Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Do We Really Want Clean Air?

I like to breathe. It makes me feel alive. I like my air to be clean too, without the infiltration of chemicals and pollutants. Most people agree. We want air that doesn’t have lots of additives.

But …

You probably knew that was coming.

But … we don’t want it enough. We’re willing to have our air be dirty because we don’t want to pay for clean air. At least, most of us don’t – because clean air costs a lot. Much of our electricity comes from coal-fired or their slightly less dirty cousins, natural gas power plants.

We have lots of coal and natural gas, so when we burn it, we don’t have to pay a lot to recharge our Ipods and Ipads and PCs and run our lights and water heaters and air conditioners.

What we end up with is what economists call high external costs – costs to society that don’t get factored in to the costs we pay. Things like increased instances of asthma and lung cancer and learning disabilities caused by pollutants like lead and mercury.

We refuse to consider nuclear power because we believe it would cost too much to create safe power plants and we don’t have a good system for storing nuclear waste. So instead, we absorb the costs of inefficient power sources and pretend those hidden costs don’t exist.

Plus, our dirty coal – the coal we refuse to burn in this country because it’s not clean – we ship to Asia so they can burn it there, depositing huge amounts of toxins into the atmosphere, where they drift east on the air currents, making their way over the United States, albeit in a somewhat diluted form.

Many of us don’t think we have a problem with dirty air. The pollutants are usually not at what we consider an unsafe level. Our air contains about 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, almost 1% argon and about 0.4% carbon dioxide.

That means the amount of pollutants in it must be infinitesimal – parts per million of various contaminants. True, but it doesn’t take much to have a few particles stick to your lungs and trigger an immune response.

Beijing, now they have a problem with dirty air. You can see the smog; you can cut it with a knife. But we don’t have that problem here. Our air is relatively clean.

Except …

Except it isn’t. Not really. In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died (1 in 8 of total global deaths) from exposure to air pollution. Obviously it’s difficult to be precise with a measurement like this, but it’s safe to say that our air could be a lot cleaner.

How? There are lots of ways. Cutting back on trips by car, switching to a cleaner vehicle or lawn mower or cutting the grass less often. Turning the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter. Turning off lights when you leave a room. Buying fewer products in general since it costs energy to make and transport those products. Flying less often or not at all (if feasible).

There are many other ways to cut back, to clean up our air a little more. Not everyone can use a reel push lawnmower, for example – myself included – though I cut the grass much less often now that I use a power mower.

These are just a few suggestions and they do nothing to address the problem of industrial pollution. But they’re a start. And I like breathing clean air.


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