Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Air Quality and Individual Conscience: By Exercising Voluntary Self-Restraint, We Can Simplify Our Lives and Reduce Our Environmental Footprints. (Insights)

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Air Quality and Individual Conscience: By Exercising Voluntary Self-Restraint, We Can Simplify Our Lives and Reduce Our Environmental Footprints. (Insights)

Article excerpt

On a brilliant day in the fall of 1998--one of those rare days when the sky is perfectly clear and deep, deep blue--I hiked with my children up to Spence Field, a grassy bald at the crest of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From there you can look out over peak beyond peak of the Southern Appalachians until vision melts at the horizon into a remote blue haze. Jenna gazed into the distance and lifted her arms expansively. Ben ran wild through the long springy grass. They gathered ripe huckleberries with delight.

The next day both developed coughs, which grew into respiratory infections. Ben missed two days of school. A coincidence, surely; the day had been perfectly clear. But later that week, on a hunch, I asked Jim Renfro, the air quality specialist at the Park, what the ozone level had been in the mountains that day. It was 110 parts per billion--30 parts per billion in excess of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's health limit for an eight-hour exposure. The hike had been strenuous and had taken about eight hours. Ozone oxidizes lung tissue, opening it to infection. Breathing ozone harms the active more than the sedentary, children more than adults.

The incident was, in itself, trivial. Jenna and Ben recovered quickly. Respiratory infections are common enough, and maybe theirs were coincidental. But there was enough ozone in the air to do the job; and even if it didn't harm them, it probably harmed others. The implication is not wholly insignificant; children are getting sick from breathing the mountain air of a National Park.

In that same year, 1998, Americans for the first time bought more sport utility vehicles (SUVs), vans, and pickup trucks than passenger cars. These vehicles were at the time exempt from some of the regulations on gas mileage and tailpipe emissions that apply to conventional cars. And we drove more, individually and in aggregate, than in previous years. As a result, emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds increased. These primary pollutants react in the presence of sunlight to form ozone, a secondary pollutant. Ozone levels in the Smokies--as in many urban areas--have been worsening for many years. Jim Renfro's data show that gasoline and diesel engines in the Tennessee Valley, and coal-fired power plants across a wider region, are the main culprits. (1) Our cars, vans, SUVs, lawn mowers, and leaf-blowers; and our air conditioners, water heaters, electric lights, microwave ovens, and electric clothes dryers--whose power is supplied mostly by the burning of coal--are making the air in Great Smoky Mountains National Park unfit to breathe. And it is not just that we are hurting ourselves; ozone oxidizes plant and animal tissue alike. The widespread stippling of leaves and defoliation of Smoky Mountain plants in high summer is not, except perhaps metaphorically, the harbinger of an early fall. (2)

Why do we, as individuals, act in these destructive ways? What is wrong with us? It's not simply that we don't know. Information is readily available. Anyone who cares to find it can. And much of it is not hard to understand. Any moderately educated person can surmise that an SUV with a four-liter engine puts out a lot more exhaust than a compact car with an engine one-third its size. Who hasn't heard, if not of ozone, then at least of smog or air pollution? Stories on ozone pollution have received extensive media play in recent years.

Simple ignorance is, no doubt, part of the problem. But some of the best-educated people I know--environmentalists with a wealth of environmental knowledge--consume electricity excessively or drive SUVs. Mere education will not suffice.

But perhaps the fault lies with the corporations, not with us. They have, after all, so arranged things that it is very difficult to live without polluting the air. Auto manufacturers, for example, deliberately evaded federal requirements on mileage for passenger cars by building huge numbers of SUVs and calling them trucks instead of cars--knowing, of course, that these "trucks" would, in fact, be used as cars--then systematically persuading the American public to buy them. …

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