It brings us what we need and takes away what we don’t need; helps to cool us when we are hot and warm us when we are cold; it’s inside us and around us – in fact, we are constantly moving through it, and there are not many places on the planet where it is totally absent. Yet this most basically necessary of elements, the air, is also the place where we release our poisons and fumes. Suggestions abound about how we can achieve cleaner air; but perhaps before we embark on anything practical we need to consider why we relate to the air the way we do. For until we can understand our interaction with our atmosphere, we may not necessarily be able to do anything useful to maintain its ability to sustain us.
Where to start?
In understanding the air and how it works it may be useful to briefly look at theories of how we used to relate to this element in the past; and indeed how many tribal societies still do. As noted by, among others, David Abram (1), our view of the air used to be as something alive and continuously shifting; an intricate network of communication which links all living things and which is helping constantly to update us about the world around us (2). This fundamental perspective sees all air as a medium in which we, along with every other living creature on the Earth, are participating rather than apart from.
The difference between this perspective and that propagated by typical Western scientific thought is slight but key: while in general our modern culture recognises that the air is all around us and carries vital information, it is more commonly adhered to as empty space than living medium. Though this may seem like a minor point, what it has arguably led to is a disregard for the air and therefore a more blasé attitude about what we put there. After all, if air is only empty space, it doesn’t matter what substances go into it, right?
Our ability to extract our ideas from our environment has led to the invention of many interesting concepts and ideas, including collation of data to prove certain phenomena. Through this we have scientific proof that the air around the planet is being damaged, or at least severely changed, by human activity (see for example 3, 4). Yet perhaps such abstractions are insufficient to jolt us into action; for they have no direct relevance to our experience. As Abram puts it,
“Such published and broadcast information, reaching us as it does through … technological channels, all too often remains an abstract cluster of statistics; it does little to alter our intellectual detachment from the sensuous earth until, returning from a journey, we see for ourselves the brown haze that now settles over the town where we live, until we feel the chemical breeze stinging the moist membranes that line our nose…” –Abram, D. The Spell of Sensuous, 1996 (2)
Abram’s theory is that by such abstractions, humans have removed ourselves mentally from the holistic web of life which nevertheless continues to surround our physical activities, and thus are more easily able to disregard, manipulate, unbalance and destroy the things around us to which we used to feel a direct sensory connection (1).
He suggests one of the main devices through which we have achieved this lack of connection is the use of abstract phonetic language, as this language has the capacity to relate only to other human inventions and not to the natural world (1). Yet we do feel some kind of loss; as an unbalance is reflected in many of our actions – from driving cars to spraying pesticides – which seem to create more detrimental than beneficial effects yet which we continue to engage in.
Which path to choose?
Taking into account the damage we are causing to the air with many of even our most mundane and everyday actions, such as carrying shopping in a plastic bag which was created by pumping fumes into the atmosphere (5), one may well come to the conclusion that we are on some kind of self-destructive path. Perhaps we are feeling too keenly the loss of our direct sensory connection, and are on a misplaced mission to rekindle it;
“It was as though after the demise of the ancestral, pagan gods, Western civilisation’s burnt offerings had become ever more constant, more extravagant, more acrid – as though we were petitioning some unknown and slumbering power, trying to stir some vast dragon, striving to invoke some unknown or long-forgotten power that, awakening, might call us back into relation with something other than ourselves and our own designs.” – Abram, 1996 (2)
If we are to believe predictions such as those of the IPCC (see for example 3) then this metaphorical power being invoked as the ozone thins and the global temperature rises could possibly be one which destroys all or a significant part of life on earth. Yet this does not have to be the only path.
Perhaps, as Abram suggests, our technology (including the development of language) is the cause of the unbalance in the air. But to disregard technology entirely would be also to disregard its potential to help us rediscover a healthier and more holistic relationship with our environment.
One thing we can do is use language to encourage the reconnection of people with air; perhaps this is best done through evocative phrases than through statistics, though everyone has their own unique response systems. Maybe you already think of the air as an intricate web of signals, linking you with everything around you. Maybe you already feel these signals bringing you new messages from the world with every inhalation; from the fresh tangy air of the seaside to the dusty must of the city centre, or from the cool, rich scent of the forest floor to the sharp, alarming sting of a pesticide sprayer in the field you were walking past.
Though very basic and perhaps in some ways insignificant, the linguistic portrayal of what the air means to you can have a profound impact on your actions and the practical steps you take towards protecting it. These practical steps can take many varied forms; below are just a few examples.
Another way we can improve our relationship with the air is to explore use of “alternative” technologies which can help us to use the same machines and inventions which we are already using but with regard for the earth from which they come and the air of which they are a part. Such technologies are well-known and their uses well-documented in some circles though they have not necessarily been widely adopted yet.
For example, in 2013 a group of French scientists published findings (6) into creating asphalt for road coverings not from crude oil, but from micro-algae. Not only is this technique more beneficial for the atmosphere because it does not use petroleum-based products, but it could also actually be an energy-efficient waste stream converter. The process used, known as “hydrothermal liquefaction”, utilises products which are normally seen as waste, such as sewage and wood chippings, into the ‘asphalt’ substitute (7).
