Thomas L Friedman – The Green Leap Forward

The title of Tom’s post today suggests he may be aware of the relation of his work to that of Noam Chomsky, as discussed in my previous post Noam Chomsky to Thomas L. Friedman: Bring in the Green Cat? How? Colorlessly! Sleepily!:

Colorless Green Cats Leap Forwardly.

Bring in the Green Cat by a Green Leap Forward.

Tom’s column again comes from China and is also again about China’s environmental challenges. It begins

A friend of mine here wakes up every morning and does his own air quality test — as many Beijing residents do: He looks out his 24th-story window and checks how far he can see. On a rare pristine day, when the wind has swept Beijing, he can see the Fragrant Mountain rising to the northwest. On a “good” pollution day, he can see the China World building four blocks away. On a bad day, he can’t see the building next door.

Tom describes in words what you can get a sense of using the web.

I recently saw an exhibit consisting of the works of several contemporary photographers. All the prints were very large — some as big as 15 feet wide by 10 feet high — and had great detail.

You can learn more about the exihibit at High Museum of Art to Present New Photography by Taryn Simon, Sea Tsung Leong, Ruth Dusseault and Angela West.

I was particularly impressed by the photographs of China by Sze Tsung Leong. You can find some of her images at her home page, SZE TSUNG LEONG. See especially AFTERIMAGES, a page of paintings with hazy grey colors.

Though the web images are much smaller than the exhibit, they do give a sense of the urban of contemporary China.


(I wrote the section below in the first draft of this post, but then decided to drop it from the final version. It remains as a “lagniappe,” a word with origins in the South that was used for small presents given to a customer with a purchase.)

I don’t know the distance from Tom’s friend’s apartment to Fragrant Mountain, but I do have an idea of just how far you can see in clear air.

The last time I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was in 1966. ABQ, like Denver, is a high-altitude city, around 5,000 ft above sea level, where the air is clearer. That summer I had an apartment with the following views: about 30 miles east to the Sandia mountains; north about 70+ miles to the Sangre de Cristo mountains behind Santa Fe; west about 80 miles to Mt. Taylor; south about 70 miles to the mountains near Socorro. The sunsets were as spectacular as you can imagine. There were often scattered thundershowers in the late afternoon, and it was not uncommon to see several such showers, separated from each other by ten, twenty, or thirty miles. From Sandia Peak you could see parts of Texas over 200 miles away.

In those years I spent winters in the LA area, going to college in Pasadena. As I noted in an earlier post, air pollution in the particular mix first defined in LA as “smog” was common during the fall and winter months. Though the key component of smog was auto exhausts, the problem was enhanced by geography.

LA is in a basin, surrounded by mountains, open only to the western edge, which is on the Pacific ocean. The prevailing winds in LA, as is true in most of the word, are from west to east, so the air gets polluted and when the winds die down then then air over the city stalls and is held in by the mountains.

I saw this effect vividly a several times. I recall once riding my motorcycle to the top of Mt. Wilson, about 5500 feet above sea level, and from there looking down through clear air to a gigantic gray blanket of smog covering the whole LA metro area.

Mt. Wilson is in the San Gabriel Mountains, the northern edge of the bowl. I saw the effect on occasion from the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, in the town of Altadena, just north of Pasadena. [1]

But the most dramatic — and in its way the most disappointing — demonstration of the cost of the pollution could be found on the roof of the Astronomy Building. The Palomar Observatory, with its 200-inch mirror, is part of Caltech. When it was designed back in the 1940’s there was need of a new support and suspension system to handle such a large mirror. To test out the design, the team build a 1:10 prototype: an exact duplicate of what became the actual telescope, but with a 20-inch mirror.

All this was placed on the roof of the Astronomy building, dome and all. There were even dials to enter declination and ascension.

And since Caltech had its Honor System, any undergraduate could sign up and get the key, the purpose of which was not so much to study the heavens, but to impress the date you would bring along to show her the heavens.

I did this a couple of times. The problem was that the smog, as well as the light pollution, was so bad that you pretty much couldn’t see anything, except a random star or two, and the moon if it happened to be in the night sky that day. [2] Which means the trip was singularly unimpressive.

The moon, a few stars at best. But certainly no hint of the Milky Way. [3]


1. I have written earlier of riding my Yamaha YDS2 2-cycle motorcycle from LA to ABQ and back in Christmas, 1964. Two-cycle engines weren’t meant for that sort of sustained use; mine fell apart just after I arrived back in Pasadena. I spent much of the spring of 1965 buying parts and taking them to the garage of my mechanic, Greg. He was a high-school student who was also a good mechanic, and he lived in Altadena. There not being much else to do in Altadena, I looked at the smog from time to time.

2. Mt. Palomar is situated in a mountain near the city of San Diego. Mt. Palomar was completed in 1948, just about the time to postwar economic expansion set in. Eventually the light pollution became so bad that the city of San Diego graciously agreed to replace the standard sodium lamps with other lamps that wouldn’t interfere with the telescope’s operation.

3. My wife grew up in the East and had never seen the Milky Way until our first trip to New Mexico. I well recall driving at high altitudes on my motorcycle, stopping from time to time to look up at the night sky. The Milky Way was so close you felt you could pull it down from the sky and wrap it around you.



  1. rick
    Posted November 26, 2006 at 10:26 | Permalink | Reply

    I also owned a Yamaha YDS2. I was leaving my girlfriends house on the eve of the new year of 1969 it was so foggy I couldn’t see 5 feet. I am not exagerating I live in the Sanjoaquin Valley in California. As I proceeded down the road at about the slowest speed I could muster I ran out of road and hit the curb. I was knocked unconcious for a very short time and when I awoke the engine was revving wide open. The cable had pulled taught and had the gas at full throttle.I was laying in a muddy field soaked to the bone, my headlight was smashed and it took about an hour to get across town where I woke up my uncle’s family and spent the night. at the time I was 17 years old . I am also lucky I could get out of that situation without waiting for someone to find me as I probably would have died from exposure as well.I was trying to remember all the cars and motorcycles I have owned over the last 40 years and while I was looking for information on the Yamaha motorcycle I came upon your story. I still live in the Sanjoaquin Valley now in Bakersfield Ca.

  2. Posted November 26, 2006 at 23:36 | Permalink | Reply


    Thanks for the comment — it does bring back memories.

    I also once ran into a “wall of fog”. It happened about 10PM one night not far from San Bernadino. Visibility went to zero in only a few feet. I instantly slowed down … and started fearing for my life. Fortunately I soon came out of it and so was able to make my escape.

    One of my roommates sophomore year was from Bakersfield, and I’ve driven through it a few times by car on the way from LA to SF.

    One of the prettiest bike rides I ever took was from LA to SF and back on the coastal highway.

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