Book review: "Clearing the air" by Tim Smedley

A great book for beginners in the topic, and for those who are keen to communicate the topic to others.

Book review: "Clearing the air" by Tim Smedley

This will be a brief review of a fascinating book.

Tim Smedley sets about telling the story of his own journey of discovery regarding atmospheric air (also known as ambient air or outside air) pollution in UK cities and around the world. He takes us from his first realisation of a problem through to his “Clean air blueprint for cities” and more personal “Clean air blueprint for you”.

Smedley's approach is firmly non-technical and easily accessible. This is not to say that he dumbs things down, not at all, but if you are looking for an analysis of Defra’s DAQI formula, this is not the book where you will find that. In fact, I do not know which book will tell you about that!

Bringing his journalistic skills to bear he tells a story. The story of growing media awareness, global events like the Beijing airpocalypse and diesel-gate (involving Volkswagen and several others), and the worldwide influence of California’s Air Resources Board.

I appreciated the way he described the developing awareness of the air pollution problem, locating it within the line of research and legislation tracking back to smogs and far earlier. One problem I myself have had with finding my feet in the topic of air pollution is understanding how PM2.5 and PM10 relate to the smogs of the 1950s, while at the same time wondering how such blunt measurements, which do not characterise the substance of a pollutant, merely its dimensions and ambient concentration, can be dominant metrics in 2020 when we have a much improved chemical and biological understanding. Smedley’s dive into the development of the field will be useful to anyone else who finds themselves in a similar situation.

Smedley’s political views colour the entire presentation, but given that he is so open about his position it is not difficult to parse the bias and understand the points he makes. If you disagree with his politics some comments will get up your nose, but they won’t do as much harm as PM2.5, and I doubt he cares.

Air pollution is a global problem in that countries everywhere face the issue, and neighbouring countries’ policies and practice affect the air quality of those around them. Smedley’s travel to explore this phenomenon were worth the carbon required to make it possible. His engagements with people on the ground in China, India and USA were particularly informative.

Smedley is writing not just to inform but to transform - he is an activist. His blueprints for personal and civic application are referenced several times during the book, and they appear in full at the end. They are a useful summary of advice on steps to make improvements.

A great book for beginners in the topic, and for those who are keen to communicate the topic to others. And who could resist such an endorsement from Arnie on the dust cover ("Read this book and join the effort to terminate air pollution")?