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August 9, 2004

Air pollution reveals privilege, politics, and priorities, says author

By Jennifer McNulty

It’s been more than a century since women donned dark dresses to hide the black soot of coal fires and architects streamlined building designs because corrosive air pollution was eating away at ornately carved stone details.

Sociologist Melanie DuPuis says air pollution "is like a mirror of society."
Photo by Jennifer McNulty

But those examples from Manchester, England, illustrate how people since the dawning of the industrial era have coped with the environmental consequences of economic progress, said sociologist E. Melanie DuPuis, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and editor of the new book Smoke and Mirrors: The Politics and Culture of Air Pollution (New York: New York University Press, 2004).

“Today we have smog alerts when the public is advised to stay indoors, and incidents of pesticide drift when residents are evacuated from their neighborhoods,” said DuPuis. “Like the residents of early industrial cities, we deal with air-quality problems as part of our everyday lives.”

A collection of essays by leading environmental scientists, historians, and social scientists, Smoke and Mirrors tells the story of air pollution from 19th-century Manchester to Los Angeles and Mexico City today. The historical chapters foreshadow today’s cross-national debates about acid rain, global warming, and ozone depletion, said DuPuis.

As a term, “air pollution” has defied simple characterizations: Is it accidental or everyday, normal or abnormal, a sign of social progress or urban decay, inevitable or controllable? These unresolved questions signal that air quality demands an approach that goes beyond scientific and economic measurement, incorporating history, sociology, and political science, with a strong focus on issues of social justice.

“Air pollution is like a mirror of society--it reflects our culture, our politics, our priorities,” said DuPuis. “A clean environment, whether you’re dealing with air, water, or other resources, is always the product of political compromise.”

Looking at air pollution historically, readers see who won, who lost, and what has worked, said DuPuis, citing the early “win-win” solution when industrialists decided to introduce more efficient coal-fired boilers into their factories. The results--less pollution and lower operating costs--were good for business and the environment.

Today, the trade-offs tend to be more difficult, as the chapter on coal-burning family cookstoves in China by United Nations staff member Roger Rauffer illustrates. These cookstoves are a major source of air pollution in that country, according to Rauffer. “Most families burn the dirtiest high-sulphur coal because it’s the cheapest. They have no alternative,” explained DuPuis. “If we superimpose the U.S. model of air pollution on China and ban cookstoves, we would cause substantial hardship.” In their pursuit of cleaner air, the Chinese need to forge compromises that take into account the needs of their own people, she said.

A chapter by Jill Harrison, a doctoral candidate in environmental studies at UCSC, explores issues of social justice that have arisen between farmers who see pesticide drift as the occasional accident and farmworkers and residents who see themselves as regularly exposed to these hazards on the job and in their neighborhoods.

In her own chapter, DuPuis discusses the politics of market-based incentives to reduce air pollution. “Market-based solutions aren’t apolitical. Like all environmental policies, they require that decisions be made, and they should be made democratically, whether on the local level or on the scale of the Kyoto protocol,” said DuPuis. “That certainly isn’t how they’re being handled now, with the United States and private business dominating environmental decision making.”

One of the biggest obstacles to progress is our collective dependence on the automobile, said DuPuis. Automobiles, along with industry and agriculture, are among the leading causes of air pollution. Although motorists as a group are quick to call for strict regulation of industry, they refuse to curb their own driving to reduce emissions.

“Programs that would require drivers to change their behavior have so far been politically untenable,” said DuPuis. “That’s why I’m such a big fan of the hybrid car. When I carpool my daughter to Sunday school across town, I’m emitting less than half the emissions of a regular car.” Carpooling amplifies the environmental benefits but isn’t always practical, noted DuPuis. “The way we consume resources has to change, but as the stories in this book tell us, technologies that are easier for people tend to come first,” she said.

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