With this post, I’m starting a series about air. It ties back to another small post from today about swimming pools, which you can find here if you’re curious. The gist of it is that when the systems around managing a shared public resource like a simple pool of water aren’t working, it’s gross on a visceral level.
The question I want to start answering with this post is this: how gross is it to share a small volume of air with a bunch of strangers?
Would you believe that my neighborhood pool described in the post referenced above and the London Underground trains that run by our house have virtually the same volume of space inside them? 800 sq. meters of water in the pool versus 799 sq. meters of air in the train. What a smashing coincidence for a blog post, lucky me.
Those volumes are used very differently. At the pool, I’ve seen maybe an average of 4 people in each of its 8 lanes at any given time, so 32 people in all, and 25 sq. meters of temperature-controlled and chemically-treated water per person. Reasonable.
The official capacity of a 799 sq. meter Piccadilly Line train is 798 people. One sq. meter of unconditioned air per person. Gulp.
Does that sound intimate? It is. Some of the air I breathe was just in your lungs. I smell you, which is – as I understand it – literally microscopic particles expelled from your body going into my nose. I might remember the expat rumour that British deodorant is plainly less effective.
New air conditioned trains are coming to the line in 2022, but – for now – it can be intense. If you close your eyes on a busy trip, you can still easily sense the crowd and enclosure around you. Last year, in a BBC story entitled “The temperature on the tube surpassed the legal limit for transporting cattle“, they note that it was 96 degrees Fahrenheit on some trains.
We aren’t cattle, but we feel like it when we’re closely packed in with other warm-blooded animals that exude odours and give off heat like ourselves. And yet, it’s so easy to feel put upon by all these other hot, smelly people! It might be the most intimate crowd experience out of many in London for which there really isn’t a close corollary in MSP, but it’s just the beginning of the story of how different our public realms are in terms of its largest element by volume: our air.
The air over dere
What are you breathing right now? What steps did the air go through to get to you? When’s the last time you thought about getting some fresh air, and did you mean going outside? How does the air you breathe change over the course of a normal day? How much control do you have over the air you breathe?
In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, we don’t normally think about it in these terms, but we have a wide range of air consumption lifestyles available, and cultural norms that go along with them. Nearing the height of summer, you might have air conditioning in your home, car, workplace, and the businesses you patronize. I’ve done that, and spent less than an hour in fresh air over the course of a day. Or maybe you don’t use air conditioning at all, but in colder months, I bet you breathe heated, filtered air.
It’s very commonplace and unquestionably normal in MN to go through your day breathing almost exclusively privately-filtered air if you please. In practical terms, that means taking air that’s floating near the property we’re in, filtering and conditioning it for our own use, and venting the exhaust back into public space. That practice is consistent with a culture that believes air is abundant and free, our personal consumption of air is our own business, and the impacts of our consumption on others in doing so are minor.
In Minneapolis, it would be considered rude if I warmed up fish for lunch in the office microwave, but it’s normal and fine that our house in Saint Paul has tubes that shoot kitchen exhaust and hot air from our air conditioner and dryer at our neighbors. They do it to us, too! It’s normal to sit in an idling car in traffic, internal combustion engine firing extra hot to run the A/C, and vent the exhaust at people walking on the sidewalk next to you so you can be more comfortable. It is normal and socially acceptable to run a machine over our lawns once a week that pollutes the air as much as 11 cars. We have plenty of air, it just blows away anyhow, and our air is relatively clean.
This has not been the case in London for about 750 years.
Ye Olde Stinke
Three excerpts from the incredible book “London: The Biography“, by Peter Ackroyd.
Tacitus mentions it in his account of Caesar’s invasion, so its spectral presence has haunted London from earliest times. The fog was originally generated by natural means, but soon enough the city was taking over from nature and creating its own atmosphere. As early as 1257 Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, complained about the smoke and pollution of London and, in the sixteenth century, Elizabeth I was reported to have been “herself greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coals.” By the sixteenth century a pall of smoke hung over the capital, and the interiors of the more affluent London houses were dark with soot.” p. 426
This odour of graveyards was in fact one of the most permanent and prolonged smells of the city, with complaints against it from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries… But there is the smell of the living as well as the dead. References to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century dramatic literature point to the distinctive odour of a London crowd, in particular what Shakespeare described in Coriolanus as “their stinking breathes.” p. 362
But perhaps the worst of all London fogs were the “smogs” of the early 1950s, when thousands died of asphyxiation and bronchial asthma. In some of the theatres the fog was so thick that the actors could not be seen upon the stage. On the afternoon of 16 January 1955 there was “almost total darkness… People who experienced the phenomenon said it seemed as if the world was coming to an end.” p. 433
______ is other people
These passages understate how smelly London has been over its history by a lot. A LOT. What I’ve read only scratches the surface. But the thing I want to underline about the passages is the continuity over the centuries of people in a dense, urban place like London being bothered by the consequences of their own behaviors when they’re writ large. People complaining about smoke pollution warmed their house in ways that created smoke. Until modern sanitation in the late 19th century, I can guess what people thought about how the Thames smelled, and their own sewage was part of the problem. The people who were bothered by the smell of dead bodies went on to become dead bodies! People who drove their own cars in the 1950s complained about the smog. It’s very normal and human to complain about phenomena we’re contributing to ourselves.
To state the obvious, air is not a void or a vacuum. We affect it, and it affects us. It’s just a lot harder to preserve the illusion that our behaviors aren’t affecting other people in a denser place.
Over the next few posts, I’m going to go into some more detail on what it’s like to breathe air that’s objectively worse than what we have in MN, explore whether clean air should be considered a luxury good, and make some recommendations. Happy breathing.