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A Spiritually Enlightening Online Magazine. March's Theme: "Movement"
Volume 3 Issue 3 ISSN# 1708-3265
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Air, Not as Anonymous As We Think!
by David Suzuki PhD

Most of us generally don't think about the air we breathe. Why would we? It's always there, all around us - bigger than everything. Besides, it's invisible - at least, most of the time.

And that's the problem. Because we don't think about it, and because it just seems so big, we treat our air like a dumping ground for waste. We feel anonymous in our atmosphere as we might in a huge, unknown city.

But air is also extraordinarily intimate. Fifteen times or more each minute, we unconsciously draw about a half-litre of air deep into our lungs, filter it, absorb some into our bodies, keep some of it in our lungs so they don't collapse, and then exhale the rest to pass on to our neighbours. Without a constant source of fresh air, we'd die in just a few minutes.

Yet, even with millions of people breathing, our cities never run out of fresh air because it is always moving, and not just a little. A Greek philosopher once said, "You cannot step twice into the same river," his point being that the waters are constantly flowing. The same could be said of air.

Think about recent attempted hot-air balloon trips around the world. Those balloons have no method of propulsion. They do not fly - they float - pushed along by currents of air. In just one week, the air you are breathing now could be halfway around the world. It's part of a global system that connects the atmosphere to all living things.

This connection means that whatever we put into the air could end up in our neighbours' backyards - or in their lungs - even if they're half a world away. When fire broke out at Chernobyl, it was the Swedes who announced the accident because they detected a sudden radiation spike over Sweden.

Another example is ozone. At lower levels in the atmosphere it's a powerful pollutant that can make us sick and damage our lungs. Ozone is formed when byproducts of fossil-fuel combustion (activities like burning gasoline in our cars or coal in a power plant) combine with heat and sunlight in the atmosphere.

Once formed, ozone does not just go away. Rather, it has a lifetime of between one week and one month, depending on the temperature. That means ozone produced on one continent could easily end up on another. A recent article in the journal Science, for example, points out that average concentrations of ozone in some remote, otherwise unpolluted areas of Asia actually get high enough to jeopardize agricultural and natural ecosystems there.

Pollutants that can make us sick are not the only things we are dumping into our air. We are also dumping tonnes of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere that are increasing the earth's natural ability to absorb heat from the sun.

Gases like carbon dioxide may not have as immediate of an impact on us as does, say, ozone. But while ozone lasts only a few weeks in the atmosphere, greenhouse gases can last a few decades to a few centuries. This means that these gases can build up over time. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, for example (largely from burning oil, coal and gas), have increased by 31 per cent in the last 200 years.

Such a large increase is now having a noticeable effect on the earth's climate and concerns about what this will mean for the future are growing. An article in Science describes climate change as "a truly global issue, one that may prove to be humanity's greatest challenge."

Like the atmosphere itself, the problems of global air pollution and climate change can sometimes seem bigger than all of us. What we must remember is that they are problems of our own making and they are not insurmountable. We are not so small that we cannot have an effect on something as large as the air itself. Nor are we so big that we cannot change.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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