I was reading about the Great Smog of 1952, the worst air disaster in British history, when the forces of severely of cold weather, coal heating, and a weather phenomenon called an anticyclone combined to trap massive quantities of pollutants over London. Wikipedia has the scoop:
According to the UK’s Met Office, the following pollutants were emitted each day during the smoggy period: 1,000 tonnes of smoke particles, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid, 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds and 370 tonnes of sulphur dioxide which may have been converted to 800 tonnes of sulphuric acid.
The days of smog are understood to have caused 6.000 deaths in the year that it occurred, and the event itself has become iconic—you have to spell it with capital letters these days.
It was also iconic in terms of images: Experiencing smog is dramatic enough, but the photos of it capture its nefariousness quite powerfully. During a smog event, the pollutants that usually go away just stubbornly hang around, making their combined effect clear for everyone to see. “Look, here’s what you made”, the images seem to say, and it immediately feels wrong.
A similar, large-scale polluting event occurred in New York City in 1966, and the photos were just as powerful: We see Manhattan plunged into into a thick soup of smog, skyscrapers emerging from what looks like a cloud, toxicity clear for all to see.
I have personally experienced the effects of the smog in Mexico City, where there’s such a prevalent haziness that it’s rare to see the volcanoes surrounding the city. During the last day of my most recent visit, a storm washed the pollutants out of the air and there was, suddenly a clear view. That seemingly infinite city suddenly gained edges, you could see the mountains in the distance, snow capped volcanoes, a glimpse of the before times, until the smog came back and obscured it all. The smog has become normal in Mexico City, and depressingly, it no longer even looks strange to see it photographed.
A couple of years ago I interviewed the Dutch author Joris Luyendijk, who told relayed a story about the great floods to ever have hit The Netherlands. Let me quote the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure, because they sum up the devastation in quite accurate terms: “The disaster claimed the lives of 1,836 people and tens of thousands of animals, and many homes were destroyed.”
Luyendijk told me that this flood was instrumental in uniting the country behind hugely ambitious measures to control the floods: Everyone understood that an event like this could never occur again, and a broad majority in parliament voted to create the infrastructure that has been protecting the country ever since. “The flood”, Luyendijk explained, “created political capital”: It was suddenly advantageous to do something about it.
I find that story both hopeful and depressing: Hopeful because it illustrates that it’s possible to create meaningful action if there is sufficient “political capital” to spend, and depressing because it feels like reaching that point requires a disaster, a powerful image, an atrocity that’s there for all to see and to unite against.