Review: Smogtown

My adopted hometown has a smog problem. It’s not alone in this now, and it wasn’t the first – a prize that probably goes to London – but the city’s public struggles with unbreatheable air defined the problem for a lot of Westerners. In Smogtown, Chip Jacobs and Michael Kelley survey the highs and lows of that struggle.

The broad lines of the history are pretty easy to understand. LA’s industry expanded explosively to support US invlovement in the second World War, the subsequent rebuilding of Europe and Asia, and the Cold War. Among the many features that drew industry to the area was the lack of regulation of industries. There were a lot of workers here, more were easy to pull in, and the landowners running the government were much more interested in expanding and selling new workers homes than in controlling conditions in the plants that employed them.

Eventually, as with London and Bejing and other industrial cities, the smog came home to roost. Even during WWII, clouds of smoke became thick and noxious enough that Angelenos believed they were under attack. Mind you, the place was already pretty jumpy. As occurrences became more frequent and severe, the local governments began to take some action. The resulting ballet between the various strong personalities and economic forces is pretty interesting to see play out. Not much happens until land sales become threatened and then industry and auto ownership owners push back.

It surprised me how strongly citizens weighed in with resistance to various measures. I would not have expected Angelenos to be as attached to backyard incinerators as they evidently were. And Jacobs and Kelly do not neglect the corruption opportunities offered by the emergence of a refuse management industry – just another shakedown for organized crime.

I was also surprised by how much we had to learn about smog sources and how to rein them in. It took a fairly long time to home in on cars as a pollution source, for example. And though sulfuric acids are more noxious the particles from cars matter, too.

And then there’s the repetition of the industrialization cycle when the ports of LA and Long Beach expanded in the 80’s and 90’s. There’s a lot of diesel particulates there that are tied to people’s livelihoods.

Overall an engaging history of air pollution here with a satisfying scope.

Strongly Recommended.

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