Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Truth About Air Pollution Is That We've Found Something Worth Dying For

The political establishment and its media cronies have been peddling the message that air pollution is a big problem that needed fixing yesterday. This week alone, the Reading Chronicle tells us that "air pollution is responsible for one in 16 deaths in Reading", and you can regularly read similar stories about all the world's major cities. There is also a meme in circulation, about the pollution costs of air travel, where an alarmist has declared eco-planetary outrage that about a million people are travelling in the air at any one time.

Air pollution is not a good thing intrinsically, of course - but here's a better way to think about the so-called air pollution problem. People tend to focus too much on negative aspects of reality and too little on the benefits. As such they make lots of basic errors in assessing human behaviour and value. A headline like “1,784 people were killed in reported road traffic accidents in Great Britain in a year” is more newsworthy than reporting on the millions of people’s uncountable benefits from road traffic. Just about every transactional benefit you can think of involves road transport. And while it’s obviously awful that 1,784 died because of road traffic (and there may be further improvements required) it’s absolutely astounding that so much value can be created by road traffic. Most humans seem to agree with me, as every day thousands of them take to the roads or embark on transactions that require road use. Roads are, by and large, a thing to be celebrated – they are a great human triumph. They are so good that every day millions of people across the world risk a slim chance of death by getting behind the wheel.

To avoid (at best) inconsistency and (at worst) outright hypocrisy, the same kind of rationale needs to be extended to most of the things that propagandists bemoan – air pollution, sugary foods, air travel, carbon emissions – these are human triumphs with costs, not human maladies that desperately need eradicating. When it comes to benefits like big cities, eating chocolate, holidays abroad, and the astronomical progression explosion of carbon-based technology (which is pretty much everything we’ve ever invented, bought and sold), a much more accurate perspective would be to celebrate that there are so many things that humans have found that are worth risking shortening their life for.

If there really are a million people in the air at any one time, then flying confers huge benefits on society, and we should be very circumspect in calling for the cessation of such a valuable industry. Nevertheless, the environmentalists, blind to cost-benefit analyses, insist that rotten old air pollution is a big problem and that this fact is part of an unquestionable scientific consensus.

Putting aside the fact that scientific consensus on the damage of air pollution does not constitute a good economic argument to reduce air pollution, which is something that regularly confuses the masses, I did a bit of research this afternoon to see if there is anything in the argument that air pollution is bad enough to warrant trying to do something about it. Here are my conclusions. I read five articles - all of which tried to explain the cost of air pollution - but what the articles had in common was that they all peddled an agenda that veers somewhat from the truth. What was clear was that the institutions wanted air pollution to be a problem, so they made every effort to present it as a problem with some dodgy thinking.

Here’s a good example; I read some toxicological research that said “Cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, as well as respiratory infections, account for the majority of deaths from air pollution.” That looks like a squalid attempt to lump in other types of death into the statistic and attribute them to air pollution. Lots of things contribute to cardiovascular, pulmonary and respiratory-related deaths – fatty foods, smoking, stress, indolence, old age, high blood pressure, diabetes, congenital diseases, jobs exposed to dust and allergens – it’s simply misleading to ascribe them to air pollution, and reason that we should all cut down on driving and flying.

There is also the ‘framing effect’ tactic which is regularly used, as I saw in another article, which stated that “air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition”. One way to look at it is to say how terrible that must be because malnutrition is such a big killer. Another way to look at it is to say we must have done well if the thing that decimated populations for hundreds of thousands of years is no longer the primary cause of our death. In other words, you have to make some pretty remarkable advances as a species to get to the stage where air pollution causes more deaths than malnutrition, especially when you factor in the dubious causalities I mentioned above, and the immense benefits of living in cities (already 55% of people live in cities, and another 2.5 billion are expected to move to a city by 2050).

Air pollution is a temporary problem, which will be improved upon with our technological advances. In the meantime, air pollution is the result of living for so long in such prosperity, in cities with a richer diversity and multitude of benefits that our ancestors who died young of malnutrition and infectious diseases would consider luxurious.

You have to ask some serious questions about why these people are deliberately inflating the supposed severity of these matters – and in particular, why they are manipulating the data and their language to make it sound like their ideology is the right one. The upshot is, the argument that our deaths are related to a single cause that’s easily attributable to air pollution is absolutely ludicrous; and furthermore, the fact that we are living long enough and prosperously enough to suffer the side effects of such overall higher standard of living, technological advancement and material enrichment, is part of the greatest victory humanity has ever enjoyed. The solution to the world's climate situations is to be found in trade, competition, technological innovation and the sharing of ideas – not in absurdist extreme politics.