The Air We Breathe
“When the first images of our planetary home were taken by astronauts in space, the beauty of the blue orb cloaked in white lace was breathtaking and changed our perception of Earth. This is our home, free of human borders and boundaries, a single integrated whole with a thin ephemeral layer within which life flourishes.” – David Suzuki
There is a primary reason I own a recumbent tadpole tricycle. I have chosen these three wheels to replace another species of vehicle I had owned and driven for 39 years, the toxic petroleum powered automobile. Having grown up and matured in a society and time where vehicles propelled by fossil fuels are the expected norm, I fell into lockstep with everyone else, pining for my first car as a teenager back in the 1960s. I have owned a quite number of fancy cars in the decades since, and driven them quite a few miles in the process, but those days have happily come to an end.
As a thinking man, my intellect has taken me on many journeys of the mind, and ultimately I have realized that perhaps my path was not one of harmony with the natural environment that surrounds me. You see, my body inhales an invisible substance many times every minute I am alive, a component of Earth we humans refer to as air. Without air, the essence of who I am would immediately expire. If the planet I call home had no breathable atmosphere, none of the life here could exist. Viewed from the dark void of space, it becomes apparent that the air we breathe is but a minuscule and fragile shield that separates you, me, and all life forms from instant annihilation.
I consider myself a naturalist, one who champions the natural world that sustains my existence. Having finally reached a place in my life where I understood that talk is cheap, my mind became a tad bit conflicted with my actions. My ideological stance on life and the natural world was in conflict with certain aspects of my daily human activities. Paramount among them was my ownership and regular usage of huge and mechanically intricate vehicles that destroyed the air I breathe every time I would get behind the steering wheel, turn the key, and use those thousands of pounds of steel, glass, plastic, and rubber to move my little body from here to there. Nobody ever questioned me though, as everyone else was doing it. It was expected behavior of affluent societies on Planet Earth.
We are intricately entwined with air. It surrounds us. It fills us. It allows us to think. Without it, I would not be writing this essay, nor would you be reading it. If we voluntarily cease taking air into our lungs, our bodies will automatically restart the involuntary process of breathing in short order. No air means no life. We live because of the air. Air brings to our bodies the oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements absolutely essential for our daily existence. I see this as important. Since there is but a very finite supply of this substance that sustains life as we know it, my logic tells me that preserving it might be a virtuous thing to do if I wish to continue living at optimal levels of health, and if I wish to see all other life on Earth do likewise.
Thus, at age 57, my desire to preserve the atmosphere and environment of this planet overrode my personal and selfish need to destroy it. Why was I driving a car? There is but one simple answer I could uncover, the same answer for anyone who drives a car. My thoughts told me that I needed to move myself to various physical locations quickly and conveniently in order to satisfy my own needs of maintaining certain schedules and living my personal, self serving life. I had to get there at high speeds while bathed in the opulence of climate controlled luxury. For years, I rationalized my decisions through the soothing thought that I was only one tiny person on an enormous planet, and my contribution to atmospheric devastation was thus minimal. Of course, thousands of millions of other humans thought the very same thing. Our collective actions are a different story.
The history of my culture, one of unrelenting conquest and settlement, has set its people up to think as autonomous beings separate from all else around them. This history has led us to believe we can do as we please whenever we please, with little or no regard for our surroundings. This is a dangerous myth that is leading us down a path with an outcome that can be calculated in a world with limits. From a biological viewpoint, we are not separate from our world at all, but rather intimately part of it, part of the power of life that exists here during this stage in the evolution of it. Only our own inner thoughts tell us we are separate. We have been taught this by our culture. Many ancient cultures, on the other hand, have always known they are but a small part of the whole of life. They respected all of life.
How intimate are we connected if we consider that this air we breathe enters our bodies, is taken deeply into our lungs, and through the 300 million microscopic alveoli is taken up in our bloodstream? Our 5 liters of blood, which contain 25 billion red blood cells, then incorporate the air we breathe into solution, and life is maintained. These 5 liters of life sustaining liquid circulate through our bodies, from heart back to heart, taking the air around to keep us going. This cycle occurs once every 60 seconds at rest – for life. The speed at which the blood makes its circuit can increase as much as 6 times during strenuous physical activity. During physical exertion, we utilize about 2.5 liters of oxygen per minute. That air is driven deep into every cell of our bodies. Without it, we die.
Argon is one of the elements inhaled with each breath of air we take, and occupies roughly 1% of the total mixture of our air. As an inert gas, argon is not absorbed and used by the body’s cells as is oxygen and nitrogen, and thus it is expelled with each exhalation. Each breath contains quite a few argon atoms, to the tune of some 30,000,000,000,000,000,000. If we could watch the course of those exhaled argon atoms that leave our bodies after a single breath, within a year we would realize that they have dispersed across the expanse of the entire planet, and every subsequent breath we take will include about 15 of the original argon atoms from that initial bodily exhalation a year earlier. It becomes quite clear how intimately all life is connected to the air we breathe, and it is easy to visualize that what we poison comes back to us in short order.
