The typical approach to Earth Day is to ask people to make sacrifices for “the planet”. It’s great to have a big vision to work toward, but the “save the planet” focus tends not to work very well, for the following reasons:
1. It isn’t really the planet that needs protection. The Earth will not explode, or crash into the sun, for billions of years. What needs protection is the ecological integrity of Earth’s biosphere. Ecological integrity is a difficult thing for many people to understand.
2. Most people don’t have a sense of attachment to the Earth on a planetary scale. They’re focused more locally and at the national level. Most people, for example, evaluate the plausibility of global warming according to the weather in their neighborhood.
3. Most people have very little direct experience of the natural world, unfiltered through human civilization. Even those places that seem to have retained a natural ecological integrity are, in fact, already strongly compromised by the consequences of human industrial activities, even though those activities are far away.
4. People don’t like to sacrifice their own needs. They tend to be selfish.
Environmental activists already get the big picture, and are thinking about more than just their own needs. To move environmental issues forward, however, a new approach is called for. This approach needs to be something that will appeal to people’s local focus, their selfish drives, and not rely on distant ideas of ecology or the natural world.
As luck would have it, there are very local, very selfish reasons to support environmental protections and to resist the growth of the pollution of our world through industrial activities. A study released this week identifies just one of these reasons.
A team of researchers from Columbia University did an analysis of prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a form of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels in cars and in electric power plants, and found a correlation with childhood obesity. Children whose mothers were exposed to high concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air were twice as likely to be obese as children whose mothers were exposed to low concentrations.
When I first saw news of these results, I suspected that the association might take place through poverty, with conditions of poverty causing both the obesity and higher exposure to air pollution from cars. However, the study controlled for poverty. Furthermore, previous studies have found that mice exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons become more obese than mice that are not exposed. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons appear to both cause the creation of fatty deposits and to prevent the normal reduction of those deposits through metabolic activity.
The implications of this study are local and highly personal: The more cars you have driving through your neighborhood, the more fat your children are likely to become. You kids don’t need to be riding in the cars – simple exposure to the air pollution released by automobiles encourages your children to become overweight, and will keep them more chubby than they would be otherwise.
Of course, there’s more than one side to the story. Cars are not only machines that make us fat by spewing out toxic chemicals. They are also machines that kill us by spewing out toxic chemicals. According to another study on the impact of air pollution from cars and electric power plants that was released this last week, more than four times as many people in the United Kingdom are killed by toxic air pollution from automobiles and power plants than are killed in traffic accidents.
Why is it, then, that we’re given a seat belt to keep us safe from car crashes, but aren’t given breathing masks to keep us safe from the filth that cars spew out into the air?