A Moment of Silence For The 7 Million Souls We Lost to Air Pollution This Past Year
Reflections on the blind eyes turned towards this annual humanitarian catastrophe
As we gather here in the opening lines of this short essay to pay our tributes to the fallen; let us pause in remembrance, in reflection, and once again in unity, and share this moment of silence*.
In The Politics of The Earth, John Dryzek attributes the success of the Montreal Protocol in part to the rethorical ingenuity of framing the seasonal reductions in ozone concentration, measured above Antarctica through the 1980's, as an “ozone hole”. This image of a dark, expanding hole, the argument goes, captured our collective imagination in a way reams of data from monitoring stations never could have done — paving the highway to its resolution. His argument seems to resonate well with empirical findings on the persuasive effects of methaphors, checking most of the boxes for high-impact metaphors.
This makes for a striking contrast with air pollution, whose horrors are discussed almost entirely in terms of data of the kind that predictably fails to capture our imagination. These may well scratch the cortical surface layers of our brain architecture, but will never reach into the primal depths of our old homenoid brains, which understands danger in terms of narratives and gut reactions. Against this backdrop, this essay will begin by metaphorizing air pollution into a language more suitable for grappling with its havoc.
Let’s take this metaphor for a spin
Tumbling into the industrial era, dazzled and disoriented, mankind soon found itself stalked by an unfamiliar, new predator. One its evolutionary history had not prepared it to fend against. This vaporous angel of death it dubbed Air Pollution. Wrapping itself around modern cities, like infected bandages around open wounds, its death toll soon eclipsed those of war, murder, terrorism, and traffic accidents, combined.
Like any predator, Air Pollution singled out the weakest, most vulnerable specimens from our herd: children, seniors, and the poor. According to a 2016 rapport by UNICEF, 300 million children worldwide breath air that is contaminated by pollution levels six times greater than the maximum set by WHO guidelines. Their underdeveloped lungs and weak immune systems renders them easy prey. According to a 2017 report by the WHO, Air Pollution’s annual holocaust includes 600 000 children under the age of five.
Air Pollution furthermore wrecks havoc on the fragile development of childrens brains. In response to meta studies by The Lancet Commission and UNICEF — linking exposure to Air Pollution during infancy to the development of «autism, ADHD and conduct disorders» as well as «future developmental delays, lower verbal IQ, and increased signs of anxiety, depression, and problems with attention» — UNICEF has singled out emission reductions as «One of the most important things we can do for children».
The deepest mass-graves from Air Pollution’s killing spree can be found throughout the developing world, where it regularly contributes to as much as a quarter of all deaths. This club is chaired by India, home to ten of the world’s eleven most polluted cities. Growing up in these infernos of septic smog entails a 50 % chance of developing asthma, and having to get by with 30 % lower lung capacity than your European peers. Delhi, the undisputed heavyweight champion of polluted cities, was recently described by India’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, as a “gas chamber”.
Perhaps the single most terrifying specimen of Air Pollution is the «Asian Brown Cloud»: A three kilometer thick monstrosity of brownish haze that haunts the South Asian sky during its annual winter monsoon. Engulfing great swaths of the subcontinent in its shadow, like a hellish demon, it singlehandedly reaps nearly two million souls every winter.
Poor and marginalized groups in developed nations are also singled out for slaughter. Numerous studies have documented the disproportionate location of point pollution sources — including hazardous waste sites, industrial facilities and sewage treatment plants — in communities of ethnic minorities and socially disadvantaged. This could plausibly be a piece to the puzzle of explaining why the life expectancy of poor American men is 15 years lower than those of their wealthier peers — resembling those of Sudan and Pakistan. Kids born into these gas chambers become scarred for life due to the damage inflicted on their fragile bodies and brains.
What would it take to solve this crisis?
On one level, the solutions are self-evident. Wave the magic wands of regulations and public spending, and this demon will be cast away forever: The equivalent of an annual Holocaust is averted, global average lifespan increases by two years, and trillions of dollars are added to the global economy.
Unfortunately, these solutions have long been blocked by the trifecta of public apathy, political inertia, and special interests. For decades, they have kept serious environmental legislation locked away, deep down in the murky dungeons of the political agenda. Only occasionally is it dragged to the surface and paraded for public spectacle, only to be swiftly returned to its cell, once the festivities fades out.
While pollution abatement might seem like a no-brainer from an ethical point of view, manufacturers have little choice but to carefully balance the cost of abating pollution against the value of the goodwill attained by doing so. Any manufacturer who unilaterally decides to prioritize abatement over competitiveness is just setting itself up to be outcompeted and replaced by less scrupilous rivals. It’s a classic race to the bottom: if even a single agent tries to increase its competitiveness by sacrificing the common value ‘clean air’, and consumers fail to adequately punish it for doing so, all its competitors must follow suit or face extinction. In the end, the relative competitiveness of the agents might remain largely unchanged, but the sacrificed value will be gone.
Dieselgate makes for an illuminating case in point. Despite the political backlash and mediastorm it generated, there doesn’t seem to have been anything special about Volkswagen’s scheme, except with regards to its level of sophistication. Independent testers regularly find emissions to be 3–5 times higher than those suggested by official test results, across brands. In this environment, every individual car manufacturer face the choice between gaming its emission tests ‘just like everyone else’, or cede competitiveness to those who do.
The obvious antidotes to such races to the bottom are tough legislation upheld by tough enforcement. Alas the untold millions Big Energy has invested in lobbyists, politicians and think tanks, have been remarkably successful in strangling such legislation in its cradle. By abstaining from covering the issue in favor of more like-and-share friendly content, mainstream media essentially handed these actors the power to twist the public discourse at their pleassure.
Even The Lord of Darkness, incarnated in the avatar of Charles Koch, have splashed his crocodile tears all over the public discourse about how environmental legislation “is going to disproportionately hurt the poor.” This is the message put out there. Environmental legislation will harm you, your family and your community.
Any government that dares to defy multinational investors by implementing tough environmental legislations puts its nation at risk of disinvestments. This, in turn, means recession, unemployment and falling tax revenues — a timetested recipe for loosing next years election. Coughing workers, as Thomas Friedman puts it in The Power of Green, are much less politically dangerous than unemployed workers.
Despite the numerous surveys depicting widespread environmental conserns, environmental legislations remains unpopular. The ‘yellow-west’ protests of 2017 makes for an excellent case study. A 2015 Pew Research Center poll found that 56 % of French voters agreed with the statement “Climate change is a very serious problem” — more than any other western nation. A GlobeScan survey went on to rank France among just four countries whose majorities wanted their government to show leadership on climate policy. Against this backdrop, the violent reactions to a minor carbon tax proposition— one far short of IPCC recommendations — is striking. The public seems to endorse environmental policy as an abstract concept, but oppose its real-life manifestations.
And so, before we close this tab and go on with our day, let us pause and share a moment of reflective silence; as a tribute to the victims of this annual Holocaust, and in solidarity with those left behind.
*Adopted from Obama’s speech at the 13th anniversary of 9/11