2020: A Smog Odyssey 2020: A Smog Odyssey
Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan L. Ramsey

2020: A Smog Odyssey

A Foreigner’s Perspective on Polish Smog
Jonathan L. Ramsey
time 12 minutes

Before I start, let me say that I am not an expert in air pollution so if you, dear reader, decide that this disqualifies what I’m about to say, then I will understand. I speak Polish, I have a permanent residency, I am a taxpayer, and I feel that I have a right to speak about this issue. But on the other hand, you could say I am just a strange 32-year-old guy from America, which is by far the largest per-capita emitter of C02 in the world, the most wasteful society in Earth’s history, and as it happens, the country that Poland is trying to imitate more and more with each passing year.

I moved to Poland in 2010 at age 23, and during my first six years here I never heard a word about the smog and never considered the effect that it would have on my health or anyone around me. It simply was not an issue that anyone I knew discussed. But I became interested in the issue, like many people, during January 2017, when a huge wave of smog hit Warsaw and shrouded the city in pollution for 10 days.

This awakening came at an emotional time in my life. My daughter had just been born six weeks premature, with some health complications that required two invasive surgeries. We spent three stressful weeks living at the Children’s Health Centre (Centrum Zdrowia Dziecka; CZD) in Warsaw’s Wawer district, and even after my daughter was released we had to


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I can easily remember the moment when I first realized that Kraków, the city where I’ve lived ever since I was born, was ruthlessly poisoning me. That moment was around seven years ago, when I first read about the creeping pollution in my home town. Before the anti-pollution activists first arrived on the foggy horizon, did no one really know about the air pollution in Kraków? Why didn’t anyone talk about it? Did we treat air pollution as a regular meteorological phenomenon that didn’t merit any special attention, just like, say, hailstones? I don’t know. It’s hard to understand, let alone explain. Perhaps smog did exist back then, but a social awareness of smog didn’t exist until 2012. To use a well-worn, yet accurate analogy, back then we were all Monsieur Jourdain, who realized he had been “speaking prose while knowing nothing of it”. We realized we had all been breathing death.

This realization brought with it a mass trauma on the scale of an infinitely postponed, yet irreversible medical diagnosis. Like a patient newly informed of their condition, we went through a phase of intensive rebellion: marches and demonstrations, anti-smog masks, plaques commemorating the victims of smog on city walls, an appeal to Pope Francis published in the Italian daily press. Next was the inevitable coming to terms with the fact of illness, and the anticipation of a swift recommendation for successful treatment. Incidentally, accelerated civil education took place. This means that even today, you can converse with just about anyone in Kraków on the subjects of lowering emissions or development in the areas of ‘ventilation corridors’.

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