Air pollution may well be your cause of death someday. According to the World Health Organization, 7 million people died of air pollution in 2012. By this reckoning, air pollution caused no less than an eighth of all human deaths that year. The WHO also predicts that deaths from outdoor air pollution will rise from somewhat more than 3 million a year now to 6.6 million a year in 2050, a rate that exceeds the U.S. Census Bureau’s projections for global population growth. This is in spite of all the technologies that we assume are making our world a cleaner, safer place.
Given the steps that governments have taken to require cleaner factories, power plants, and cars, how can deaths from pollution keep climbing? The answer is not that current measures are ineffective: In America, at least, the amount of smog has dropped dramatically within the last twenty years, suggesting that the Clean Air Act is indeed working against its industrial/transportation targets. However, those targets are obvious. It’s relatively easy for activists to rail against huge black clouds rising from smokestacks and cars, the unnatural emblems of wealthy societies in an industrial age. It’s harder to create horror at farms and wood cook stoves, nostalgia-inducing icons of bucolic tradition and “natural” lifestyles.
Yet the WHO’s research indicates that we must consider a wide range of pollution sources. Half of all air-pollution deaths in 2012 were cases of indoor pollution, caused by inefficient cook stoves. Residential energy production (any energy production for home use), at all technology levels, is the single biggest contributor even to outdoor air-pollution deaths. In many industrialized regions, including Russia, Japan, and the eastern U.S., the worst offender is not heavy industry, but agriculture, albeit on an industrial scale. And in huge arid swathes of the world, “natural” sources of air pollution cause more deaths than manmade ones (although this does not consider the fact that human activity drives much desertification).
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should ignore such long-recognized problems as coal-fired power plants and inefficient cars. Without vigilance, they would certainly become more dangerous. However, I would encourage activists to reconsider some of the iconic words and images that they use to reach the public. Perhaps we should treat the smoking kitchen chimney as a greater villain than the factory smokestack. “Factory farms” raising animals in terrible conditions have long been a well-justified target for people concerned about humaneness and greenhouse gases, but efforts to limit fertilizer use in greening fields seem not to have much traction. It’s hard to philosophically oppose a cloud of sand, but it can be as deadly as a haze of smog. Many of the results of recent environmental studies are surprising. The necessary responses may feel surprising as well.