The Confusion Regarding Air Pollution In The UK And Its Consequences: Human and Non-Human

In February last year, the far-right wing newspaper The Daily Mail reported that air pollution is “killing” 40,000 British people a year. Several months later, Greenpeace posted on their website that air pollution is causing 40,000 lives to be “cut short”.

These claims have been criticised within the British media and by scientists. And the truth seems to indicate that air pollution, rather than being the sole cause of these deaths, is actually a contributing factor in a situation that is highly complex and difficult to understand.

One of the central issues is throughout this debate has been that the figure of 40,000 was produced through statistical research. The problem here is that, statistical evidence, while it can be beneficial in some areas of scientific research, is reductive to the extent that it often limits the variables so as to remove all context from the findings and produce numbers that are don’t actually reflect the situational truth.

So the questions we really need to ask is, what is the truth, in its situated context? What can we say we really know, given that most of us aren’t scientists and are relying on evidence produced by those with personal agendas? Because the lies told by Exxon scientists regarding the harmful effects of oil and global warming serve as a reminder that scientific research isn’t performed in a non-political vacuum, free from authoritarian dynamics that serve the interests of elites.

It is highly likely that air pollution globally causes the death of more than 3 million people, 75% of which are in Asia, where economic globalisation has taken a foothold in, leading to the escalation of industrialism (often in the guise of “development) across the continent. This stands to reason, given the how much air pollution has risen across the worlds cities and the encroachment of urbanisation in the “developing” world. In fact, The World Health Organisation has previously reported that air pollution kills 6.5 million people a year and that pollution causes the deaths of 1.7 children a year. Proposed solutions to this problem, such as a new type of inhaler, are reliant on the production of technologies – technologies whose production are reliant on industrial production and distribution, which are the leading contributing factors in the global air crisis.

According to Carbon Brief, the UK’s carbon emissions fell by 6% in 2016, which would indicate a (slightly) improved situation. But primary air pollutants include – carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, particulates, persistent free radicals, toxic metals, ammonia, chlorofluorocarbons, odours from sewage and industrial processes, and radioactive pollutants. So does this statistic reflect the situated truth? Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology and Honorary Consultant Physician within Medicine at the University of Southampton, states in the video below that air pollution is “affecting our health in many different ways, that we’re only just beginning to understand”.

So far the focus here has been entirely anthropocentric – that is, with a focus on the impact on humans. So what of the non-human impact?

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Air pollutants like sulphuric acid, when combined with the water droplets in clouds, can cause the water droplets to become acidic and form acid rain. This leads to physiological damage to plant cells and geochemical changes in soils and soil waters that obstruct growth by affecting absorption of nutrients by roots and by leaching nutrients from soil. In British trees this causes damage to their leaves, which limits the nutrients available to them.

Air pollution can also cause eutrophication. This is the process whereby rain can carry and deposit the nitrogen in some pollutants on rivers and soils, which adversely affects the nutrients in the soil and water bodies. This impacts upon the living beings, such as the fish, frogs, insects and birds who make rivers their homes, which impacts the wider biodiversity of these islands.

The ground-level ozone, produced via air pollution, is also highly harmful for vegetation and can have a drastic impact on ecosystems and the animals who make those ecosystems their homes.

So it is apparent that air pollution is a problem, for the human animal and non-human-living-beings, and the situation is one that is highly complex, confused through the mediums that attempt to reduce the context of the discussion to only those variables that suit their particular interests.

Proposed solutions are highly reliant on the effectiveness of state measures, which have so far failed to improve the situation, and technologies that involve the same industrial processes that are producing this worsening situation. The eco-extremist journal Atassa states – “We are now entering an age of extremes, an age of uncertainty, where leftist illusions and conservative platitudes can no longer prepare us for our future course”. This is a truth than anarchists and environmentalists need to embrace.

I’m going to end this with a quote from a book I am currently reading, available through Little Black Cart (who also published Feral Consciousness).

Biodiversity is the expression of healthy ecology. It may seem distant to these Isles because these Isles are sick. It has been said that civilised man walks the earth leaving deserts in his footprints. As the frontiers of this civilisation opened up, so the cedars of Lebanon and Broadleaf forests of this island were trampled underfoot. With the great forests all but destroyed the soils of Lebanon eroded, and washed and blew away. Thanks to this island’s mild temperate climate, its fate was to remain a different kind of desert. A desert of ploughed fields, of a thousand swaying barley stalks – from Cracks in a Grey Sky an anthology of Do Or Die: Voices from the Ecological Resistance

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