Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Air We Breathe

"By now the revolution has deprived the mass of consumers of any independent access to the staples of life; clothing, shelter, food, even water.  Air remains the only necessity that the average user can still get for himself, and the revolution has imposed a heavy tax on that by way of pollution."

Every winter the air around Salt Lake City Utah gains national attention for being some of the worst.  It’s unique geography, dense population, and numerous industries often trap air between mountain ranges, creating a thick, foggy soup of air that can often be the worst in the Nation. As residents once again protest the quality of their air and argue that breathing clean air is a right that we can’t be denied, I have to wonder, what’s exactly making this air so unhealthy, and whatever it is why can’t we just turn if off?  What could possibly be worth our lives, poisoning our air and killing ourselves? 

The acclaimed farmer-poet Wendell Berry wrote the opening quote in reference to the industrial revolution, in his landmark work of agrarian philosophy from the 1970's, The Unsettling of America.  Berry’s writing has had a dramatic effect on me.  This, and many of his other quotes, pop up in my mind often, and they’re usually in the back of my thoughts when I’m contemplating the origins of my grocery store fare or firing up an engine.  If I ever thought that forsaking the ownership of an automobile would in any way silence this voice I was foolish, if anything it's only increased the awareness of my use, and interconnection with, the consumption of fossil fuel.  

It’s during the winters here in Alta where Berry’s words have their most profound impact on me.  It's where I first read them some 6 years ago, and where I feel their sharpest effect when gazing at the valley below.

The air in Alta is like the water, pure.  Granted, at over 8500 feet of elevation, there’s not that much of it, but what’s up here is pretty darn nice.  But we’re in the mountains, and the story on the valley floor below is usually something quite different.  While the geography and climate of this urban-desert ecosystem makes for a unique trap where cold air and emissions pool and stagnate for weeks on end, it offers an example, on the microcosm if you will, of the effects that our relentless consumption of fossil fuels is having on the atmosphere, and on us.

What does clean air look like?

A Movie.

A man sits in his BMW, windows down, cigarette dangling from his fingertips.  Only this man is also sitting in his garage, the door closed and the engine running.  While it plays like some scene from a movie, this is a pretty accurate analogy for our relationship with the atmosphere.  We’re consuming fossil fuels at a rate that the biosphere can’t metabolize, so the exhaust of all these fumes and fires are building up.  The atmosphere is finite, much like the garage, and if we collectively fill it with smoke, eventually none of us will be able to breathe.  Sounds dramatic?  Well it’s an analogy, one that underscores the basic message, we consume fossil fuels in one way, and that’s by burning them, every time we drive, every time we burn gas, we’re contributing to air pollution and making our environment that much more unhealthy.

The Fishbowl.

Taking it up a notch, and looking down canyon, during certain periods of temperature inversion, the Salt Lake valley traps cold air at ground level between the Wasatch Front and the Oquirrh and Stansbury Mountains.  For thousands of years this cold air was probably mostly innocuous to the surrounding ecosystem and its inhabitants, but in the last couple of hundred years, with the influx of human inhabitants and industry, this cold air inversion traps with it the exhaust, fire, fumes, and farts of well over a million people, creating a stew of unhealthy air that we all must breathe.

What’s in it?

Lots of people are quick to place the blame on larger, more obvious polluters like the Kentecott Copper mine (admittedly the largest strip mine on planet Earth), one of the several oil refineries, or any of the other large industrial centers near SLC, but according to the Utah Division of Air Quality industrial sources only account for about 28% of the poor air quality on the average “red” air quality day.  Commercial sources, like fast food restaurants and small businesses (think endless strip-malls) account for another 26%, and the largest source comes from, you guessed it, cars and trucks.  38% of our poor air is attributable to our burning gasoline and diesel to get around, with the last 8% being attributable to domestic sources such as cooking and heating. 

Travel. Wise.

These inversions don't last forever.  As they often do, winter storms will blow in from the west, bringing with them the wind necessary to blow away the stagnate pollution.  But where does it go?  Well the short answer is, away.  The air is generally diffused as it spreads to the east and to a range of elevations in the atmosphere.  Problem solved, right?  Well, for the time being anyway.  But besides just delaying the inevitable, the Salt Lake Valley has just released a visual, somewhat quantifiable cloud of pollution into the atmosphere.  And while this may leave the residents of Sandy, Murray, and Sugarhouse breathing easy for a few more weeks, that air is sure to make a return trip around the globe and wind up back in the lungs off the Valley residents once again.  And this raises an interesting question.  Just how many "Valley Loads" of pollution can our atmosphere, and biosphere, absorb or digest before it becomes saturated, and the air that comes with one of those winter storms is a poor as the air it's replacing? 

