Sarah S. Elkind: Air Pollution and Prosperity

Elkind, How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy cover imageWe welcome a guest post today from Sarah S. Elkind, author of How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles. In the book, Elkind focuses on five Los Angeles environmental policy debates between 1920 and 1950, investigating how practices in American municipal government gave business groups political legitimacy at the local level as well as unanticipated influence over federal politics. In this guest post, Elkind considers air pollution in mid-twentieth-century Los Angeles and twenty-first-century China.


I was recently interviewed for a series of radio essays called “We Used to Be China,” on China’s air pollution, by Sarah Gardner at American Public Radio’s Marketplace. These stories got me thinking about China’s air pollution problem, and about Marketplace‘s premise. Did we, the United States, used to be China? In what ways?

China’s appalling air pollution has been in heavy rotation in American news this spring and summer as an adjunct to stories of China’s economic growth, and because air pollution in Beijing and other Chinese cities has become so unimaginably bad. China, of course, is not the only country struggling with smog. The World Health Organization reported in May 2014 that air quality in most cities has declined since 2011. WHO attributes the deterioration of air quality in “middle income countries” like China and India to increased use of motor vehicles and electricity from coal-fired power plants.[1] Prosperity in these countries breeds pollution.

In Los Angeles, air pollution was also caused by industrial production, automobiles, and affluence. After the Clean Air Act of 1970, air quality in Los Angeles steadily improved, until the boom of the 1990s; so many Angelenos purchased low-mileage sport utility vehicles in that prosperous era that air quality declined. In the 1940s, Los Angeles’s first smog crisis was caused by a wartime surge in industrial production, oil refining, and automobile use. Perhaps more significantly, the connection between pollution and prosperity has been linked in Americans’ minds for a hundred years. The Right uses this connection to weaken all sorts of regulations, including those which would improve public health and environmental quality by reducing emissions from coal-fired power plant and cars.

Does that make the mid-twentieth-century United States like today’s China? In some ways, absolutely. The United States embraces polluting technologies, industrial production, and industrial products from phosphate-loaded laundry detergent, DDT, and low-mileage SUVs with little regard for their environmental consequences.

In the early twentieth century, Americans saw automobiles as infinitely more convenient and desirable than horse-drawn vehicles and railways. The private automobile permitted American cities to spread out. City planners deliberately decentralized Los Angeles to solve the urban problems they saw in older, more concentrated cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. By the 1950s, when A. J. Haagen-Smit proved that car exhaust caused smog, Los Angeles could no more give up the automobile than China can now give up the coal-fired power plant.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Los Angeles’s mid-twentieth-century smog and China’s pollution today is that Chinese officials, like everyone else, know what causes smog and particulate pollution. But this knowledge alone will not make improving air quality much easier for the Chinese. The technological fixes that decreased air pollution in Los Angeles—the catalytic converter, smokestack scrubbers, higher efficiency engines, changes in gasoline formulas to reduce pollution, and substitutions for coal—can work in China. But the growing Chinese middle class may increase consumption of fossil fuels faster than these technological fixes can clean China’s air. This is precisely what happened in Los Angeles in the 1950s and again in the 1990s. Not only did we used to be China, but in some ways, we still are.

Sarah S. Elkind is associate professor of history and director of environmental studies at San Diego State University. How Local Politics Shape Federal Policy: Business, Power, and the Environment in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles is now available in paperback.

  1. [1]See World Health Organization, “Air Quality Deteriorating in Many of the World’s Cities,” news release, 7 May 2014,