Timed perfectly with COP21 climate change talks, Chinese artist-activist Wang Renzheng, aka Nut Brother, has found an interesting way of drawing attention to the severity of the smog problem in his home nation. He made a brick out of pollution he pulled from the air in the city he calls home.
From July 24 to November 29 (100 days), Wang walked the streets of Beijing for four hours each day with an industrial vacuum cleaner, sucking up the air around him – the same air he and the millions of other people in Beijing breathe. He journaled his trips from the old lanes to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, recording the date, the weather, the area he vacuumed, and a photo of him doing his work. In that time he collected about 100 grams of dust, grime, smog, and other pollutants in fine grains much smaller than a human hair. In late November, he then mixed these particles with clay and baked them into a brick.
Wang’s project couldn’t have been finished at a more appropriate time. Earlier this week, Beijing’s Air Quality Index dipped into the red; a color that indicates pollution levels considered dangerously unhealthy. The smog is now so bad that it could lead to “increased aggravation of heart of lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly,” according to the report.
On December 7, the Chinese government declared the first ever red warning for air pollution. The statement said that bad conditions were expected to continue until Thursday when a cold front would reduce airborne particulate. That means closing schools, and implementing driving restrictions and flexible working schedules for outdoor workers.
According to an August air pollution report from Berkeley Earth, a climate research organization, “air pollution is believed to cause three to seven million deaths a year, primarily by creating or worsening cardio-respiratory disease.” Drawing on data from 1,500 stations in China, Taiwan, and South Korea, the study calculated that nearly 1.6 million people die in China every year from illnesses created or exacerbated by the critically polluted air.
Wang’s “smog brick” is a tangible representation of this. “I want to show this absurdity to more people,” Wang told the Guardian. “I want people to see that we cannot avoid or ignore this problem.” Wang started planning his anti-smog art in 2013 when China’s first bout of bad pollution kept flights on the ground and closed roads.
Chinese President Xi Jinping did not mention the severity of the pollution when he spoke at the UN climate summit the last day of November. This is in spite of the fact that, according to the National Meteorological Center Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Shandong, Henan, and Shaanxi provinces issued yellow and orange alerts on the following Friday and Sunday respectively. This week saw pollution levels so high that the government was forced to declare the first red alert. The “airocalypse” continues.