Right to breathe clean air
The politics of air pollution needs a climate psychology of breathing. Breathing safe air is not just a civil right, it is an existential necessity.
What does it do to existential security to know that the air might kill me, maim my unborn child, leave me fighting for breath? People don masks to protect against the COVID virus, but more deadly is a cocktail of particulate matter (especially the tiny invisible kind PM2.5). Here too, it seems that - along with fear - denial and disavowal must have played their part.
The deadly effects
Air pollution, according to the World Health Organization, is ‘a public health emergency’. It is also referred to as ‘the greatest environmental risk to health in the world’, the fourth most prevalent cause of death. More than 90% of the world’s population endures toxic air; pollutants are found in the placentas of unborn children. Air pollution research ‘shows head-to-toe harm’, from heart and lung disease to diabetes and dementia, and from liver problems and bladder cancer to brittle bones and damaged skin. Fertility is affected. Low birthweight, cognitive impairment, childhood obesity, leukaemia, mental health problems; now evidence beginning to come in for its link to Parkinson’s and autism; strokes, and reduced intelligence, poor sleep – the list is almost endless. The reason why the effects are so much more widespread than lung disease is that, as they travel through the body, particles of pollution are attacked by immune cells with enzymes and acids which cause inflammation across the whole system.
Window of opportunity
WHO clean air levels are routinely exceeded, including in most British towns and cities, and the levels are far worse in, for example, China and India. Why have the necessary measures not been taken? Because, as we know from global warming, humanity, and especially Modern capitalism, is addicted to fossil fuels.
Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest luxury cruise operator, emitted nearly 10 times more harmful sulphur dioxide (SO2) around European coasts than did all 260 million EU passenger cars in 2017, according to a new analysis by Transport & Environment. Royal Caribbean Cruises, the world’s second largest cruise operator, emitted four times the SO₂ of the EU car fleet.
Rather like climate change, the damage is hard to attribute (the “silent killer’). However, this is where something important changed with pandemic lockdowns: people the world over experienced clean air: they were shown what breathing could be like. Millions, including especially children, were freed from asthma.
This corona virus has achieved something else too: not for nothing is it called “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome” (SARS COVID-2). A US study found that ‘even a tiny single-unit increase in particle pollution levels in the year before the pandemic is associated with a 15% increase in death rate’. COVID-19 has taken most lives in places where industrialisation has created the dirtiest air and it has killed primarily those with prior lung and heart disease and other vulnerabilities. Although it is an oversimplification, it can be said that it has taken this COVID virus to expose the parlously poor health and damaged immune systems of the world’s population who are suffering the poisonous conditions of industrialised growth. This system – called progress – continues at the expense of the vast majority of the human population.
If pollution harms human organs, of course it is harming those of non-human animals as well. There is plenty of evidence that it harms other forms of life too. For example, research on air pollution’s effect on trees shows it also stunts their growth and thus delays their role in absorbing pollutants.
Meditative breath of the forest. Painting by a nature painter and CPA member.
When climate change is defined widely as the destabilization, due to human activity, of the earth’s interconnected ecology, air pollution is revealed as an expression of climate change, likewise this pandemic. Politically, this is an opportunity: the profound – life-giving – advantages of ending the fossil fuel era have become evidenced, materialized in the form of a pandemic that has not just taken lives but has achieved radical “degrowth” in months. The reassertion of the virus, in spikes and subsequent waves, is ensuring that previous business as usual is not reinstated. Yet, depressingly, emissions have reverted to pre-pandemic levels. Perhaps the global adoption of “I can’t breathe” marks a new level of resistance to the form of climate crisis which is air pollution.
“I can’t breathe”
The political impact of air pollution has gained a new source of momentum through Black Lives Matter, beyond the outrage of racist police violence. Bill McKibben interviews Robert Bullard, a man who exposed the fact that waste dumps in the US were concentrated in black areas:
The phrase “I can’t breathe” took on a special meaning beginning in the
nineteen-nineties, during “toxic tours” [of industrial sites in heavily polluted
cities] and community protests against racist industrial facility-siting
practices that turned people-of-color communities into pollution hot spots
and environmental “sacrifice zones”. People of color breathe thirty-eight per
cent more polluted air than whites.
African Americans are nearly three times more likely to die of asthma than white Americans. In the UK it was found that waste incinerators are three times more likely to be concentrated in deprived areas. In the UK and Europe, the concentration of Black and Minority Ethnic people in polluted areas is a major factor in accounting for higher BAME death rates. Air pollution is part of a crisis in global civil rights. Air pollution ‘enters the same ethical terrain as war, slavery, and genocide’.
Breath of life
Breathing has been widely taken for granted. Michael Eigen, in a 1977 article in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, pointed out that Western thinking lacks the understanding of Eastern traditions on the importance of breathing. It emphasizes appetite as the central organizer of identity (think Freud’s “id”), whereas the experience of breathing, according to Eigen, is ‘the most continuously lived bodily form’ and ‘an outside source of gratification which is always there’, thus supporting ‘the current of hope and trust’ in a personality. In premodern times, breath, like wind, was synonymous with spirit, psyche, soul. It confounds the idea of an ‘individual’ with clear boundaries, because breath belongs both outside and inside. David Abram explored the affinity between air and awareness, portraying awareness as a function of ‘the whole of our breathing bodies’. We experience the generosity of the living earth every time we breathe in. But now we know we are also breathing in the detritus of the Anthropocene and we cannot avoid it. What could be more important? As with global heating, there are no options left except to end the use of fossil fuels.
David Roberts makes plain that the air quality benefits of clean energy are enough to pay for the transition, ‘it would be worth freeing ourselves from fossil fuels even if global warming didn’t exist’. Significantly, action on air pollution has one political benefit that action on global warming lacks, Roberts says: ‘whereas averting climate change depends on global cooperation, air quality benefits manifest locally and immediately’.
Title image credit: Lungs of the Earth. Painting by a nature painter and CPA member.