“Aerem corrumpere non licet” (Polluting air is not allowed.)
— A 2,000-year-old Roman Law
The ancient Romans called their capital city gravioris caeli (heavy heaven). Delhi is in the news again for an atavistic curse—pollution. Power pollutes. Absolute power pollutes absolutely—morally, politically and economically. It’s nothing new; pine trees on the Shantung mountains, China, were cut down and burned during the Tang era (618 to 906 AD) to produce ink from the soot for government office use. In ancient China, noble families owned the water canals that fed the fields, which also carried human excreta that caused massive pollution of food grain resulting in epidemics.
Pollution’s greenhouse? It is economics stupid; the mercurial mistress of human survival that involves cooking, industry, agriculture, commerce and transport. The first records of pollution go back to prehistoric times when layers of soot were found on the roofs of cave dwellings, indicating cooking without ventilation; lungs of Paleolithic era mummies are frequently black.
Mining was extant in the New Stone Age, where people got silicosis from breathing in stone powder. As the world’s resource needs grew, so did lead and copper pollution. Smelting in the medieval age poisoned the air, affecting Arctic ice cores. By 1200, London was unlivable; petitions to Queen Elizabeth to ban burning sea-coal went ignored. Later, industry expanded with the shift to burning fossil fuels, and machines were being powered by coal steam. Then came automobile pollution.
The 1943 Los Angeles smog led to the passing of 1970 Clean Air Act. The WHO estimates seven million pollution-related premature deaths in 2012 and puts dirty air on top of the environmental health risk list.
Empires were built on pollution. When the Nubians attacked Hermopolis, inhabitants conceded without a fight, because they could no longer tolerate the polluted air.
The Romans were the first to spew metallic pollutants into the air; blacksmiths burned wood to make weapons for Rome’s constant wars, producing methane gas. Annual methane emissions from 100 BC to AD 1600 were around 31 million tonne compared to 36 million tonne the US alone generates. America is today’s biggest global empire, an industrial and military power controlled by mega corporations of which one is headed by its president, who pulled out of the Paris Climate Change accord.
Simplifying the equation, industry is for profit and in the process pollutes air, water and grounds—often bypassing the laws by bribing politicians and bureaucrats. Politics is fuelled by power, and is funded by industry and kickbacks. In India’s demographic ethos, human life is not a big deal. Doesn’t Swachh Bharat stand for a complete atmospheric detox? It’s time to clear the air.