My Next Breath
When I was young, the Maine highlands where I grew up was known for its clean air. Although the memory is fading, I still remember looking out the two large east-facing windows of my family home which looked out over Wilson Pond and the mountains east of Greenville. There's a saying in Maine that if you don't like the weather, just wait a minute. It will change. I remember watching many of those changes from the hillside that was my home.
It wasn't until I was a teenager and started roaming south, even just south of Maine's capital Augusta, that I was aware of air pollution. Even now I remember the stark contrast between Greenville's clean air and the smoggy haze that hung low over southern Maine. That was the 1960s.
In the 1970s we New Englanders began noticing the effects of what was termed "acid rain" which had an especially significant effect on the mountain tops of northwestern New England. One of the many legacies of the 1980s was our increasing amnesia of acid rain and virtually all other forms of pollution. We replaced our desire for clean air with our desire for lots and lots of cheap energy.
By the late 1990s I was beginning to become aware of what I viewed as an alarming condition in the atmosphere. Still living in my home town of Greenville, I began taking notice of a blanket of dirty air that was often visible at sunset. It appeared as a layer of burnt-amber colored air a few thousand feet thick, seemingly just a little thicker than the mountains around here are high. This wasn't just an occasional condition. It was frequently visible on otherwise clear days at sunset.
Not only that, but gone were the haze-free summer days when the mountain views were as clear as crystal. It was as though those days only existed in my imagination, as though they had never even existed. Amnesia is a powerful thing. My wife and I and our youngest son drove to Oregon early in the summer of 1998. We took a route through southern Canada and the northern U.S. states. It was on that drive that I first realized that this layer of pollution covered the entire face of North America.
Soon after that I started noticing that this blanket of amber-colored air was in sunset pictures from Maine, from New Jersey, and even from Southeast Asia. The hazy and sooty air of Beijing, host this year of the 2008 Summer Olympics, is well documented. Industrialized Asia is a source of much of the world's air pollution and this pollution is driven not just by Asian industrialists but by western corporations who invest in Asian production to avoid environmental regulation.
Now, in complete amnesia, we focus on carbon dioxide emissions as though they are the only serious threat to the air we breathe. Many in our society point out that we exhale more carbon dioxide than we inhale and poo poo the whole debate about clean air.
A year or two back I watched a Nova show on Public Broadcasting which discussed how particulate air pollution (smoke and smog) was causing the formation of clouds which were actually reflecting sunlight and thus heat energy from the sun back out into space. Air pollution was actually producing a cooling effect that was counteracting the heating of the carbon dioxide "greenhouse gas" effect. Some scientists speculated that if we were to clean up our emissions and thus reduced this cloud formation, the warming effects of greenhouse gases would increase.
I saw a picture the other day taken by an airline passenger near Austin Texas showing storm cloud formations. Above the layer of storm clouds is air as clear and blue as anything I can remember from my youth. Below that, though, at what must be tens of thousands of feet above ground level is that burnt-orange toxic-looking air breeding these storms. Just imagine the content of rain if this picture shows what it seems to be showing. Imagine the contents of our rain if it comes from such heavily polluted air high in our atmosphere.
I just finished reading Ismael for the second time. My first reading was one of my inspirations for blogging in the first place. It's fair to say that this Daniel Quinn book changed my life. After my second reading - and it will take more than two readings to do this book justice - I am acutely aware that I am as responsible as anybody for this pollution problem. Even though I have tried since first reaching adulthood to conserve energy, I still use far far more than the average person on earth uses. And the average person on earth uses far more than was typical a century ago. And there are far more of us around than there ever used to be.
It isn't just that guy I saw in town yesterday in the big black throbbing extended cab Dodge Ram full-sized pickup with the dual chrome exhausts vertically mounted behind the cab spewing out twin clouds of intensely black smoke reminiscent of the black Mack log trucks that Don Tompkins used to run a couple decades ago. It isn't just the passenger-laden jets pouring out of the world's major airports. It isn't just the exhaust tunnels that are our nation's highways. It's all of us every day. It's those neatly trimmed lawns surrounding those air conditioned suburban homes, those plastic toys and housewares stocking the shelves in WalMart, those lights we burn to keep us safe from the dark, those irrigation pipes beating back the heat in the fields that grow our food. It's the way all of us have chosen to live our lives. That's what's doing this to us.
So I leave you with a speech Al Gore gave this week challenging us to change how we do the things we do. It is becoming increasingly clear to all but the most blind and forgetful among us that the time for change has come. Listen to what former Vice President Al Gore has to say to us.