While this is a generally mind-blowing question to begin with, considering we’re pretty much saying that us humans are polluting at such a high rate we’re at risk of suffocating ourselves, the answer, in a way, comes from a team of inter-disciplinary scientists working with  This is a group that has reasoned that 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is about the acceptable limit for life as we know it to be sustained.  This carbon dioxide helps trap heat in the atmosphere and eventually raises the global temperature, too high and we risk interfering with large scale ecosystems on Earth.  Where are we now?  At right about 392, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.  Although this number isn’t being focused on for it’s correlation to the air’s breathability, if we continue to pollute at the rate we are now, it won’t be that long between the Greenland Icesheet melting and our air being too toxic to breathe. 

There's a city down there.

The solution to pollution is dilution.  

Until we reach a point of saturation, that is.  Even Leave no Trace ethics perscribe that broadcasting is an acceptable form of disposal for certain types of waste.  But when we're dealing with such large-scale variables as the environment, the atmosphere, humanity, industry, and global oil reserves, at what point can we safely say that we have reached an unhealthy level of pollution?  While we might think that SLC is a relative anomaly in the world of cities, most urban centers today struggle with poor air quality.  There are, however, another group of metropolises who's geography keeps their air "clean" through a steady stream of wind, but the rate at which these cities are polluting is most likely no less then Salt Lake's.  So with roughly 4-500 cities in the world with a population similar to or greater than Salt Lake’s, all consuming and polluting at a similar rate, well,that’s a lot of “Valley Loads”, and pretty soon the Earth is starting to look a lot like Salt Lake’s during an inversion, and not too far from that first guy's garage.

"We know from thousands of medical studies that people are dying in our community right now because of the air pollution, and it's a role in triggering strokes, heart attacks, congestive heart faliure, fatal arrythmias, lung disease and infections and infant mortality."  This is a quote from the petition signed by dozens of doctors as part of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.  This petition was sent to the govenor of Utah requesting a public health emergency be declared in light of the Valley's terrible air quality.  The govenor's response: it could be worse.  According to the govenor's office, Salt Lake Valley's air quality hasn't yet reached the predetermined level requiring a "health emergency".  

So just how bad does it have to get?  Well, we'd have to get in to the fine details of air pollution to answer that, so let’s just say between those residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation sources, there's a lot of fine particulate that gets created due to the expelling of toxic compounds, volatile gases, and the combustion of fossil fuels.  It’s this particulate that’s getting trapped and crating the visually “dirty” air.  Some of these particles are small enough that they’re capable of passing through the nose and throat and entering the lungs, where they can have serious health effects on the heart and lungs.  The most commonly quantifiable particulate is known as PM 2.5, or particles that are smaller then 2.5 microns, and when resperated, carry with them the highest risk of affecting your health.  The Environmental Protection Agency has created a cutoff for clean air of 35 micrograms of pollution per cubic meter.  Salt Lake hit 130 micrograms one day last month and is regularly above the EPA’s limit during periods of inversion.  The not so funny thing is, when there is no inversion, this pollution is still being created, expelled in to the atmosphere and will most likely end up in somebody’s lungs. 

So what can we do?

If it hasn’t become painfully obvious yet, no one’s going to make the air better for us, it’s us and our way of life that has made it, it is our collective responsibility to make it better.  We can’t vote for this, it’s not the government’s job, we’re a democracy, and we’re creating this problem.  Only by collectively agreeing to make changes to our habits can we expect to see results. 

Our Choice.

During these times of increased pollution residents are required not to burn, and are encouraged to save electricity and drive less.  But the encouragement is pretty much where it ends, as there are no incentives like free or increased public transportation, more expensive gas or energy on "red" air quality days, or anything but a friendly reminder from the local paper to drive less.  For most folks out there, there is no alternative, life must go on, and it's the lifestyle that created the poor air that we're incapable of curtailing.  As an active individual, the thought of exercising in such poor quality air is not only disgusting, it's scary.  So without starting from square one, how are we supposed to encourage people to get out and walk or bike to work instead of driving when the air is so poor?  

It’s pretty easy to distance yourself from the problem of air pollution when its such a large and obvious issue, but as the cliché goes “we can all do are part” and equally, we’ve all done our part to create this poor air.  With such a large cloud of smog settling over the city it’s easy to pull off a person-sized chunk for each of the valley’s inhabitants and equate it to an individual level.  If we each create x amount of pollution per day, what are the sources of our contibutions?  Well, now we know the most comes from our choice of transportation, with the rest being pretty evenly split between our support of manufacturing and commercial sources, through our love of consuming material goods and a food system where the average meal travels about 1500 miles. 