About 90% of each breath remains within our bodies at each exhalation, keeping the tiny alveoli sacs inflated. With each new breath, the air is inhaled, circulated, and expelled. Fresh air is constantly required by each of us. Fresh air replaces air from previous inhalations. How fresh is our air? How pure is our air? Our air literally becomes our blood, which then becomes our body. The line between air and body becomes blurred. Where does air stop and the body begin? Are we really separate? Can we live independently of our environment with little or no regard to the air we breathe? What happens to our bodies if our air is befouled by toxins?
According to Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, “Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets. We have argon from the sighs and pledges of ancient lovers, from the battle cries at Waterloo, even from last year’s argonic output by the writer of these lines, who personally has had already more than 300 million breathing experiences.”
We inhale around 5 million breaths of air every year of life. Whatever it is that’s out there in this invisible substance, there is a lot of it within our bodies, that’s for sure. I say invisible, but in quite a few industrialized and overcrowded urban areas of today’s world, this substance called air is not invisible at all. I have seen it in various shades of gray, as well as brown. Is this color, and thus visibility, the air? Or is it other malignant elements freely floating in the air? What is in the air is also in us, or more succinctly, part of us. Car exhaust is not just something we see in the air. It has become one with our living moist membranes and every cell. The instant your nose detects any odor of any kind, whatever the source of that odor is has already filled your lungs, and is being distributed within seconds to all your cells. Within one minute, it has circulated throughout your body’s vascular system.
How much air is there? Just how big is this supply we absolutely must have to live each day, to produce offspring, and to keep our species in the game? Well, for the purposes of imagination, imagine the Earth the size of a common basketball. The atmosphere where we live, the air we need to breathe, would be as thin as a very fine paper wrapped around the ball. Keep in mind that the ball is in space, lots of space, space that has no air. There isn’t much here that protects us from nonexistence! I have come to view this as important, so I chucked my car and chose to pedal far.
Do you recall the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 in Ukraine?. How did the world first learn about this tragic accident in the Soviet Union? Did we learn from the Soviet government? No, we found out that something catastrophic occurred there when scientists in Sweden found their delicate instruments registering a massive influx of radioactivity from the region based on wind currents. This blunder of modern “advanced” technology spread across our entire planet, and affected every human, animal, and plant to some degree regardless of location. The 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster again reminded us that nowhere is safe from the toxic pollution belched into Earth’s air supply. Air is not a national resource. It is a shared worldwide substance that we must treat with respect. What we do to the air, we do to ourselves.
We look upon these ongoing nuclear catastrophes as horrific, and realize they must be stopped. More and more thinking individuals, those who are more concerned about the health and harmony of abundant life on a finite planet than about the financial wealth of a corporation or particular government, are realizing that we are poisoning our air. What a frightful thing to see all those innocent Soviet and Japanese people overdosed with a deadly radiation! Then, without giving it a second thought, most of us go right out and initiate a fuel burn in four, six, or eight combustion chambers with the turn of our key, and we comfortably propel ourselves down to the local market to buy groceries as we soil our Earthly home in a different way.
Ideas like these have spurred me to make a personal choice to move away from petroleum powered vehicles, and that was the reason for acquiring my tricycle in 2009. This move has not been an easy one for me, nor is it easy for any like minded folks. In fact, I am still in the midst of it. I have not owned a car since 2008, but I still drive on occasion for family when requested or needed. My driver’s license expires in 2019. Will I even bother to renew it? This thought bothers family who have come to depend upon my mobility and services, but it brings to my mind the potential for taking another step into a world I see as healthy and harmonious.
Many things must be rethought with the relinquishment of devices that are known to destroy the air we breathe. It is a convoluted journey, both in living scenarios and in the mind, to move away from that which we were taught is necessary for life in modern affluent societies. Few people wish to have their boat rocked. It’s just easier and more personally convenient to remain with what already is. Personal issues must be put aside however for meaningful change to occur.
Would any of us sit in a closed garage at home with our car running? The answer to that, of course, is very clear. The atmosphere of Earth is just a larger garage, and takes more time to fill to a point where we become so ill that death overtakes us. But then we answer that we are not even close to such an overly-dramatic scenario – it will never happen in our lifetime. Are we so focused on our own conveniences that we forget about the millions who will follow us for centuries … or perhaps millennia if we learn to live harmoniously with the natural world? In our local garage example, simply opening the garage door alleviates the immediate problem, but our Earth garage is a closed system. There is no door to open. It would be like opening the garage door only to find no air at all.
For years, I excused my behavior to suit my personal needs, needs of an ephemeral and selfish creature who, in my opinion, has no right to alter the environment and participate in the devastation of that which sustains all life. I choose to be part of the solution in a way that makes a difference. One aspect of that change is to write about this for others to read. A writer named John Fowles certainly captured my attention when I read these words he had penned: “Only suicidal morons, in a world already choking to death, would destroy the best natural air conditioner creation affords.”
