Air pollution is the broadest brush in the environmentalist’s tool kit to use when addressing issues of environmental regulation and factors leading to climate change. It’s public enemy number one, and nearly everything the average person comes into contact with on a daily basis is in some way available because of fossil fuels. The food in our grocery stores was harvested by machines burning gasoline, transported by gasoline-powered vehicles, and is displayed under lights powered by coal-burning power plants. The cotton in our clothes was harvested and transported by the same fossil fuel dependent means.
Our dependency on fossil fuels is destroying the planet, and the capitalist system that drives it is accelerating its extraction to increasingly dangerous levels.
However, this dependency is not innate, nor is it inevitable. It is a crafted dependency—a system forcibly kept in place by the obstinate, myopic individuals whose quest for capital gain has exploited the Earth and irreparably damaged the climate.
Who’s to Blame
Air pollution may be one of the leading causes of climate change, and the mechanism that created it may have been industrialization and fossil-fuel reliance, but technology and industrialization are not the culprits of our current environmental crisis.
The wrongdoer that lead to climate change is not an individual, nor is it a producer, company, corporation, organization or government. The blame falls on an inherently unsustainable, myopic ideology that does not ask how the needs of the future can be met while addressing the needs of the present.
The lack of prudence in the imposition and perpetuation of the inequitable, false meritocracy of capitalism has embedded a system of wasteful practices that have driven the current environmental crisis. Fossil fuels and the destructive extractive practices used to obtain them are irrefutably harmful to the planet. Arguably worse is the rate at which the industrial and consumer sectors burn them on a daily basis.
In China in particular, air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels obscures the skies, causes asthma in children around the world, and contains particles that have high global warming potential. Water pollution is killing and mutating fish and other aquatic life. It is poisoning wells, causing sickness and cancer in populations whose people have no choice but to drink the unsanitary water. Across the board, the people with little agency to decide what happens to their water and land reside in two often-intersecting demographics: those at or below the poverty line, and racial minorities.
Beijing: An Example of Failure and Mitigation
Beijing’s air quality has been problematic for many years, primarily due to the fossil-fuel based industrial economy that keeps the city abreast with the global economy. But the focus on industry, and the resulting pollution from it, has begun costing citizens and the government a lot of money, and fixing it will cost even more. Government officials in Beijing are moving to call the immense amount of smog in the atmosphere a meteorological disaster has caused quite a controversy.
Conflating the anthropogenic atmospheric conditions as natural is inherent misinformation—such misattribution, at face value, sets a precedent for climate change denial.
But we shouldn’t decry the “meteorological disaster” label immediately, given that listing the smog conditions as such gives government officials the ability to more easily access disaster relief resources and better organize emergency response measures, according to Li Xiaojuan, the deputy head of the legal committee of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress.
Moving forward, Chinese government officials plan to spend at least $360 billion by 2020 to mitigate the dangerous public health crisis caused by immense air pollution. The solution rests in renewable energies, which the country aims to implement in combination with a shift away from fossil fuel reliance. The plan has its critics, but it is a step in the right direction.
The Tragedy of the Commons
A common topic of discussion within sustainable development theory is the tragedy of the commons: the notion that in an economy consisting of individuals acting in their own self-interest, shared resources will be depleted and treated unfairly. Garrett Hardin expressed his postulations about this theory in 1968:
The air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream, whose property extends to the middle of the stream, often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door.
Because the tragedy of the commons (and our modern environmental crisis) was caused by capitalist systems, it cannot be solved strictly within capitalist systems. Change must occur from a mobilization of the masses at a grassroots level. It will not be a top-down imposition. The worship of a false profit—one that may build cities, but may also ultimately raze them—has led us to an ecological crisis that must be addressed immediately.
So what can be done? We’ve already crossed lines that we shouldn’t have crossed, and the effects of climate change are being felt globally. The cynicism sets in quickly when faced with the scientific facts of climate change, but there is hope.
The ideologies that lead to our current environmental crisis must be criticized, scrutinized, and shifted. It starts on an independent level: asking ourselves about the origins and effects of the things we eat, wear, and purchase, then making informed decisions to be less impactful would have profound repercussions on the overall economy. In our current economic system, it’s easy to lose sight that consumers, rather than producers, have the ultimate control.
Citizens can reshape the economy, which has been the primary mechanism in generating pollution. It cannot be solved with money or fossil fuels. It can only be solved through systemic change driven by individuals determined to change their habits and values. It can only be solved through a just and righteous demand for a sustainable future.