Some of us contribute more to pollution then others, and regardless of what contributes more, I'm inclined to ask, in terms of our individual reach, which source do we have the most control over changing?  It seems to me that the largest impacting source we have control over is our choice of personal transportation.  Aside from the decision to buy products that have been created using less waste and renewable energy, or supporting local organic agriculture, the choice to drive less, or not at all, is one of the few things we can do that basically costs nothing and can actually save us money, and with a growing infrastructure of public transportation, e-commuting and e-schooling, the excuses to not drive keep shrinking.

The fact that no one will be making these decisions for me was part of my reason for giving up on owning an automobile, a way to force my hand if you will.  My options are limited to buses, friends, bikes, skis, or the biblical version of transportation, walking.  I voted to not spend any more money buying gas, car insurance, or any of the other expenses that come with car ownership, and I’ve got more money left over to support the things I believe in, like bikes, good food, and the outdoors. 

Because of kids, work, school, geography and life in general, not many folks are able to give up their car, it's simply not an option.  And for this I feel incredibly lucky, and obviously my choice of living in places like Alta and Leavenworth have enabled this decision.  But I also have a lot of friends who make great excuses for their lives and the necessity of their automobiles.  So how much longer can we make these excuses?  At what cost to the environment and our quality of lives are we willing to ignore these issues?  I know a lot of people out there who are incredibly creative, healthy, and smart, and are completely capable of making the necessary changes to avoid driving to work or school each day, even if it means car-pooling and riding the bus to avoid and drastic restructuring of their lives.  But the point is, how can any of us continue to make excuses to keep diving when the cost is becoming our health and well-being, nothing is worth that.

Going down...

We’re starting to see the push for creative thoughts and action required to make things better.  With the signing of the Utah Physician’s for Clean Environment petition, they called for a mandatory reduction of the highway speed limit to 55 during “red” quality air days, as well as increased and free public transportation and other measures to help make the air more breathable.  Individuals are calling out as well, in fact just the other day I read in the paper a man proposing that on red quality days car’s who’s license plates end in an odd number can only drive on odd numbered day’s, evens only on the even days.  Could you live with that if it meant you and you’re family could breathe easy?

At what point will we realize that we cannot continue with our ways of life without drastic effects for the health of our selves, our family, and our environment.  At what point will we, as a society, reach a collective understanding that our ways of life are out of balance, and that whatever American dream we’re chasing isn’t worth destroying the environment anymore?  I don’t know exactly what the solutions will look like, but I know they won’t look much like it anything in today’s cities.

Sometime’s I wonder what would happen if, like a faucet, we restricted our flow of oil from around 19 million barrels today (in the U.S.), to something like 5 million.  Would it be enough to sustain the basics like food production, and heat while we come up with solutions our other fossil fuel based industries?  As of now, there’s a general understanding that American’s aren’t ready to take action or make changes to their lives for the benefit of the environment, but how long can this remain the state of affairs before our lives are in danger?  There’s a feeling that we can’t pull the plug on our way of life without some great-depressional sufferfest, but pretty soon we’ll probably come to understand that the risks of a depressed economy, and even human lives (or at least lifestyles), are less important than ensuring the health of the lives we have and that of the environment.

Time will tell, but for now, I can feel that it’s wrong, to continue to support this way of life, which amounts to an illusion that’s only surviving at the cost of my health and that of the environment.  So I’ll focus my support on the things I believe in, bicycle transportation, local, organic agriculture, and building the community support that it will take to make changes in our lives to benefit the environment.  Perhaps I have sacrificed some of the richness of life, by not driving to Indian Creek for Thanksgiving, or flying to the Himalaya for a once-in-a-life expedition, but I can say that with last summer’s adventures, my life now, and all that I know is possible, I’m more satisfied then ever, and I can’t wait to show you what’s possible using a bicycle for transportation. 

In another few months, few weeks, or if the wind blows right, a few hours, the bad air in the valley will be blown away.  When the summer comes, the valley becomes less at risk for these dirty air inversions, aside from wildfires, which is another conversation in itself.  When the air cleans up we’ll be rid of our visual reminder, we’ll go on “breathing easy”, driving, recreating, and consuming with clean sight, and a clean consience.  But our exaust is going somewhere, and on this grand wheel it’ll all be back around.  The tax on our air is getting heavier each time we drive, how much longer before we can’t afford the cost?

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