Alternative-asphalt technology could significantly improve our relationship with the air, given the prevalence of cars and other similar transport. This could go along with changing the way the actual vehicles work as well. Cars play quite a large role in atmospheric pollution – for example, they are the cause of around one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US (8) and 24% of those of the UK (9). If you find these statistics too abstract to deal with, it may be more useful to focus on the air in your immediate vicinity. How would it feel if suddenly a fifth of it was thick, black and unsafe to breathe? What about a quarter?
Cars powered in ways other than crude oil are becoming more and more common, a key breakthrough in the availability of such technologies having come last June when US company Tesla Motors released all patents for their electric car designs (10) (11). Apparently directly descended from those created by free-energy pioneer and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla in 1882 (12), the designs are now widely available for anyone to use. Though this may seem altruistic, Tesla chairman Elon Musk has made it clear that their reasons are simply to encourage electric cars to become more popular in general so that the Tesla company will directly benefit from increased consumer demand (for more, see for example 10 and 13).
Reuniting with plant friends
As well as adapting existing technology we can utilise new technology in our quest to reclaim the air. One way to do this is to recall that humans are not the only creatures which breathe. Indeed, it could be said that all living things engage in this activity, from the almost imperceptible geological shifting in rocks to the activities of microorganisms. However, we do not all breathe in the same parts of the air, and so symbiotic relationships between species are possible which create mutual benefit.
Such relationships already exist in the use of mushrooms to clean water and earth using “bioremediation” (14); since specific species of fungi have the ability to digest specific things, which happen to be unpleasant or even toxic to humans, and turn them into something safer and cleaner. Two examples which began being piloted last year by the Ocean Blue Project (15) in Oregon, USA are the Oyster Mushroom (Pleurotus Ostreatus) which can break down complex hydrocarbons including petroleum products, and the ‘Garden Giant’ (Stropharia Rugosoannulata) which traps and eats bacteria so can be used to remove dangerous microorganisms such as E. Coli from water systems (14).
The research behind the Ocean Blue Project’s pioneering actions comes mainly from mycologist Paul Stamets, whose work also includes the patenting of a new type of pesticide (16) which uses, instead of chemicals, highly specialised fungi that deters insects from the plants with which it is grown, but does not affect the health of those plants or the plants around it. Neither does it release poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere.
All of these practical steps show real change which is happening right now to make our air safer and cleaner. If we are to continue this positive trend, perhaps one of the most vital things we can do is remember to appreciate the nurturing existence of this most vital resource and life-force. So by all means try out some of these methods yourself, or some of the myriad other alternatives which exist to help create a beautiful environment for our lungs. But as you do, it may be a good idea to remember to breathe…
1. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. Random House: New York
2. Ibid, Chapter 7: “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air”.
3. International Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. ‘Summary of Main Findings’. https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/tssts-summary-of.html – retrieved 20/7/15
4. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I, 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. World Meteorological Organization: Geneva; United Nations Environment Program: New York. Available as a PDF here: https://www.climatechange2013.org/images/report/WG1AR5_FrontCover.pdf
5. WRAP UK, 2015. ‘Carrier Bags – Material matters’. https://www.wrap.org.uk/content/carrier-bags-material-matters-0
6. Audo, M et al, 2013. ‘Subcritical Hydrothermal Liquefaction of Microalgae Residues as a Green Route to Alternative Road Binders’. ACS Publications: Washington, DC. Summary available here: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acssuschemeng.5b00088
7. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2015. ‘Illini Algae – Hydrothermal Liquefaction.’ https://algae.illinois.edu/projects/Hydrothermal.html
8. Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015. ‘Car Emissions and Global warming’. https://www.ucsusa.org/our-work/clean-vehicles/car-emissions-and-global-warming
9. Vehicle Certification Agency, UK Government, 2015. ‘Cars and carbon Dioxide’. https://www.dft.gov.uk/vca/fcb/cars-and-carbon-dioxide.asp
10. The Young Turks, 21/6/2014. ‘Tesla Does Something No Other Car Company Would Do’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oa9WuW643XE
11. Tesla Motors, 2014. ‘All Our Patent Are Belong to You [sic]’. [they are car manufacturers, not necessarily good at grasping the English language]. https://www.teslamotors.com/blog/all-our-patent-are-belong-you
12. Tesla Motors, 2007. ‘Why the Name “Tesla”?’ https://web.archive.org/web/20071016044752/https://www.teslamotors.com/learn_more/why_tesla.php
13. Solomon, B, 2014. ‘Tesla goes open source: Elon Musk releases patents to “good faith” use’. Forbes, 12/6/2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/briansolomon/2014/06/12/tesla-goes-open-source-elon-musk-releases-patents-to-good-faith-use/
14. Beyond Pesticides, 2014. ‘Mushrooms Used for Bioremediation to Clean Waterways’. Ecowatch, 23/1/2014. https://ecowatch.com/2014/01/23/mushrooms-bioremedation-clean-pesticides-waterways/
15. Ocean Blue Project, 2015. ‘About Us’. https://www.oceanblueproject.org/
16. Google Patents, 2003. ‘Mycopesticides: US 6660290 B1’. Available as a PDF here: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/pdfs/US6660290.pdf