It’s becoming quite a regular thing, this health warning on breathing. Friday this week, in large parts of the east and south-east of England, air pollution is forecast to rise to dangerous levels. You can check these air quality forecasts out here.
There will be widespread high air pollution; some places will be in the very high banding.
What this actually means is pretty sobering. Tens of millions of people will find themselves in what was described in a similar incident in March as a toxic smog. For areas in the high banding, the Government advises that anyone with health problems related to their lungs or heart should reduce strenuous physical exertion, especially outdoors; older people should also reduce physical exertion, and asthmatics may well find that they need their inhalers more than usual. People who experience sore eyes or a sore throat or a cough should also reduce their level of activity, particularly outdoors.
In the very high banding areas the situation and the warnings are graver still.
According to what you might read in The Guardian, say, this situation is being brought about by southerly winds bringing pollution from abroad and carrying fine Saharan dust. That is to say that if you don’t read between the lines, all of this coughing and spluttering is essentially the fault of foreigners.
The thing is though, that normally fresh Atlantic air sends much of our pollution eastwards; it’s when that normal service is suspended that we get a dose of what these islands normally export on the west and south-west winds.
On Friday, not only will air quality be poor in the south-east, but an area all the way up to North Yorkshire and spreading to the north-west will be covered in the same sort of stuff; presumably much of this pollution will be from London and the south-east, that is to say, produced there. Everywhere in the UK except for Cornwall and an area of the Scottish Highlands and Islands will suffer moderate levels of air pollution on Friday. Against this kind of backdrop, moderate air pollution sounds okay, doesn’t it? Well I’m not so sure.
Moderate air pollution does affect people. Actually, it kills people. A high air pollution event kills more people. The outdoors is dangerous, and the most communal of element of the Commons, the air we breathe, is suspect, a potentially deadly enemy, likely to shorten your life.
We live in a startlingly unequal society in which the pollution we generate comes as a result of creating material rewards distributed according to a relatively simple formula: the more you own, the more you receive. But whilst the rewards are distributed in that fashion, the problems that come with the pollution are shared out quite differently.
At the very best we might say that we all breathe the same air, but it’s not quite as simple as that is it? In fact, the wealthy, apart from generally not needing to undertake strenuous activity, of the sort that might be ill-advised if you find yourself in a bank of toxic smog, to make a living, are also more able than most to choose not to live in areas most susceptible to high pollution; they might well be able to choose to leave London for example, for a weekend somewhere with breathable air. We can at least indulge the somewhat vain hope that their chosen means of transport will not add too much to the weight of poisons in the air they leave behind them.
Searching for frightening and once upon a time astonishing environmental stories to kick start a blog has become far too easy. We can all bemoan falling air quality or an apparently chance coincidence of weather systems and Saharan dust in the atmosphere. The thing is that these recurrent air quality crises – and they are crises if you are old, young, asthmatic, or poorly – are symptomatic and indicative of the environmental challenges of our time.
The impact of environmental degradation falls disproportionately on the vulnerable and on the poor. The wealthy and the powerful benefit hugely from the processes that give rise to every single gram of pollution in the atmosphere; everyone else benefits less and suffers more.
These events are normalised, reported as if they were just weather. We are encouraged to accept that these things happen, and that they are unavoidable. How on Earth would we make a living if we didn’t sit in our car on the M25 twice a day every day? How could we cope if Heathrow did not roar day in and day out with flights?
Friday it seems will be a one day pollution event. The return of freshening Atlantic winds will bring us air that will, by our standards as low as they are, be normal. Well, in fact, the description of the air pollution banding is “low”. Some of us will breathe a sigh of relief; some of us will have breathed our last in the toxic smog. It seems that breathing poison is part and parcel of progress, of living in our advanced society. Should a southerly wind settle in for a long stay, we might be given pause for thought, or a greater incentive to take action.
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1Peter Richardson April 10th, 2015
Oh lord. When I heard on the news that the government was warning people against breathing today, I thought it must be April 1st, until I remembered that we’d just had that last week.
What can we do about this as individuals? Keep uniting to change our society and economy, make a noise about it, and lead by example.
Incidentally, I had a depressing conversation with a buddhist who works in conservation a couple of days ago. Apparently, from a buddhist perspective, we shouldn’t get worked up about the human race destroying its life support system – it’s just a phase that humans need to go through. I’d be interested to know whether all/most buddhists view the situation in such a non-interventionist way.
2Dave Darby April 10th, 2015
I’ve got a good Buddhist friend – I’ll ask him. If that ‘phase’ involves extinction, then we’re not exactly going to learn much from that, and it’s back to ‘kill or be killed’ nature on this planet. And even if we don’t become extinct, leaving a planet full of toxins and plastic junk, with much less biodiversity, eroded soils and changed climate isn’t going to do much for their health.
Mind you, Buddhists have ‘right livelihood’, so good Buddhists (who wouldn’t be materialistic either) aren’t contributing as much to the damage.