Air pollution is a tricky book subject. It could be seen as off-putting, but actually it’s a thriller—a multilayered topic containing a positive message: air is essential and clean air is not an impossible dream. Incremental progress can bring tangible and almost immediate health benefits. This is why the journalist Beth Gardiner’s gamble in her first book, Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution, is a good one. “Air pollution really intersects with all of the issues we are grappling with in the world,” she said.
In Choked, Gardiner does a deft job of weaving together unique tales of polluted places (London, Delhi, Los Angeles etc.) and personal narrative (growing up at the mouth of the Holland Tunnel, moving to London for love, pregnancy concerns). She mixes this all with science and environmental history. Her retelling of how the Clean Air Act came to be—bipartisan Americans taking a concrete stab at making progress on a real problem—is reason enough alone to read Choked. The sweeping change that has taken place in Washington in the past 50 years is on full display.
So how does someone who knows this much about air pollution go about her days in diesel-exhaust-filled London, raising a kid to boot? Pollution anxiety is real! Especially when so much of what Gardiner knows is specifically about the unknown. There’s concrete data on air pollution’s ties to cancer, asthma, dementia, heart disease, infertility, low birth weight, and even death. But no one knows what playing near the Holland Tunnel as a kid or being pregnant in London means exactly in terms of long-term heath repercussions. A lot of people focus on individual action to feel less overwhelmed. Gardiner’s approach is to work.
“I am a writer. This is what I can do. I learned that air pollution is at high levels in the city where I live. That was upsetting to me, I was walking around feeling angry and scared and upset about it—and worried all the time,” she said, noting that in London you can smell pollution and even feel its grit on your teeth. “You get a face full of yuck—a car will go by and you will get a cloud of diesel smoke in your face.” Her reaction was to write Choked.
Gardiner keeps up with air pollution developments daily, reading newsletters and articles to stay on top of the science and the politics. And with air pollution currently in the news, as it is going down during the coronavirus lockdown, scientists warn that this is not a silver lining. They expect pollution levels will return when the coronavirus ebbs—and “in some cases may come back with a vengeance.” As the country worries about the coronavirus, the Trump administration continues to roll back life-saving environmental protections.
“It can be dispiriting,” Gardiner said, adding, “I spend too much time on Twitter.” But the importance of the work buoys her. Now that Choked is out, she’s back to writing articles, specifically trying to tell stories that turn a spotlight on corporate polluters and the corrupt political and economic systems that enable them. “We aren’t talking enough about the big corporations—Exxon Mobil, Volkswagen—and the politicians in their pocket,” she said. She’s expanding her reach to cover the climate crisis, too. “To truly clean our air, we can’t have fossil fuel cars driving around by the millions. The change we need next is to shift to cleaner fuels: solar, wind, electric cars, biking, walking, public transportation.”
Back when Gardiner was working at the Associated Press, she sometimes wrote general assignment stories. Fun things about art, author interviews, quirky stuff. “I miss that in a sense,” she said. “But it feels hard at this point in history as a journalist to write about anything else. What story is more important than the future of our climate and whether it’s going to be hospitable to us and our children and later generations? It’s epically important and it feels irresponsible to not spend all of my time covering it.”
No matter your emotional take on air pollution, Gardiner’s engaged way of living the climate crisis is uplifting.