[I wrote this post in August 2020, almost exactly one year ago near the beginning of a five-month stay in Northern California. Re-reading, it’s frightening how this summer is more of the same Out West.]
My wife and I left our home in the Virginia Tidewater four weeks ago, trekking 3,000 miles in a Fiat 500 during a pandemic to help our daughter and son-in-law with our two grandkids. We can work from anywhere, so we have this kind of flexibility, which makes us Very Lucky Indeed.
We didn’t anticipate we’d be trading a bad Atlantic hurricane season for an historically hyperactive California wildfire season. So here we sit, in Quarantine bis. Windows buttoned up and the AC blowing in 70-degree weather because of wildfire smoke.
A couple of days ago, we even suffered an alien abduction, I’m pretty sure. We went to sleep in California and awoke on Mars. The Martians were good enough to leave us our cell phones, so here’s a picture. We were not subject to any anal probing or Other Alien Unpleasantness. Conveniently, we were returned to California where we awoke the next day unharmed.
We had a few clean-air days during which the nearest fires were contained and we could open the windows. Then someone/something set Oregon afire. And the wind shifted. As if we didn’t have enough NorCal smoke, now we have Oregon smoke, too.
Our new favorite app is PurpleAir.This allows you to access all privately owned PurpleAir sensors in the world to check local Air Quality Index. This being in/near The Valley of Silicon, LOTS of people have private air sensors. They’re very digitally cool. If you already have three houses, might as well spend your tech salary on Teslas and personal air-quality sensors.
Problem is, I check the PurpleAir 142 times a day. I’m channeling Professor Xavier from X-Men, trying to will the color-coded circles into changing to green. And then I zoom out on the world map to see if Tehran or Dubai or Beijing is worse than we are. It’s Pollution Porn, no other way to describe it.
I found an interesting collateral effect to this Wildfire Apocalypse. There’s probably nothing we think about less than the air we breathe… until it’s polluted. Or diseased. Or absent. It’s added an entirely new level of anxiety to the stress we’re already under from the (airborne) coronavirus pandemic. Not only will the air INFECT YOU, it will now also CHOKE YOU.
2020 really sucks…
Breathe Free or Die
What this also has done is remind us how remarkably fortunate most Americans are to breathe mostly clean air most of the time. We can thank the 1963 Clean Air Act for that.
I’m old enough to remember a time before the all-important 1970 Amendments to the CAA. Before that, the legislation mostly funded research into how to measure and reduce air pollution. The 1970 Amendments put teeth in it with actual emissions controls.
They say smells are the strongest and most persistent of all sense memories. My childhood hometown of Skeeterville was within the Greater Chicago Cubs Fandom Area, so we would drive into the city for all sorts of reasons, but mostly for Cubs games at The Friendly Confines.
I vividly recall The Smell. It would begin five or ten miles north of the I-80/I-55 interchange, creeping into the wood-paneled station wagon within which I traveled unrestrained in the back. (Also, this was in the pre-Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 era.) Your nostrils and eyes would start to burn from the acrid-yet-sweet industrial stench emanating from mile after indistinguishable mile of grey-brown hulking buildings with smokestacks sticking out like birthday candles. Some belched black smoke, some white. Some rolled out great billows, others oozed greasy streaks. A few featured festive flares, ineffectively burning off one toxicity or another.
The famous Chicago Skyline would partially surface through the murkiness as you strained to spot the growing under-construction Hancock Building, set north of the rest of the downtown skyscrapers, through the haze. I have no memory of seeing the skyline in crystal clarity. Maybe I did once or twice, but I can’t pull up any mental image.
My family did a lot of long-distance car vacations while I was growing up and Chicago was hardly alone. Nearby Gary, Indiana, was a dystopia even before we regularly created movies about dystopias. From the elevated interstate, you’d drive by now-shuttered steel mills and look directly into the red-hot hearths of the furnaces. It was serious nightmare fodder for a 9-year-old, let me tell you. And my memory of visits to other big cities is a parade of brown-grey, dirty, stinking air. Cleveland, Los Angeles, Detroit, Pittsburgh. They were all covered in the same pall of unhealthfulness. Only the sources differed.
The Clean Air Act changed all that beginning in 1970. That corporate bigwigs hated—and continue to hate—the CAA is all you need know about how effective the legislation has been. It’s one of the single greatest bipartisan efforts of the last 100 years, back when bipartisanship was actually a thing.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve experienced a lot of places with Truly Awful Air. I was stuck in Nepal back in 2000 for several unplanned additional days because almost all the international flights passed through New Delhi—with an airport regularly closed during winter for days on end by near-zero visibility from heinous air pollution.
Chinese Air Travel
From 2011 to 2016 while I was assistant dean of All Things International at St Scoobius’s School of Law, I made three or four trips a year to China. Chinese cities are very vibrant and wealthy places with great public transport and lots of tasty dumpling shops. But with the rapid economic development and newfound wealth has come truly impressive amounts of air pollution. This is mostly attributable to a gazillion automobiles and a bazillion coal-fired electrical-generation facilities.
On one trip that Kay-Kay tagged along for, we spent three days in Beijing. We were staying at the über cool and very British-colonial Raffles Hotel, just up a grand boulevard from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Our room was on the front of the hotel and we never once saw the buildings opposite us.
I was heading across Beijing for meetings at a law school and the cab driver started gesticulating wildly to the left and saying, “Olympic Stadium”—the famous “Bird’s Nest” from the 2008 Summer Olympics. With a lot of squinting, all I could see was an irregularly shaped and slightly darker grey blob floating in a sea of hazy grey.
The Chinese official story was that the Air Quality Index was 245 and you should limit strenuous exercise outdoors. The American Embassy in Beijing has its own air testing equipment on the roof. The AMEMB said the AQI was 560 and you should lock yourself inside and duct tape all doors and windows. Also, avoid breathing as much as possible.
Pack Up Your Smelly Air
Our next stop on that biz trip was sunny and clear Melbourne, Australia. (Which explains a lot about why Kay-Kay went on this particular trip.) We booked into another über cool and very British-colonial hotel—there may be a trend here—right across another wide boulevard from the Victoria state parliament building. When we opened our suitcases, the entire room immediately reeked of… Beijing pollution.
Kay-Kay wouldn’t stand for this, so she went out on the lovely balcony that ran across the entire front of the hotel and proceeded to hang out all our clothing to air. I’m certain the Victoria legislators assumed the Beverly Hillbillies had checked in, but the hotel never bothered us about it.
I also had a few trips to Mars the year I spent in Baghdad, 2008-2009. There, the same Orange Crush-colored sky was caused by periodic sandstorms that blew in from the desert and could last for days. Of course, “sandstorm” is a misnomer. The bad air was caused by very fine dust, which also crept around every door and window frame, accumulating teeny-tiny dunes along the sills. You walked around with skin that never felt clean, hair that never felt shampooed, and teeth that never felt brushed for the duration of the storms. Made you pine for the sunny 126-degree summer days.
It’s All Relative — Even Air
So even in the face of awful wildfire smoke plumes currently extending across large swaths of the West, we Americans are still, on balance, quite fortunate to breathe clean air.
Of course, the awful hurricanes and the persistent droughts behind the runaway wildfires are a manifestation of climate change—both results long predicted by climate scientists. So lest we have any doubt remaining, climate change is real and climate change is now.
I dearly wish the bipartisanship that gave us the Clean Air Act wasn’t extinct in the wild.