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Environment

What happens when you vacuum the air in Beijing?

Flickr: Josh

World leaders are talking about climate change in Paris right now. I bet a lot of them are itching to get out of stuffy conference rooms to go for a stroll and clear their heads in the crisp Parisian air.

Meanwhile, people in Beijing are facing some of the swampiest smog they’ve seen in years. The type of smog that makes you cough, causes you to lose your breath, makes you squint for every street sign and burns your eyes.

The type of smog that makes life unbearable. Pollution is currently 35 times higher than levels that are deemed safe. It’s so bad, schools have been ordered to keep students indoors.

A cyclist in Fuyang, China, on Monday in the worst recorded smog of the year. China released a 900-page report on how...

Posted by The New York Times on Monday, November 30, 2015

Most of this smog comes from coal, China’s favorite source of energy. The country builds a new coal plant every 7 to 10 days and consumes more than 4 billion tons of coal per year.

When the wind stops blowing, smog builds up and blankets cities.

Beijing has been notorious for air pollution for years, and citizens are understandably fed up. Air pollution affects the poorest in Beijing the most--those who can’t afford expensive air purification systems and who toil outside in the open air.

Recently, an artist called Brother Nut set out to capture this feeling of disgust and dismay.

He walked around Beijing for 100 days with an industrial vacuum cleaner. He held the nozzle in front of him as he walked, sucking dust out of the air, an action that attracted all sorts of bewildered looks.  

He started out with a heavy-duty air mask, but soon gave it up, regarding it as a pointless cosmetic in a city so drenched in pollution.

His solitary journey took him to landmarks like Tiananmen Square and the National Center for Performing Arts.

Some days were relatively clear. Other days, rain kept him inside.

Some onlookers thought he was a new-age street sweeper tackling dust head-on, and even asked him how much he made.

After 100 days he had a mound of particles, a great big lump of gunk. He mixed some red clay into the mound and formed a brick that will be baked in a kiln.

The Beijing media has run with the story. Although it’s critical of the government, it closely reflects the grievances of the people and the ruling party has acknowledged the need to clean the air. All the attention has turned Brother Nut into a mini-celebrity.

It’s ingenious social art performances like this that can trigger change, that can get people to visualize alternatives and finally say, “Enough.”

One commenter on a photo gallery speculated that everyone in Beijing would probably have a brick of dust, or several bricks, in their gut.

That’s a scary image. Imagine digesting a brick of dust. That seems like it would be a lot harder than stopping climate change.  

So do your part to end pollution. Go to TAKE ACTION NOW to ensure world leaders work towards a cleaner world.