The End of ‘The Smoke’

30 November 2002

The End of ‘The Smoke’

By Gwynne Dyer

This week is the fiftieth anniversary of the last of London’s great fogs, a pea-souper that killed over four thousand people. Visibility dropped to about two feet (half a metre) and some died just by falling into the Thames and drowning, but most died of lung problems: for five days, the concentration of sulphur in the air exceeded 1,600 parts per billion. Theatres and cinemas closed because audiences could not see the stage, and undertakers ran out of coffins.

Everybody knew the cause of London’s fogs. Practically every house and business was heated by coal fires, and almost all electricity was generated by coal-fired power stations. Whenever cold, still air settled on the city in wintertime, the smoke from all those fires was trapped, and the result was a ‘London fog’.

In 1952, the problem was made worse by the fact that Britain, impoverished by the Second World War, was exporting its best coal and burning sulphur-laden ‘dirty’ coal at home, but the fogs went back a long time. London was already called ‘the Smoke’ two centuries ago, even before it passed the million mark and became the world’s biggest city. Sherlock Holmes’s London was famous for its pea-soup fogs, and it went on getting worse. In that fatal December fifty years ago, London had eight million people — and around three million open coal fires.

It was an illustration of what environmentalists call the ‘frog in the pot’ phenomenon. Drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, and he will promptly hop out again. Put him into cold water and bring it to the boil slowly, and he’ll sit there until he dies. Londoners had grown used to the fogs, and didn’t realise they were killing people because the victims weren’t clutching their throats and falling over in the streets. Most of those who died were very young, very old, or people with serious respiratory problems, and they mostly died in bed. So nobody did anything about it.

That’s how most environmental problems work: they creep up on you gradually, and rarely give you a clear wake-up call. Add short-term self-interest, which makes many people resist changes no matter how harmful the established way is, and you can see why most environmentalists live on the ragged edge of despair.

“The human brain evidently evolved to commit itself emotionally only to a small piece of geography, a limited band of kinsmen, and two or three generations into the future,” wrote Edward O. Wilson in his latest book, ‘The Future of Life’. “To look neither far ahead nor far afield is elemental in a Darwinian sense….For hundreds of millennia those who worked for short-term gain within a small circle of relatives and friends lived longer and left more offspring — even when their collective striving caused their chiefdoms and empires to crumble around them.” Hard-wired short-sightedness: it’s enough to make you cut your throat.

But hang on a minute. They DID do something about the killer fogs: 1952 was the last one. The British government invented an entirely fictitious ‘flu epidemic in the winter of 1952-53 to account for the surge in deaths, but the disaster was just too big to hide. In 1956 parliament passed the Clean Air Act, the world’s first serious attempt to control air pollution. From that date, only smokeless coal (charcoal, basically) could be burned in Britain’s big cities — and by the mid-60s, London fogs were a thing of the past.

Today’s London has twice as many hours of sunshine per year as it did in 1952, and coal fires are practically extinct. London houses today are centrally heated by gas or electricity, and air pollution comes mainly from cars: Britain has gone from 4 million vehicles registered in 1952 to 28 million today. We will never run out of problems — but that doesn’t mean that we should despair.

Human beings do learn from other people’s experience in other places and times. We can even respond to purely statistical evidence of danger. Nobody has ever seen the ‘ozone hole’, for example, but for the past fifteen years the whole world has been trying to close it.

The hole went on growing until 2000, partly because the 1987 Montreal Protocol only required developing countries to halve their use of CFCs by 2005 (with a targeted 85 percent cut by 2007), but mainly because of the huge overhang of old refrigerators and air-conditioners in the developed world. “We knew they were out there and we knew they were leaking,” says Dr. Paul Fraser, chief atmospheric research scientist with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. But Fraser now predicts that the ozone hole will start shrinking in 2005. With luck, it will have closed entirely by 2050.

“I think this shows global protocols work,” said Fraser — and he is quite right. From the moratorium on cod-fishing (almost ten years old in Newfoundland, and soon to extend to the whole European Union) to the Kyoto treaty on climate change, decisions tend to get made late, after the problem is already huge, because human beings tend to focus on the near-by and the short-term. But they do get made, in the end.

Enough people understand the need for a template for future global cooperation on environmental issues that even an inadequate document like the Kyoto treaty has already been ratified by ninety countries. We are not fully rational all the time, but we are not frogs either.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“The human…throat”;and “Today’s…despair”)