The 1952 London smog: thousands died

Return of the killer air

Tinkering measures cannot halt pollution, writes Arnulf Solberg

We have all grown used to relentless news stories about the degradation of our environment by human activity, and the last few weeks have been no different.

On Monday January 23 London mayor Sadiq Khan issued an alert warning Londoners of “very high” levels of air pollution. Two days later there were more particulates in the air per cubic metre in London than in Beijing (although the levels happened to be unusually low in the latter city on January 25, the day those readings were taken). Cold weather, industrial pollution from mainland Europe and diesel emissions from vehicles combined to create toxic conditions in London. People were told to refrain from exercise (not of much help if you are in manual employment) and avoid main roads if possible.

This had followed the revelation on January 6 that parts of London had breached annual limits on air pollution within the first five days of 2017. Estimates as to the number of people killed by air pollution in London each year vary considerably, but Khan puts the number dying prematurely at 9,500. The number of people affected by cancers, respiratory problems, other diseases (including Alzheimer’s) as a result of the pollution will obviously be much higher.

In the past, coal burning had been the major culprit in London (as it is in modern-day Beijing). This produced the infamous ‘pea soupers’ - sulphur dioxide released from burning low quality coal combined with fog bringing death. In December 1952 there was the Great Smog - four days of a thick, toxic, yellow covering that is now thought to have killed up to 12,000 people. Traditionally the working class districts had been worst affected, but the pollution disaster in 1952 extended across the city.

The Great Smog is seen today as a watershed, but action was not taken by the Conservative administration for over three years: it was pressure from below that forced the government to take action. The Clean Air Act of 1956 introduced controls on coal burning in homes and factories and moved coal power stations out of urban areas. There was a major move towards the use of gas and electricity to heat homes.

Today the mayor’s plan is to cut the number of high polluting vehicles in the city through charging drivers of diesel and older petrol cars £10 per trip into central London on top of the congestion charge. A consultation of residents in 2016 appeared to show support for such measures, but whether they would be effective remains to be seen. We should ask why people on lower incomes - those who cannot afford to buy a replacement car - should be made to pay disproportionately for a problem they did not create. Decent, affordable public transport alongside urban planning that focuses on the needs of the city’s inhabitants is required. We should aim to reorganise cities in a way that brings people closer to where they work, while preserving and expanding public spaces for leisure and socialising.


Whilst the condition of the air in some of the UK’s cities makes for a grim state of affairs, the bigger picture of humanity’s impact on the earth is surely graver, and we have had recent reminders of this too.

The decline in Arctic ice has led to record lows this winter. The potential consequences of this include an acceleration of global warming and chaotic weather changes across the globe. Robin McKiein The Observer drew attention to a proposal to introduce “10 million wind-powered pumps over the Arctic ice cap. In winter, these would be used to pump water to the surface of the ice, where it would freeze, thickening the cap.”1 This would cost roughly $500 billion. Such proposals reflect not just the concern among scientists that time is running out, but also reflect a deep pessimism about the potential for a political movement to bring about solutions to the crisis. Technical innovation is seen as our only hope - capitalism, and its logic of never-ending accumulation, is seen as here to stay.

A report in the Nature, Ecology and Evolution journal attracted media attention earlier this month. It revealed that the dumping of eight million tons of plastic into the oceans every year has meant that pollutants have been detected in the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the oceans.2 This is more than simply an ugly human footprint. Aside from the impact on sea life, constituting a loss in itself, the pollution of the world’s seas will obviously have consequences for human beings eating and making a living from marine fauna. Plastics aside, radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is now finding its way into fish and ultimately people. The oceans have been and continue to be treated as a bottomless pit for waste, despite what is now known.

Humanity is destroying the conditions of its own existence, but humanity itself is not the problem. The problem is the capitalist mode of production. The production of goods we do not need, and the lack of consideration by the owners of the means of production as to the waste produced are obvious problems flowing from capitalist production. There is nothing inherent to capital that makes it take heed of external impacts of production either on human populations or on nature. Quite the contrary: competition between capitalists has given incentive to businesses to be reckless in this regard. Only in a society that produces exchange values can a travesty such as designed obsolescence be ‘rational’. Likewise the promotion of cars over public transport only makes sense in a society in which production is undertaken for its own sake - ie, driven by the imperatives of profit. It is not a lack of knowledge or creativity that holds back the development of green energy, but the unwillingness of the capitalist class to invest.

Leading sections of that class, and their political representatives, are waking up to the seriousness of the situation, but the response has not been anywhere near enough to avoid catastrophe. The more backward elements, eg, the billionaire Koch brothers, and, of course, Donald Trump, with their climate-change denial and fanatical opposition to state intervention to protect the environment, are clearly intent on making what is bad, worse. As Noam Chomsky has noted, one of the most grievous consequences of Trump’s victory will be that action on climate change will be delayed still further.3

Globally, resurgent nationalisms and the ongoing territorialisation of politics is occurring at precisely the time in which unprecedented cooperation and coordination have become an urgent necessity. The capitalist class has, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, been able to put an end to follies such as the use of DDT pesticides or chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in aerosols and refrigerators, when alternatives could be brought into use relatively easily. What they cannot do is address the tendency of capital to degrade the conditions of life on Earth.

Humanity can meet the challenge of climate change without descending into a new barbarism, but this will require a fundamental transformation in social relations. Rational economic planning is required to manage the finite resources of the planet and provide a decent standard of living for its billions of human inhabitants. Genuine - working class - democracy is required to direct the development of our wealth and technical abilities towards the purpose of fulfilling human needs. The capitalist mode of production has to be done away with, so that humanity itself can endure. Until then society will continue to operate as if the quality of the air we breathe is of less importance than a capitalist’s bottom line.


1. ‘Could a £400 billion plan to refreeze the Arctic before the ice melts really work?’ The Observer February 12 2017.

2. Deutsche Welle February 14 2017.

3. www.youtube.com/watch?v=08WNclaSI4o.