Friday, June 27, 2008

The air apparent

I'm starting to begin to commence to make some sort of sense of, or at least get some distance and a new perspective on, my brief sojourn to Uganda, and so I am going to write quite a bit about that in the coming weeks and months, I'm sure. This particular reflection has very little to do with Uganda except as a starting point for thinking about the air.

About a month before I left Kampala, I got a bad cold with a horrible cough that never really went away. "You got our local crud," one of my co-workers said, though not using the word crud, but that was the gist. I realized not long before I left that the poor air quality in the city was really starting to get to me. The dust from the dirt roads, the diesel fuel clouds, and the smoke from burning trash all conspired to make it difficult to get over any respiratory ailment. I couldn't imagine what it must be like to have asthma in Kampala.

There are fires all over Northern California at the moment and the sky has been hazy every day. The other night driving home, the sun was a big red-orange ball in the sky. I have the slightest trace of a cough but by and large the whole respiratory situation doesn't seem to be troubling me, though it's pretty clear that the air is in poor shape around here.

Not as bad as Kampala, though. And not as bad as it used to be around here. I remember growing up and seeing the brown layer of smog over San Francisco. I don't know if the air can be cleaned, but the air can be cleaner.

I read a couple of days ago that the Chinese government is going to restrict automobile traffic in Beijing in hopes of clearing up the air quality before the Olympics. Drivers can use their cars on alternate days, depending on the number on their license plate.

The thing about air is that it affects everyone. It's so clear that this is not something that one can keep at arms length. It is never merely someone else's problem. More often than not we're just fooling ourselves when we use that excuse about anything.

You can't move far enough away to avoid someone else's air or what their actions do to the air. I thought when I got back from Kampala that that would be the end of it. But the air has become noticeable to me now, in part thanks to noticing how it affected me elsewhere.

The thing is, I realize it would be easy for me to say, "We're better than China. We're better than Africa," because our air quality is better overall. But I think that's an easy out, it's the "Thank God I'm not like this publican!" excuse. The truth is, I saw that big orange sun while driving home from an errand. Catalytic converter or no, I'm part of the problem of air pollution and I need to be honest and humble about that.

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