So far in the air pollution series, we’ve looked at the extent of the air quality challenge in the US, the way air pollution disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of our society, and examined Los Angeles and Utah’s Wasatch Front as case studies of two different pollution scenarios in the US. In this, the final post in the air pollution series, I’d like to give some ideas for things you can do to help improve air quality in your neighborhood, and even in cities around the world.
Individual action: drive less, burn less, buy less
For most of us, driving a car creates our biggest contribution to a local air quality problem. Anything you can do to reduce the number of miles you drive helps the pollution bottom line. As an added incentive, rethinking your transportation provides personal and community benefits beyond reducing pollution. Living closer to work or school (if you can) gives you more leisure time. Walking or biking allows you to fit in some exercise while you travel. Taking public transit and carpooling give you chances to connect with other people as you commute. All of these result in cost savings on fuel, parking, and vehicle maintenance as well.
Depending on where you live, fires can be a big source of air pollution. Pay attention to local burn restrictions for fireplaces and fire pits, which are frequently called when local particulate matter levels are forecasted to be above acceptable health standards. Find a way to dispose of trash and leaf litter that doesn’t involve burning it. Remember also that if you live in the US, most of the electricity you use comes from burning something—coal, natural gas, etc.—so taking steps to reduce your energy usage can benefit regional air quality.
The suggestion to buy less is especially apt during what’s become an annual season of consumerism run amok. Consider that most every bauble and gadget for sale required burning some kind of fuel (most likely coal, especially if the item was manufactured in Asia) to power the machines in the factory where it was made, contributing to air pollution near the factory. And although the factory might be on the other side of the world from where you live, someone’s breathing that pollution, even if you aren’t. There’s also the additional pollution generated as the item moves via container ship, freight train, and/or heavy-duty truck to the store where it goes on display. It’s probably not practical to stop purchasing items made in factories, given the current global economy, but you can be a responsible consumer by buying used goods, by repairing rather than replacing when possible, and by purchasing items that are more durable, so the energy costs of production and transportation are only incurred once.
I’m also not advocating that you forgo the exchange of holiday gifts for friends and family, but maybe the oft-mentioned “person who has everything” would appreciate a kind note or gift of your time even more than a wrapped package. You could also consider a gift that helps the recipient lessen their own environmental impact. Several people on my gift list this year (spoiler alert!) are getting reusable water bottles and reusable utensil sets.
Why bother with individual action?
I realize that it’s hard to argue for individual action strictly on the numbers. A handful of people walking to work or forgoing disposable dishware doesn’t really save all that much pollution, so why bother? For me, making personal sacrifices for the sake of the environment reminds me that I’m invested in the cause. Every bus ride and bike trip solidifies my commitment, and motivates me to find other ways to tread lightly on the earth. But even more significantly, individual action leads to collective action, and that starts to have more powerful impacts on the environmental bottom line. The more bikers on a city street, the more likely the city will create better bike lanes, which means even more people will hop on a bike. The busier the buses get, the more likely transit agencies are to add more routes, making bus transportation practical for even more people. But collective action must start with one person, and maybe that one person is you.
Collective action: start a trend, advocate
In addition to de facto efficiencies created as trends get started, in a democracy, collective action can communicate to our elected leaders that people are ready and willing for policy changes that will reap additional environmental benefits.
Another important way to influence environmental policy is direct advocacy. This can mean writing a letter to an elected official in support of a particular policy measure, attending a rally or protest event, or supporting financially or joining a group that advocates policy actions that appeal to you. The American Lung Association, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council are probably the largest national organizations working on air quality, but there are probably dozens—maybe more like hundreds—of environmental organizations in the US that work on air pollution issues, including smaller regional groups, so if you’re interested in joining in, you’re almost sure to find an organization that appeals to you.
Although this is the last in the air pollution series, I’m pleased to announce that I’ll continue as a permablogger with LDS Earth Stewardship. I’m looking forward to exploring other topics in the months to come!