Get it straight, Delhi. That’s not fog. It’s smog.

It’s the time of the year when the Indian media start writing about predictions for Delhi’s winter fog. Poisonous, toxic “fog.”

Which really makes it not fog at all, but smog. This year there may be 100 hundred dismal hours of it.

Delhi, it’s time we owned up to it. Call a spade a spade and start thinking about how to fix the problem. And to be clear, the problem is us.

Yes, weather plays a small part, but as I’ve written before, what makes the wintry choking haze particularly harmful is in fact human pollution. I’m not alone in arguing that we actually need to shift our discourse and talk about the phenomenon as anthropogenic smog, not just annoying wintry smog.

And new research shows it’s worse than you ever thought. During rush hour, pollution (particulate matter) at autorickshaw-level — where most people breathe — is apparently 50 percent higher than all what is measured by those safely cloistered ambient air measuring stations on top of buildings and away from roads.

And, in case anyone needs a reminder, even the ambient air readings aren’t exactly awesome. In fact, they’re exactly not awesome.

At least India can claim to beat both Pakistan and China in this regard:

Delhi’s air pollution levels, which, according to the latest WHO Ambient Air Pollution Database, are at just under 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The world’s second most polluted city, Karachi, clocks in at a little over 250, while the major Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, internationally notorious for their pollution, clock in a relatively fresh 120 and 80 respectively.

(Really not the race we want to be winning.)

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Delhi-wale, it’s smog, not fog

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

A foggy evening in a park in 2010

It seems that everyone in Delhi — as is common this time of year — is concerned about Delhi’s weather and the thick soupy mess that ruins lungs and visibility and generally delays everything. I remember once getting lost at night literally 100 yards from my own apartment because I couldn’t see. Delhi-wale understand that this is an annual occurrence, though apparently it’s worse than usual.

But our understanding of what is actually happening suffers from a few misperceptions, so we in the middle or upper classes remain unable (or choose not) to diagnose the situation properly. And for lack of a good diagnosis, we are unlikely to ever ameliorate the worst of it.

What do I mean? Let’s begin with an unscientific but poignant armchair test. I have Googled two sets of terms. Consider their hit counts.

Delhi fog: 1,380,000,000 hits

Delhi smog: 1,180,000 hits

Clearly, linguistically, we consider this to be fog. In our collective understanding, it’s not smog, which would more strongly imply pollution.

I can hear the Delhi-ite protesting that s/he is not an idiot and knows full-well that Delhi suffers from air pollution. I agree, but as a rejoinder, I ask, “When was the last time someone speaking Hindi said “smog-wog” instead of “fog-wog.” My point: The language we use to describe the phenomenon colors our perception.

Why do we think this way? Well, for starters, fog is historical in this season, so it’s common to react as though nature is just being nature. This is the climate of Delhi and the climate of Delhi suggests there will be fog at this time of year. So perhaps we’re already less inclined to consider this critically.

Our perception of the “fog” also suffers because baselines are always shifting — a concept that arose from fisheries analysis that suggests we collectively have trouble understanding what a system used to be like in the generation before us. This arises because the memories of a system early in my career or childhood form my baseline for assessing change and I have great difficulty then quantifying/understanding the experience of a generation before me. So we can expect that most people in Delhi will have trouble really discerning whether the “fog” was better or worse in previous periods because their baselines don’t include the generation prior. Broadly speaking, our inter-generational memory is crap.

In addition, I will argue that the massive socioeconomic changes that have occurred even intra-generation in India actually further hamper our ability to discern whether the “fog” is actually worse. This is because the yardsticks by which we might measure the severity today — for example, technical monitoring, the number of delayed flights, visibility while driving — are difficult to compare to, say, twenty years ago. Definitions of particulate matter change as does monitoring equipment and stations, particularly given India’s rapidly developing techno-capacity. Meanwhile, the number of flights has grown drastically, as has the number of people who have experience driving in “fog.”

Unfortunately, when we in the middle/upper class do see the “fog” more appropriately as “smog,” we may still tend to inappropriately assign blame to the poor.

