Photo by Robyn Laing | jadeleaves.tumblr.com

When I landed in Shanghai my mouth almost hit the floor in disbelief. I tried to convince myself that it was just a foggy day, that the yellow haze that shrouded the buildings across the runway was merely the product of suspended water droplets. I had always heard the stories of poor air quality and unregulated pollution, but I was not prepared for this. The sheer magnitude of the pollution is something you have to see, something you have to breathe to believe.

I took these photos on my way back from China because I knew words could not express the alarming difference. In case you were wondering – China is on the left. It is important to remember that this photo is from the plane, almost 32,000 feet in the air; just imagine what this looks and feels like on the ground. I never truly felt outside while in China, it was as if I was living in a dirty sauna; claustrophobic and grimy, desperately wanting to open a door. Even on mountains far away from cities I wondered what was wrong with my camera, or my eyes –beautiful landscapes masked by infinite smog. I felt overwhelmed, my motivation to make change quashed by the magnitude of the pollution.

And yet, walking down from that mountain I saw local residents working to install pieces of a control experiment to help mitigate algal blooms in a small lake suffering from severe eutrophication issues. I could not help but wonder – how did they uphold their inspiration amongst all the problems that surrounded them? How did they maintain their motivation despite the overwhelming challenges? As the site director enthusiastically told me about the success of the pilot project in the small area they had tested, I found that the answer was hope. The kind of hope Obama discussed in his victory speech after the November 6th elections in the United States:

“I’m not talking about blind optimism, the kind of hope that just ignores the enormity of the tasks ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. I’m not talking about the wishful idealism that allows us to just sit on the sidelines or shirk from a fight. I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting”.

Sometimes I feel discouraged here in Canada. I feel like the scale of the issue is beyond my ability to make a difference. Then I see these Chinese citizens, unfazed by the sheer amount of haze that engulfs them and determined in their goal to do whatever they can, taking solace in those little victories. Pollution is but a collection of small particles that add up to a big problem – the solution can be a collection of small victories that add up to a big difference. So whenever you feel discouraged or overwhelmed just remember that you can make a difference, no matter the size.

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AuthorRobyn Laing