David Suzuki, one of the world’s leading conservation writers, tells us this: “From our first cry announcing our arrival on Earth to our very last sigh at the moment of death, our need for air is absolute. Every breath is a sacrament, an essential ritual. As we imbibe this sacred element, we are physically linked to all of our present biological relatives, countless generations that have preceded us and those that will follow. Our fate is bound to that of the planet by the gaseous exhausts of fires, volcanoes and human-made machines and industry.
“Once we have restored that breath of life to its rightful primacy –the first above all other human rights and responsibilities, the reference point from which all decisions flow– we can start to work in the long term to revive an ancient equilibrium. Using nature as our touchstone, we can play our part once more in life’s long collaboration with the air.”
Do your part … the trike’s a start!
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A few thoughts about zero emissions vehicles:
Our trikes are zero emissions vehicles to be sure, yet I am also sure that the reason I bought my trike and how I use it are not views held by the mainstream triking world. Thus, I’d like to present some ideas for the majority of human powered recumbent trikers out there who prefer to remain mobile with a high speed automobile:
May I recommend a very well researched documentary that may ignite a few positive flames for change? Knowledge is power, and can lead to a clean air future if a culture has it. Who Killed The Electric Car?, a Sony Pictures 2006 release, will provide 93 minutes of in-depth knowledge that few realized had occurred. It would be a mistake to dismiss this documentary as one produced by fringe lunatics or militaristic environmentalists. It is not. Narrated by Martin Sheen, and directed by Chris Paine, this award winning film will also inspire and provide options for those not ready to use a tricycle for all their days and ways
Who Killed The Electric Car essentially set the foundation of knowledge needed for a comprehensive perspective on where zero emissions cars have been. If you enjoyed it, Chris produced a 2011 follow-up documentary called Revenge Of The Electric Car, which is very much more upbeat, as GM quietly saw the serious public dissent their actions had caused with the destruction of the 5,000 vehicle ev-1 fleet, and did a partial turn-around with the new Volt hybrid – at least it is partly electric, a sign GM may be getting the message of modern generations more concerned with the web of life than their own self motivated needs.
If you watch either or both of these top notch documentaries (I suggest both in sequential order for best understanding), be sure to spend the time and view the extra features of each, from which you will gain much added background insight worth your time.
Thank you for reading! Now, take a deep breath of CLEAN air.
If you are not yet ready to leave your petroleum engine behind and acquire a modern electric vehicle, you can still take a worthy first step in the process of making a difference, of being part of the solution. My last car was CO2 offset by a company called TerraPass, a university startup company. What it amounted to is that I paid a yearly fee based on the type of car, mileage driven, engine size, which was then invested directly into green solutions such as solar array farms, wind turbines, tree planting, and other strategies that produce an equal amount of positive actions for the negative pollution my car was emitting. No doubt, my car was still polluting the air, but the move got me started on a path I believe is right for me, for you, and for life.
LINK TO TERRAPASS:
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Realizing that forests play a vital role in air sustainability, here is a supplemental essay from Saving the Forests: What Will It Take? by Alan Thein Durning:
Imagine a time-lapse film of the Earth taken from space. Play back the last 10,000 years sped up so that a millennium passes by every minute. For more than seven of the ten minutes, the screen displays what looks like a still photograph: the blue planet Earth, its lands swathed in a mantle of trees. Forests cover 34 percent of the land. Aside from the occasional flash of a wildfire, none of the natural changes in the forest coat are perceptible. The Agricultural Revolution that transforms human existence in the film’s first minute is invisible.
After seven and a half minutes, the lands around Athens and the tiny islands of the Aegean Sea lose their forest. This is the flowering of classical Greece. Little else changes. At nine minutes –1,000 years ago– the mantle grows threadbare in scattered parts of Europe, Central America, China and India. Then 12 seconds from the end, two centuries ago, the thinning spreads, leaving parts of Europe and China bare. Six seconds from the end, one century ago, eastern North America is deforested. This is the Industrial Revolution. Little else appears to have changed. Forests cover 32 percent of the land.
In the last three seconds –after 1950– the change accelerates explosively. Vast tracts of forest vanish from Japan, the Philippines, and the mainland of Southeast Asia, from most of Central America and the horn of Africa, from western North America and eastern South America, from the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa. Fires rage in the Amazon basin where they never did before, set by ranchers and peasants. Central Europe’s forests die, poisoned by the air and rain. Southwest Asia resembles a dog with mange. Malaysian Borneo appears shaved. In the final fractions of a second, the clearing spreads to Siberia and the Canadian north. Forests disappear so suddenly from so many places that it looks like a plague of locusts has descended on the Planet.
The film freezes on the last frame. Trees cover 26 percent of the land. Three-fourths of the original forest area still bears some tree cover. But just 12 percent of the Earth’s surface –one-third of the initial total– consists of intact forest ecosystems. The rest holds biologically impoverished stands of commercial timber and fragmented regrowth. This is the present: a globe profoundly altered by the workings –or failings– of the human economy.