(Note: This is hardly an Indian phenomenon. The world over, in developed and developing country alike, we wrongly blame the poor both for their poverty and for pollution. In 1972 at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment, then-PM Indira Gandhi famously declared that “poverty is the biggest polluter” and most of the world’s leaders agreed.)

Back to the case of Delhi’s smog: In winter, India’s poor are often forced to resort to outdoor fires — cow dung, wood, scrap paper, leaves, plastic, whatever — to keep warm. And it all seems perfectly reasonable, as Delhi winter nighttime temperatures approach freezing, so staying warm is literally a public health concern. The haze of these fires is a common experience among hutments as is the small fire outside a chowkidar’s shack in middle and upper class neighborhoods. This is a tangible occurrence, and it certainly contributes to the annual smog — visible, smellable, heavy particulate smoke in the air can’t be ignored — but it’s certainly not the only cause.

The middle and upper classes deserve a hefty share of blame, for several reasons. First, we keep warm by increasing our electricity consumption to power those ubiquitous space heaters. Electricity in India primarily comes from coal-fired powerplants, which we know is a heavy polluter. But because we don’t all have a smokestack in our neighborhood, we tend to ignore that portion of our contribution to the smog. Second, the middle and upper classes drive and car exhaust is another serious pollution source. Yet we also tend to ignore this because it is a part of our year-round experience. There’s no temporal pollution source to link to the seasonal “fog.” Yet our tailpipes are certainly doing their part. Third, consider a prime culprit behind Delhi’s perpetual dust, which also contributes to poor air quality. Delhi, like most major Indian cities, is constantly under construction. A lot of this construction is for the newly minted, ever increasing middle and upper classes. And while construction itself yields volumes of air-borne particulate, construction also tends to rip up green spaces which otherwise might mitigate airborne dust and keep soil in place. But again, construction is year-round (and a sign of prosperity) so perhaps we tend to think of it less.

This would all be idle pontification if we didn’t also know that Delhi’s air quality is actually hazardous, particularly in this season.

Of course, air quality is an environmental problem that is, at best, difficult to tackle. But we can’t hope to even make a dent if we can’t diagnose it properly.

I understand that this is only a casual analysis. But I think it’s clear: It’s not fog. It’s smog.

And we’re all to blame.

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Let’s work in concert

I’m a sucker for well-produced, moving video.

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Wart slug on ailing reef…

The reef be dying...

Reefs the world over are suffering, as warming water (and possibly other factors) disrupt their productive symbiosis with a specific protozoa, zooxanthella. Each relies on the other for nutrients and energy, and the protozoa also give hard coral blocks their color.

But when this is cycle is disrupted — again, mostly my warming waters due to global warming but also acidification — the corals can’t maintain this balance and typically expel their zooxanthellae. This leads to a bleached — white or light colored — reef, which is my experience is typically then recovered by a different algae, like we see above.

This whole imbalance also typically wipes out other sensitive populations. For example, in the Andamans, the fast-evolving delicate nudibranchs have all but disappeared according to environmentalists and the dive community. When I was diving there, only the varicose wart slugs (above) were left.

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This is what Democracy looks like!

And then, they were arrested...


Photo by Josh Lopez

See anyone familiar? (Look just above the second eight).

I now have an arrest record. And after two weeks, more than 1,250 people built (or added to) one, too.

There’s more to the tale coming in subsequent posts. But in the meantime, you should read in to find out the serious trouble literally coming down the pipeline.

By the ways, “Show me what Democracy looks like! / This is what Democracy looks like!” is the best call-and-response protest chant out there.

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Goodbye healthy reef

Deep blue Dixon's Pinnacle

About 100 feet beneath the ocean several miles off Havelock Island is a picture of what is fast disappearing: healthy reef.

Coral ecosystems — the rain forests of the ocean, as it were — are fading and collapsing in the face of global warming, coral bleaching, overfishing, agricultural runoff, human waste pollution, the list goes on.

We can congratulate ourselves for mucking about too much.

If you’re interested in knowing more, I encourage you to check out the research and conclusions from International Programme on the State of the Ocean.

I don’t mean to be preachy, but this particular slice of the environment is something I’m dedicating my life to. So, in my world view, it’s too damn important to not talk about.

More life than you can shake a stick at

Fish and more be everywhere

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