, every day? Wouldn’t we all be coughing up pieces of lung and bleeding from our noses every time we stepped outdoors?

It’s not like this is Linfen.

Hong Kong air pollutionYou want cars? Then accept the fumes.CAN insists the Hong Kong government amends its Air Quality Objectives. The Hong Kong government is dragging its feet, and I say so what? Even if you got rid of all the pollution generated in Hong Kong, what are you going to do about China's?

Here’s a quick anecdote I think applies:

Some time ago, a scientist took two monkeys and placed them in a cage that was randomly electrified.

The only difference was that one monkey had a button, and if that button was pressed before the electric current flowed, they did not get shocked.

Which do you think suffered more stress and health problems? No, not the monkey getting zapped every minute whatever he did, it was the monkey with the button. 

So if you want to spend your days petitioning the Chinese government about all this, be my guest. If you succeed I will be the first to be delighted. I will also be amazed.

But don’t drag me into it. I choose to be the monkey who accepts my circumstances, and gets on with enjoying life.

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The opinions of this commentary are solely those of James Durston.

As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

Follow his Twitterthing here: @jedurston

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