Some of the angry people rallying at the Capitol, speaking to reporters, and posting on Social Media, make it sound simple: Leaders must act! Someone, somehow, must clean up this rotten air!
They have suggested solutions: make public transit free, shut down the refineries, shut down Rio Tinto, reduce freeway speed limits. While well-meaning, in some ways they are naïve and unrealistic. The reality is that given Utah’s geography, a million little acts create bad air during an inversion, and it will require a million little acts to achieve cleaner air.
Every time you and I drive down the road, watch TV, send a Tweet, take a hot shower, or keep our home warm, we’re contributing to dirty air. That’s reality. Those are all small actions, but a couple of million people living ordinary lives create considerable pollution. When all that stuff gets stuck under an inversion with snow on the ground, dirty air follows.
Certainly, we can do better. Free public transit is a fine idea, but it would cost Utah Transit Authority hundreds of thousands of dollars and the price would have to be made up somehow, with higher fares at other times (which would completely defeat the purpose), or a legislative subsidy, where funding would compete with every other state need, like education and health care.
We could shut down certain industries and achieve minor progress, but would that be fair to employees and their families who don’t get a pay check? Or to customers and suppliers who would be hurt? If we close refineries for several weeks, is everyone OK paying higher gas prices?
Industry must do its part, but no painless silver bullet exists. And the problem hasn’t reached such a crisis point that very many people are willing to sacrifice. If someone else suffers, fine. But if it requires personal inconvenience (walking, taking public transit, turning down my furnace, using less electricity, etc., etc., we’re not there yet.
I had to smile over a newspaper opinion piece written by a clean air activist who blasted the governor for “lack of leadership.” She asked when the governor and his staff have taken public transit or driven hybrids or CNG vehicles, and if they walk to work.
Then she said she loves public transportation “when it is user-friendly.” But it’s too inconvenient for her to use.
Well, solving this problem isn’t going to be convenient – for anyone. If even a gung-ho activist who is criticizing everyone else won’t endure a little inconvenience to take public transit, then not many people are willing to do what it takes. Another group of activists held a meeting to complain about dirty air and most of them drove cars -- thus making the air worse. Had they never heard of getting together on a big conference call, or webinar?
Are we willing to do the hard things to clean up the air? Probably not. Our air is just fine most of the time. In fact, Wasatch Front air quality, overall, has improved significantly over the last few decades.
Dirty air is akin to traffic accidents. As a society we put up with more than 32,000 vehicle traffic fatalities each year in this country, with more than 2 million injuries, some of them horrible. We seem to accept the deaths and the injuries as part of modern life. We could end all that tragedy if we were willing to pay enough and sacrifice enough. We could also have clean air if we were willing to pay enough and sacrifice enough.
But will we?