The cold snap is behind us for now, thank heavens, though surely we’ll get more in winters to come. Now seems like a fair time to look at the relationship between people’s civil right of peaceable assembly (yes, the one guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) and Interior Alaska’s weather — at least, it’s being painted as the weather.
According to a recent article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (“Fairbanks air quality deemed unhealthy,” published February 8),
Air quality in the Fairbanks area has been classified as unhealthy today due to the recent cold snap, with the amount of small particles more than double what the federal government allows, according to the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The most vulnerable people in the community—children, the elderly and people with heart or lung problems—should limit their activity and stay home, Miller said.
There was no mention in the article of where this unhealthy air comes from. There was some mention in the next day’s paper (“Cold causes air quality to dive and respiratory viruses to spike”), where the reporter wrote that, because of the thermal inversion, “people are breathing the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves in greater quantity.”
What alarms me about this is not air pollution per se. Like most people, I think that air pollution is bad. How could it not be? The alarming thing to me is whom this affects first: “children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung problems.”
As a parent of small children — children whom I would like to have learn about their neighborhood and the community around them, children who need friends and play and human society — I get concerned when largely preventable circumstances cut my kids off from the rest of the world. And as the son of two people who will someday be old and infirm — people who need culture and society no less than my children — I get concerned when public health officials recommend isolating the elderly and keeping them out of the public sphere, due to environmental conditions that could have been prevented.
The News-Miner articles make scant mention of these conditions. If we’re to trust these articles, the unhealthy air was caused by the cold — and cold can’t be prevented, can it?
Of course, it wasn’t the cold that caused the presence of pollutants; only human activity produces “the exhaust from cars, power plants and wood stoves” mentioned in the February 9 article. The News-Miner kept the emphases of its stories far away from the human causes of air pollution, which is itself a cause for concern.
At this point, people might ask, “What would you have us do? Never go anywhere? Freeze in our homes?”
But notice that greater Fairbanks is laid out in a sprawling, low-density fashion: our residences, usually single-family houses, are put on large lots (often zoned to a minimum size); land is cheaper and less taxed when distant from the city center; and with few exceptions residential areas are kept far from commercial, office, light industrial, and civic areas. The net effect of this is that people can walk hardly anywhere they need to go, that they must drive — far and frequently.
Also, according to 2006 Census Bureau data, only a third of housing structures in the Borough consisted of two or more units. (Compare this with 2000 data from Manhattan county, where 99 percent of housing structures had two or more units, with more than 75 percent in the 20-units-or-more category.) This is relevant because when you share walls with others, you lose less heat to the outside. In clusters of apartments, condominiums, or row houses, heat is exchanged through the floors, ceilings, and walls — and thus is better conserved, so those homes require less heating.
Don’t get me wrong. I love building fires and sitting by wood stoves, and I am charmed by rustic living. Growing up in Anchorage, I loved the occasional drive to a friend’s cabin for a peaceful, low-tech weekend of cooking, hiking, and saunas. But the scale on which we do this in the Interior (a metropolitan area of some 90,000 people) and the frequency with which we drive (i.e., daily) to our private houses, whether in the city or in the woods, turn a quaint, idiosyncratic lifestyle choice into a near-obscenity.
The way we have planned the Borough — low-density housing, one-family homes, single-use zoning, large lots, cheap land, and the need to drive to get anywhere worth going — we have sown the seeds for our own citizens’ disenfranchisement. That makes a sooty, black smudge on Alaska’s Golden Heart.