The Blue Skies Strollair and the Challenge to Collective Action

A good friend of mine, Jason Munster, has a PhD in Environmental Engineering. In his doctoral program, he researched the atmospheric chemistry related to measuring air pollutants, which is critical to understanding climate change. Or, in his own words, “I build instruments to measure processes related to climate change.”

Recently, Munster took what he learned about how water droplets in clouds absorb pollutants to design a personal, transportable air filter that filters out several hazardous criteria air pollutants – NO­2, SO2, and PM.

He founded a company, Blue Skies, to manufacture, market, and sell this air filter primarily to parents of young children in the form of a device that attaches to strollers and car-seats, creating a pocket of relatively cleaner air around the child. Infants and toddlers are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of these pollutants, which have been linked to asthma among other illnesses, and Blue Skies markets itself as a champion of children’s health:

Our mission is to reduce asthma and deaths from air pollution worldwide. In developed countries, we plan to carry out the first-ever trials of the benefits of reducing ambient pollution exposure in children. In developing countries, we aim to save lives.

The Blue Skies filter, which he has named the Strollair, is now the subject of a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo, where backers can preorder the device for half of its eventual retail price of $300.

I’ve written this blog post both to acknowledge Jason’s efforts in developing this protective device, which I have every confidence works as advertised, but also, as is my wont, to use the Strollair as a conversation starter. This personal air filter presents a tidy encapsulation of a momentous conundrum facing our society – from the local to global scale – right now:

Do we fight for long-term, collective, and systematic economic and political change that will benefit all people eventually?

Or, do we take short-term action (if we can afford it) to individually protect ourselves and our families from the worst symptoms of a rapidly degrading global biosphere that industrial commodification has pushed past its limits?

The Strollair is an almost textbook example of an inverted quarantine, a concept from sociologist Andrew Szasz that I discussed in a post from several years ago. To recap, what Szasz is talking about is a widespread social phenomenon in which people, especially those who think they are affluent or self-reliant enough to handle every problem on their own, pursue “an individualized response to a collective threat”, which he notes is “the opposite of [a] social movement”:

There is awareness of hazard, a feeling of vulnerability, of being at risk. That feeling, however, does not lead to political action aimed at reducing the amounts or the variety of toxics present in the environment. It leads, instead, to individualized acts of self-protection, to just trying to keep those contaminants out of one’s body.[i]

I think now, in this political moment more than ever, it’s vitally important for Americans to be aware of and critically reflect on this tendency to stop at saving one’s self, because this reaction is increasingly pervasive. We see it everywhere from education to infrastructure to food, and that’s a potential problem. The good news is that we also see renewed calls for long-term solutions that depend on collective action and intense cooperation, such as the growing movement for a single-payer healthcare system or global attempts at cooperative agreements to reign in greenhouse gas emissions to reign in climate change.

This post is not a criticism of people who want to take action to protect themselves or their families. That’s a perfectly rational response, Szasz notes, especially “if one feels that there is nothing to be done, that conditions will not change, cannot be changed”, or not be changed fast enough to make a difference. But we must acknowledge that this is a form of fatalism, which can sap the strength from our creative aspirations and enervate political will to take control of our situation and build the world we want to live in.

There is also the problem of the cognitive blinders that practicing inverted quarantine can reinforce.

Inverted quarantine is implicitly based on denial of complexity and interdependence. It mistakenly reduces the question of an individual’s well-being to nothing more than the maintenance of the integrity of the individual’s body.[ii]

In other words, relying too heavily on the effectiveness of inverted quarantine strategies such as a portable air filter which can allow parents to “opt out” of the consequences of air pollution for their children may lead those parents to believe that this is enough.

But an air filter all on its own will never be enough. Only sustained collective effort to control air pollution – by regulating emissions, developing cleaner fuels and industrial processes, living more efficiently, and so forth – will ever attack air pollution at its source.

And the same difficulty holds true for inverted quarantine responses in general. They offer partial stop-gap solutions to persistent problems that will only get worse over time. Moreover, even those partial solutions are only available to some people – others won’t be able to opt out, most likely because they can’t afford to.

None of this is to say that someone living in an area with high air pollution absolutely should not buy a Strollair for their child. But it is to say that before they do so, they should spend some time learning about the root causes of pollution and its unequal impacts on people by wealth, race, age, sex, etc. And they should take the time to learn about, and ideally get involved in, true collective responses to air pollution that other people are working on to improve the situation for everyone.

The environmental justice movement in particular would be a good point of engagement. There are many different groups and organizations working toward environmental justice in various ways. I think a good example is the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which has a powerful mission statement that demonstrates the collective will to action which must complement the self-protective reaction inherent in inverted quarantine:

We unite the powerful local organizing of our members in the communities most impacted by environmental hazards – low-income communities and communities of color – to create comprehensive opportunities for change at a statewide level. We build the power of communities across California to create policies that will alleviate poverty and pollution. Together, we are growing the statewide movement for environmental health and social justice.

Many pragmatic arguments could be made to support the conclusion that social movements such as environmental justice are good for individuals in the long run (I could appeal to game theory, for example). Szasz offers many examples in his book, most a variation on the theme that you can’t hide from your problems forever – at some point, the state of the world will devolve to the point where no one will be able to buy their way to safety.

But I’d rather end on a different note, an emotional and moral appeal to collective action to match the explicit emotional appeal of the Blue Skies Strollair.

In short, working together feels good and feels empowering. There is a lot to be said for balancing fear and fatalism – the emotions that make people reach for inverted quarantine – in the face of collective threats with love, community, and hope – the emotions that give people the resolve and strength to overcome their differences and work together on big solutions. In short, keeping sight of a purpose larger than ourselves can help us keep our self-protective urges in proper proportion.

As I was writing this post, I pulled out my copy of Robert Bullard’s landmark treatise on environmental justice, Dumping in Dixie. I have the third edition, and in the preface Dr. Bullard writes a line that encapsulates precisely what I mean when I refer to a purpose larger than ourselves. I’ll conclude with his words: “I carried out this research under the assumption that all Americans have a basic right to live, work, play, go to school, and worship in a clean and healthy environment”.[iii]

 


[i] Szasz, Andrew. 2007. Shopping Our Way to Safety: How we changed from protecting the environment to protecting ourselves. University of Minnesota Press. p. 2-3.

[ii] Ibid, p. 222.

[iii] Bullard, Robert D. 2000. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Third Edition. Westview Press: Boulder, CO. p. xiii.

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