The Diffuse Pollution Reality: Owning Air Pollution

by Christopher Damien, Cultural Systems Analyst

In the last half of June, smoke and haze from 265 fires in Indonesia blanketed Sumatra, Singapore, Malaysia, and neighboring nations and communities causing air pollution to rise to its worst level in 16 years. The Pollution Standards Index, an air quality monitoring system used by Singapore, hit just over 400 in late June, which is classified as possibly “life threatening to ill and elderly people.” Malaysia temporarily closed around 200 schools as a result.

To make a bad situation worse, authorities have been unable to identify exactly who is responsible for the fires. Knowing that they have been caused by illegal slash and burn land clearance methods on Sumatra, to the west of Singapore and Malaysia, the investigation has been narrowed to 14 farmers and 14 companies engaged in agricultural production of lumber and palm oil.

However the diffusion of smoke from so many blazes makes it extremely difficult to focus blame on any one suspect, especially if it is found that they have all been known to utilize these dangerous land clearance methods.

The way in which air pollution can travel hundreds of miles from its source is technically referred to as air transport and is hardly exclusive to this pollution type. The same issue of diffusion occurs with water pollution, pesticide use, and, most popularly, with carbon emissions. However, the extent and seriousness of air pollution problems in developing nations, of which the Sumatran fires are merely a small portion, are of particular concern. The problem is that many quickly developing nations are also pollution hotspots (e.g. China and India). It seems that environmental health concerns pale in comparison to the pressures plaguing economies attempting to grow…like wildfire.

Our work at MKThink seeks to understand the interactions among the environment, people (culture), and buildings/technology in a way that leads to optimization of the interrelated system they comprise. To start with, we use a variety of monitoring technologies to establish the on-site resource quality of air, energy, water, and materials related to site location and cultural context. It’s not just a matter of knowing how much of a resource is being provided. Rather we see the need to go beyond quantity to an understanding of quality of resource related to context.  The challenge posed by diffuse pollution is that such quality measurements are not isolated to property lines or project boundaries. Contaminants can cross boundaries at any time.

One potential solution is to make cooperation a priority. To address similar issues, Japan and South Korea have been conducting plodding talks with China concerning actions to decrease Chinese air pollution transporting to their shores. In this particular case, a significant amount of the transported air pollution is a result of environmental challenges both new and old. History has recorded the occurrence of large-scale sandstorms blowing sands from China’s Gobi Desert to Japan, South Korea, and Eastern Russia for millennia. However, with starkly increasing air pollution and the related desertification plaguing North China as a result of heavy agriculture, the Gobi sandstorms have become a more substantial threat to human health. That is, they have increased in volume, duration, and toxicity. In addition to implementing air quality early warning systems that alert citizens of high pollution levels, South Korea has contributed to preventative measures such as supplementing widespread efforts to plant trees in China’s north. For example, Shanghai Roots & Shoots: The Million Tree Project, a largely volunteer-run effort, endeavors to plant one million trees in inner Mongolia by 2014.

Perhaps gone are the days when neighborly resource disputes ignited over untrimmed hedges trespassing property lines. With data to prove it, now such disputes will include the diffusion of pollutants throughout ecosystems. Of course, the caricature of the discourteous neighbor also fails to account for how much more is at stake in the diffuse pollution reality of today. A report recently published by MIT Department of Economics finds that in recent decades Southern Chinese on average have lived at least five years longer than their northern counterparts because of the destructive health effects of pollution from the widespread use of coal in the north. The study calculates that the 500 million Chinese who live north of the Huai River will lose 2.5 billion years of life expectancy because of outdoor air pollution. Such diffuse pollution, often harming those that had little to nothing to do with its production, is not just a monitoring challenge, but a large-scale threat to human health. That’s to say, we’re no longer dealing with neighbors estranged from their hedge trimmers, but complex negotiations between legislators and commercial interests positioning economic development in opposition to the health of the greater biosphere and the human community inextricably embedded within it. As data relating to health and resource quality continue to challenge the supremacy of economic measures of development in a new ecosystem of knowledge, it remains to be seen how these negotiations will adapt, if at all.