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Eating Live Squid and Becoming Comfortable With It

July 30, 2008

Recently, a friend moved to Chengdu, China with her job. A lot of my industry friends are making several trips a year to China, too. Finally, you can’t turn on television without hearing about China and the Olympics. And, so, with my interest piqued about all things Chinese I decided to read a book about it. recommended “Lost on the Planet China: the Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid” by J. Maarten Troost. They described it thusly,  “The bestselling author of  ‘The Sex Lives of Cannibals’ returns with a sharply observed, hilarious account of his adventures in China – a complex, fascinating country with enough dangers and delicacies to keep him, and readers, endlessly entertained.” They had me at “The Sex Lives of Cannibals!”

It was a fun read; less a travelogue and more an adventure story; but told in such a way that it was hard to put down. I am not trying to entice you to buy the book and read it - although, if you are in this industry, you should. Instead, I came away with an impression of China that I can’t shake. For all of its high rises, factories, Olympic stadia, and concessions to the West, China is still backwards when it comes to controlling pollution.

Here are some facts (quoted directly from the book) that stuck me:

One third of all the freshwater in China – that is all of the rivers and lakes in this enormous country – is considered unsafe for industrial use. When the water is so vile that you can’t even use it in a lead paint factory because it’s too dirty, I’d say you have a water problem.

Studies on the Sierra snow pack confirmed, more than one third of the air pollution affecting California originates in China. When one considers that China is more than 4,000 miles from California, one would be forgiven for concluding that they have an awful lot of pollution.

In the U. S., anything more than 50 micrograms of particulates per cubic meter of air is considered unsafe, leading authorities to issue red alerts advising children and elderly people to remain inside. In Beijing, the average particulate matter swirling through the air on any given day is 141.

The write also describes a wildlife special about Yangtze Sturgeon that he saw on TV while in Chengdu:

The Yangtze Sturgeon is a migratory fish that lives in the Yangtze but returns to the ocean. It goes back and forth but with the Three Gorges Dam the sturgeons could no longer go back and forth from river to ocean. So, this is a problem. But the Chinese have a solution: They’re going to train the Yangtze Sturgeon to remain content in the river, to give up its wandering ways, and to forgo its need to do business in the ocean. To that end, they’d captured a couple of Yangtze Sturgeons and put them in a tank where they would be trained to dispense with millions of years of evolutionary adaptations and learn how to live happily in this all-freshwater-all-the-time environment. The Yangtze Sturgeons refused to feed. Typically, they feed in the ocean. But this wasn’t the problem. The problem was that the sturgeons were depressed. And that’s why they were listless and wasting away. That’s what they were working on now, a treatment for fish depression.

To bring all of this home, there was a segment about China, the Olympics, and pollution on last night’s national news. (You can’t escape the media coverage anymore, not with the Olympics just two weeks away) Anyway, they showed masks the Chinese normally wear to protect their breathing from pollution. They looked like a thin cotton baby diaper. Then they showed the masks Olympic athletes would wear when they weren’t competing. They were described as much more efficient than the Chinese masks. I was sort of expecting a hepa filter but to me they looked a lot like paint masks they sell at the builder supply store. They ended the segment with a shot of the Bird’s Nest, the billion dollar stadium China built for the Olympics. The camera wasn’t more than 50’ away from the arena, but the pollution was so thick you could barely make out the shadows of three or four of the thousands of girders in the building. To paraphrase Troost, “If you have to wear a respirator to breathe or you can’t see your hand in front of you, I would say they have an air quality problem!”

Granted some of this pollution is caused by sand storms in the Gobi Desert located just 50 miles from the center of Beijing. But most is caused by the ubiauitous coal burning factories throughout China. The same factories from whom we retailers buy our $29 wrought iron chairs or $89 cast aluminum chairs we can’t live without. You can place a lot of the blame for the pollution on the Chinese government for not having stricter environmental protection policies in place. But these factories wouldn’t be there if consumers weren’t buying their output.

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not a tree hugger although I have been known to relax in a hammock hung from two trees. But the size and effect of the pollution in China really got to me as I read the book. Is it only me or do any of you think we Americans are being hypocritical when we complain about the pollution in China while sitting in our Chinese made chairs? Honestly, I never thought about this on my trips to market. And, as I admitted earlier, I do carry product made in China. Reading the book gave me a new perspective. The next time I go to market and see an unbelievably cheap Chinese product I think I have to carry, I am going to hesitate and ask myself, “At what price?”

Yours in confused retailing, Bruce