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AIR POLLUTION IN PERSPECTIVE

The second half of the 20th century was marked by remarkable changes in how the public viewed its relationship to the environment. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, national pride and prosperity in Western countries were often depicted as an expanse of urban factories with smokestacks belching opaque dark clouds of industrial effluent into a neutral blue sky. But the price of that unchecked human progress led to several air pollution catastrophes highlighting the profoundly detrimental impact that reckless prosperity could have on the environment. These images of “modern” life gradually gave rise to public outcry for governmental action to protect air quality and public health—a challenge to industry that had been focused on economic growth alone. The ensuing 50 years of regulatory legislation in the United States and Western Europe along with cost efficient innovations by the private sector have remade this industrial image in most technologically developed nations.

Ironically, as regulatory control measures began to reduce emissions from stationary industrial sources of air pollution, highways to “open spaces” and urban flight took many people to the suburbs with its cleaner air and safe, comfortable lifestyle. Meanwhile, the developing world saw little of this growth and what grew was frequently cast-off old technology and variants of exploitation by the Western corporations attracted by abundant resources, a cheap work force, and fewer regulations or constraints. This situation has persisted in the 21st century but is evolving with broader globalization of improved technology and communication.

The change in land use and demography in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s altered the national character and distribution of air pollution. The commute from suburban home to city workplace back to suburban home led increasingly to congested thoroughfares, whose emissions contributed to a photochemical cauldron of oxidant air pollution around expanding metro-suburban areas. Moreover, postwar population growth and rising expectations for a better (peace-time) standard of living led to unrestrained consumption, including inexpensive gasoline for commuting and recreation. Similar patterns of unrestrained growth are occurring in developing nations throughout the world.

Today, the search is worldwide for cheap oil to fuel transportation and goods movement and international sources are increasingly prominent. For nontransportation sectors of industry and electricity generation, low cost and domestic availability have brought coal to the top of the energy pyramid in many countries. Other energy sources, natural gas and biomass in its varied forms, are being intensively explored to meet the energy demands of modern life. Most notable as a potential major resource is natural gas which is being recovered through less conventional methods (e.g., fracking), which has brought about a revolution in energy resources in the United States. Decades to come will see an evolution in our energy portfolio driven by cost and access, environmental impacts including climate change, and technological innovation. Nevertheless, so long as organically derived fuel is combusted to derive energy, its potential ...

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