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Postcript: On Phoenix's polluted air

Dust storm approaching Phoenix during summer 2013. High levels of available dust are illustrative of Phoenix's air quality problem.
Dust storm approaching Phoenix during summer 2013. High levels of available dust are illustrative of Phoenix's air quality problem.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

(Note: This article is the final installment of a four part series. Click for parts 1, 2, and 3.)

Recall that economic theories on sustainable development recognize inherent environmental limits to economic growth. Of course, what is true in a planetary sense is also true in a local sense: there exists a level of economic growth and development beyond which life in the Phoenix metro region becomes less pleasant.

One such environmental limit proposed by the economist Herman Daly is the assimilative capacity of the ecosystem to contain pollution. Up to a point, the natural environment is capable of acting as a “pollution sink” for man-made emissions. Viewing Phoenix’s air quality problem in this context, perhaps development-oriented expansion in the Valley has generated particulate emissions exceeding what the Sonoran Desert ecosystem can naturally digest.*

(*Which limit may be further constrained by the geographic challenges discussed previously – i.e. valley location, Sonoran Desert dust, and temperature inversions.)

In turn, resultant negative impacts on quality of life may begin to overwhelm the positive benefits of economic growth. Recall also that air pollution has negative economic consequences beyond a diminished quality of life – there are real monetary costs associated with the increased ER visits and medical attention required on “bad air” days.

It is also this unsustainable growth – moreso than over-intrusive Maricopa County regulators – that truly threatens the ability of your average Phoenician to have a celebratory wood-burning fire on Christmas day. In addition, notwithstanding previous criticisms of ADEQ*/Maricopa County’s regulatory position on air pollution, the regulators here are in an untenable position.

(*In the event you have not read the past installments yet: Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.)

On the whole, the State and County want to drive further economic growth, making it difficult for the environmental regulator to tackle pollution from that direction. Instead, the regulator’s eye turns to small violations that may trip as few as one air quality monitor. In the aggregate, small violations matter; people must be cognizant of the interconnected nature of the air – we all share it. But, holistically, the Valley needs sustainable development if it is to have breathable air and a healthy populace going forward.

Bringing the matter full circle to the user-appended comments decrying no-burn days in the first installment, it is crucial for all metro Phoenicians to understand the complicated and interrelated nature of air pollution: it affects us all and is effected by all of us.

No-burn days may be unpopular* – particularly when those days also happen to fall on holidays in cold-weather months with a rich tradition of fireplace use. There are times, however, when an individual’s wish to celebrate in the manner of his or her own choice must yield to the interests of the wider community. However, reducing the fireplace use contributing to Phoenix’s poor air quality is not readily achievable through command and control regulation (consider the specter of regulators roaming neighborhoods, on the lookout for smoke-spewing chimneys).

(*Banning leaf blowers – another helpful/hopeful solution – is also, in all fairness, not exactly popular. Especially with HOAs and the professional landscapers ubiquitous in Arizona – for the obvious reason that it takes a lot of maintenance to make the landscape not-desert.)

On the contrary, voluntary abstention (from certain activities and lifestyle-practices) is the better solution – voluntary measures of the sort that first require consciousness of the larger Problem. The best way to counter persistent air quality problems in metropolitan Phoenix begins with awareness of the widespread, complicated, geo-spatially specific nature of air pollution in the Valley. Once armed with such awareness, the public must be properly motivated to act on their new knowledge, of their own initiative. Cajoling from the regulator will not be enough. The individual must be stirred and compelled from within – there must be an internal epiphany.

Perhaps this may best be achieved as part of a higher consciousness – this time including the regulators – to pursue sustainable economic policies, with careful pre-planning regarding the air quality impacts (using our present example) of any contemplated development. In this manner, where the authorities themselves are mindful of not disturbing the desert environment with too-heavy a hand, there is at least a hope that the Private Citizen will shepherd his behavior towards mitigating the impacts of air pollution. Whereas all contribute to poor air quality and all are affected by it; its easing, too, requires the efforts of all.

Individual rights have long been sacrosanct to the American Experience. But for the individual to truly thrive, the surrounding community must also be strong. Where the community struggles for breath in poor air, the future potential for the robust exercise of individual enjoyment is diminished.

Consideration of the forgoing ought to inform the thoughts of those seeking not to be crimped by holiday no-burn restrictions.

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