Chip Jacobs and William Kelly, authors of “Smogtown: The Lung-burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles.”
How did you get the idea to write a book about smog in LA?
Jacobs: A few years back, I was reading yet another newspaper series about the onslaught of global warming. Amidst all the debate, nobody had written a social history about one of America’s most epic and teachable environmental crises. Having grown up in fume-choked Pasadena, where playing outdoor sports almost merited hazard pay, I vividly remembered the vanishing mountains, smog alerts, civic depression and the overwhelming zeitgeist that the situation would never improve. When I put together those childhood recollections with the glaring absence of a compelling book about the L.A. air pollution caper, I knew I had a chance to retell a pretty seminal ecological narrative.
Kelly: Los Angeles was the original laboratory for studying smog and devising solutions. The war on smog here has brought the world lower polluting cars, cleaner ways of making products, and even cleaner consumer products—from house paints to barbecues and even hair sprays and nail polish. But for every two steps forward through cleaner technology, growth has forced the region to take a step back.
This is nowhere more evident than at the region’s huge ports, which many call the driveway to the nation. During the economic downturn of the early 1990s when the aerospace industry shrunk, political leaders were looking for a substitute to fuel growth. It was the time of free trade agreements and they seized on capturing imports through the ports of LA and Long Beach. It worked. But one of the consequences was the growing use of diesel trucks, trains, and huge ships spouting smoke and soot to move all those goods. Since the diesel soot is carcinogenic, the risk of cancer along the routes for the goods flowing through the ports is quite high. There is a plan to clean it up, but at a big cost. The current economic troubles will make it difficult and are likely to slow the plan.
Has the smog changed over the years?
Jacobs: Back in the postwar days, air pollution became so severe and unrelenting ,there was real talk about having to abandon whole sections of Southern California. There were smog-whiteout car accidents, unexplained swaths of farmland obliterated within weeks, dead animals turning up, and tens of thousands of parents noticing lethargy and aggravated breathing in their kids. By the 1950, the gray-brownish crud seemed to have the city of the future by the windpipe. The social dystopia fanned nihilism, murders, suicides, spiritual depression, while athletes and vacationers pledged never to return. Politicians promised relief that never came, civic groups went half insane looking for culprits, industry was falsely accused, all the while nobody was ready to indict automobile exhaust until a brilliant Caltech biochemist made his mark.
As the science improved, technicians soon began noticing that L.A. smog was not chemically monolithic: some days – and in the 1960s parts of Southern California experienced unhealthful air more than two-thirds of the year – it gave off an orangey tint from an infusion of previously undiagnosed compounds. With smog often feeling like a new weather pattern. It led to the cancellation of football games, and even the use of helicopters during severe smog attacks to order people indoors.
Conditions began to slowly improve in the 1970s, as California imposed its crackdown on the politically influential carmakers. But it wasn’t really until the 1990s that Los Angeles turned the corner, and there arose actual competition from Houston about which U.S. metropolitan region boasted the country’s most toxic air. By then Californians were used to sending their cars in for required smog checks, industry had been pushed to the technological brink installing the latest gunk-trapping equipment and the quest for even further emissions cuts penetrated consumer products spanning paints to animal rendering to how a kilowatt of energy. Today, Southern Californians inhale air more than 90 percent cleaner. The new risk may come from greenhouse gases that may create riper conditions for smog to linger and the expected millions migrating to Los Angeles between now and 2020.
Do you feel encouraged by recent development like AB 32, or the new Obama administration’s appointment of Stephen Chu?
Kelly: I do. Chu is going to restore science as the primary underpinning to energy and environmental policy. As a Californian, he should bring an understanding of the state’s unique role in advancing clean energy technology to the nation. But cutting greenhouse gases under AB 32 in California and nationally is not going to be as quick and easy as politicians promise. The war on smog in LA, now 66 years old, shows that. Air in LA still kills about 4,000 people a year prematurely from cancer, heart disease, and other ailments. Cutting emissions of greenhouse gases 80 or 90 percent is going to be just as hard and likely take as long.
What do you think LA will look like in 30 years?
Kelly: It’s going to have to become denser and more public transit-oriented for a number of reasons, including limitations on oil supplies and the need to cut greenhouse gases. We must get started in a big way now. It took three or four generations to build the sprawling megalopolis of Los Angeles as we know it today. So it will take a concerted effort for the area to reinvent itself into a more compact and sustainable city for future generations. But it can and must be done.