Air and Breathing
Preface, the Environment
Air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, is a significant cause of health problems worldwide. Urban and rural outdoor environments contain infections, allergens, irritants and toxins that can reduce the quality of life and cause disease. The benefits to citizens of modern industrial society may have peaked sometime in recent decades, and increasingly, we are paying the penalties of pollution of our own nest. When I was a University student, I joined an early environmental organization called "Pollution Probe" and the main idea was "Either you are part of the problem or part of the solution".
Developments in the media made "green" the slogan for action to limit the adverse effects of air pollution. The media often suggested that this is a relatively new consensus that there is an environmental crisis. They excused people who have ignored climate changes over the past 30 years as having legitimate doubts. The fact is that some know what is really going on out there, but most people do not know or know but deny the obvious for selfish reasons.Green, of course, refers to the color of chlorophyll in plants. Human action destroys plants and replaces healthy ecosystems with monocultures that are unsustainable. Another slogan that emerged was "save planet earth." Humans will not save the planet. The task for humans is to stop destroying the environments that sustain their own kind. If we fail, the planet will do just fine without us.
In an ideal world, everyone would seek personal heath and well being, but at the same time would strive to restore planet health. Smart people realize that no personal benefit will survive long in a world that is ailing, polluted and careening toward more man-made disasters. The really sad part of our current predicament is that all the right ideas have been around for decades and have been clearly articulated in many forms by a host of intelligent people. The right ideas involve unselfish and compassionate behavior. The right ideas involve long-term planning, conservation and a deep commitment to preserving the natural world. Without a healthy natural environment, there will be few or no healthy humans.
The term “ecosystem” refers to living creatures interacting with each other and with the physical features of the planet. Almost every student learns the basics of ecosystems and can tell you that we need clean air, clean water and food to sustain human populations. Some of these students will take the lessons seriously and act more responsibly toward their local environments. Most students, like most adult citizens, treat knowledge of ecosystems as an abstract exercise and will consume, pollute and ignore the negative environmental consequences of their actions. This is not to argue that these are irresponsible or bad people. It is to argue that book knowledge is too abstract and that humans only respond to locally perceived environmental conditions.
Humans adapt easily to deteriorating conditions and will persist in following daily routines even when air pollution is severe, traffic is congested, water and food supplies are at risk, and social order is unstable. The tolerance for environmental destruction is ancient and human history is littered with civilizations that failed because humans indiscriminately exploited natural resources and spoiled their own nest. The human tendency is to plunder and pillage nature and to move on when resources are depleted. The solution to this tendency requires strong leadership by smart, well-educated compassionate humans who understand natures is divine and understand that human survival depends on healthy ecosystems.
My bias is strong and clear. I am on the side of Nature. When I was five years old, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I was never a hunter, but I was a participant, a fellow creature among friends. I climbed trees. I discovered peace in the natural environment.
The city grew, as I grew, and I watched the cherished natural environments of my childhood disappear - swallowed up and replaced by houses, roads, and shopping malls. I adapted to an increasingly urban existence and enjoyed parts of it, but for many years, I dreamed of returning to a place of nature. My family, like many others living in Toronto, made regular weekend journeys out of the city to a cottage on Lake Muskoka, 120 miles northwest of the city. The cottage was a gateway to the natural world. The early cottagers of the 1950s seemed to be more sensitive to nature and were content to paddle a canoe and to sit on the dock and wonder at the spectacle of sunsets. They felt privileged when they heard the call of the loons in the moonlight.
I have lived in a coastal city, Vancouver. Many claim "'…Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities in world". This claim needs to be carefully examined. An alarming feature of the modern urban dweller's mind is the growing tolerance for ugliness, pollution and destruction of all things natural. This urban area, like most others, is out of control and progressively destroys the natural environment - its only claim to beauty. The natural environment surrounding Vancouver is beautiful. The environment used to be rich with clean water, clean air, wildlife, food and sustenance for the soul - forests, wilderness, snow-capped mountains and the great Mother Ocean. Wherever nature has been preserved, you do have a place of beauty. But, the deluded urban dweller will mindlessly repeat the "beautiful city" slogan if he can look past car-congested streets, utility poles, wire mazes, ugly buildings and dimly see a snow-capped-mountain through the air pollution haze.
Vancouver and its suburbs sits on the delta of the Fraser River - a plain that interrupts the coastal mountains that reach from Alaska, through British Columbia into the states of Washington, Oregon and California. The delta is perfect as a wildlife refuge and is good for agriculture. Many of the farms that once existed here were more or less compatible with nature and supplied food for a medium sized city 50 years ago. You could argue that a small city surrounded by productive farms and interconnected wild lands is an ideal symbiosis of urban humans and nature. Here, farms and wildlands have disappeared into the suburban blight that afflicts cities worldwide. The flat, once-arable land extends toward Seattle. In thirty years, some predict, the Vancouver-Seattle corridor will be a continuous megalopolis. I am not fan of growth. Many people in my community, a ferry trip form Vancouver, realize that they have the best that modern civilization has to offer and do not want change. Reasonable communities have every right, a duty and obligation to limit population size, limit growth and place the highest priority on protecting natural environments within and around their community.
The idea of sustainable cities has many advocates and number of articulate spokespersons live in this area. There is climate of intellectual willingness to redeem and restore our environment and create plans based on conservation and long-term stability. The problems exist, not for want of understanding or competence in planning a better deal for humans and the environment. All the necessary good ideas have already been written down and stated repeatedly in journals, books, and at countless meetings and conferences.
A sustainable city would have different political and economic priorities. A sustainable city would have fewer cars, fewer roads, effective public transport, clean air, more greenspaces and wide natural corridors that would permit the passage of wildlife and people from one region to another. A sustainable city could supply its own food needs, at least from a surrounding area of a few hundred square miles. The people would be more considerate of each other's needs, more inclined to collaborate and cooperate. Can this Utopian vision be realized?
While we like to think of ourselves as ‘owners’ of our own body and mind, we belong to nature and our core being answers the call of the wild more than our own wishes or the injunctions of the local society. Synder suggested: ” Our bodies are wild. The involuntary turn of the head at shout, the vertigo looking over a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflecting are all universal responses of this mammalian body… the world is our consciousness and it surrounds us.”