Protection is personal; prevention is political

In the moments where we do sense pollution, many of us have coping strategies for protecting ourselves. For the majority of us, that means taking small reactive measures to avoid exposure i.e. by stepping around the exhaust fumes we see, or holding our breath as we cross a busy road, or winding up our window when stuck in traffic.

“[When stuck behind a bus, on my scooter] it can make me think I need to get in my car. As soon as I smell it, I hold my breath.” - K, 44, Barnet

“The M25 traffic can be bad and kick out so many fumes. I turn on recycle air in the car if I get stuck.” - T, 53, Enfield

Taking more proactive measures to avoid pollution is less common. Whilst one of our interviewees decided to take more active measures to avoid air pollution (such as using side streets, avoiding the city centre, and wearing a face mask); many of us fear the social pressure of standing out and aren’t willing to go to these lengths for such an intangible concern.

“I don’t think I’d do that [wear a mask]. I don’t think I’m exposed to this level of pollution, like a cyclist would be. They look uncomfortable and I’d look a prat.” – T, 63, Enfield

“I lived in Singapore for a while – all the cyclists wore masks. I think it’s a great idea, but you’d look odd here. Maybe of everyone did it?” - K, 44, Barnet

Prevention on the other hand is not seen as a personal responsibility. When it comes to preventing the problem of air pollution we trust in science, policy and the system to save us. Some of us put trust in specific brands and organisations to help us do the right thing – we believe that a certain super-market will have chosen their product range on ethical considerations, we trust boiler service contracts to maintain our boilers and control emissions for us, and we trust that car manufacturers engineer their motors to produce as little pollution as possible. Placing our faith in science and in institutions relieves us at least partly of the responsibility to question our own actions.

“When I come home from work and the tissue is black I think ‘this can’t be good fro me’… or when I ride on my scooter – it’s not ideal, but I don’t feel anymore at risk… I’ve got air filter in the [tube] cab.” – K, 44, Enfield

“One day it will all change – it [cars, taxis, buses] will all be electric. The system will sort it out.” – B, 69, Enfield

The government is seen as both the hero and the villain. On the one hand some of us are skeptical about politicians ability to act in our best interest and offer stable solutions. But on the other hand we believe that preventing an issue like air pollution is beyond our individual control and that it will take policy change, to make a real impact, as it did with cleaning up the pea soupers of the 1950s and more recently to putting a stop to smoking in public spaces.

“The government should take responsibility for air pollution… There’s too much politics. They pretend to they do things for the earth, but behind it, it’s politics.” – E, 21, Bogota

“[Pollution] is what it is. Until we get our so called people in responsibility to do something about it, nothing will change.” - B, 69, Enfield

Ironically, the very measures that reduce pollution may actually expose us more. We’re more motivated to take actions that protect us; measures that may expose us more feel counter intuitive. We’re loath to turn off our air conditioning and open a window, if this action might expose us more. Likewise, why would we get out of our cars and walk / cycle if that places us in the midst of the pollution?

“Yeah – I could open my window instead of using air conditioning [in a traffic jam] but then I’d just be breathing in more fumes.” - T, 53, Enfield

“Yes – you could walk to work but it just means you breath stuff in.” K – 34, Enfield