By Kathy Bouchard EBS COLUMNIST
“…You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.” Joni Mitchell’s verse from her 1970 hit single “Big Yellow Taxi” could be the lament of our lives right now as we endure the pandemonium of this pandemic.
We miss our hugs with friends, the camaraderie of sports, concerts and congregations. Inexplicably, many parents are missing their kids’ teachers while scrambling to home-school their little heathens. In sober truth, unique and beloved individuals are losing their precious lives even as the “curve” is starting to bend.
The reverse of not appreciating something until it’s lost, discovering something you didn’t know existed, is exemplified by a near mystical revelation in northern India. For the first time in more than 30 years, the air is clear enough to display the Himalayas, pristine and ponderous. Visible from a distance of 130 miles, they appear not on the horizon, but levitating majestically above it to a most awe-inspiring height. Villagers and farmers have been thunderstruck by their appearance, which among their parents had been but a fading memory. Such presence and glory was not expected.
Around the world, major cities are reporting the lowest level of airborne pollutants in decades. People with compromised lungs are breathing more freely in Chinese, European and American cities, according to the European Space Agency and NASA.
I’ve seen several photos of Los Angeles taken recently in the absence of diesel-fueled traffic or carbon-based manufacturing. Fluffy clouds scud through crystalline skies above a gleaming cityscape. I once watched my toddler son sicken in minutes as our flight descended through the LA smog in the late 70s, and now fully appreciate this transformation.
The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people die each year from deadly effects of air pollution. Eighty percent of all city dwellers are at times exposed to pollution levels the WHO deems dangerous, and 98 percent of cities in low-income countries have air pollution that exceeds the level deemed dangerous. A lifetime of this exposure weakens the body, making it more susceptible when disease comes calling.
This won’t be the last viral threat to civilization. It’s only the most recent of the coronavirus family, all of which are known to attack the respiratory system. Data is emerging now which suggests that the widely divergent mortality rates of different regions, such as northern Italy’s 10 percent rate compared to Germany’s less than 2 percent, may be positively correlated to air pollution levels.
Around the globe, clean air is present for the first time to young folks who have never experienced it, whose lives may now and in the future depend upon it. How long can this gift, so vital and unsuspected in its simplicity, be enjoyed? How long before the greatest mountains on the planet vanish in the haze?
Kathy Bouchard is a member of the Rotary Club of Big Sky’s Sustainability Committee. She has been a Montana resident for 20 years and is inspired to work for sustainability on behalf of her grandchildren.