Book Review: Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, by Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly

The tale of one American city’s epic struggle with smog may not strike you as the most interesting of reads. It sounds more like a government report than a page-turner. But when that city is Los Angeles, things become much more complicated…and, I might as well say it, sexy.

In Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles, Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly provide a well-documented, highly engaging, and widely relevant account of southern California’s battle with “the beast,” as the authors lovingly refer to smog. Placed firmly in the tradition of good old muckraking journalism, Smogtown covers over sixty years of pollution making and pollution fighting in Los Angeles.

Jacobs, an experienced journalist and author, and Kelly, also a writer and former spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District, dig deep in their quest of tracking the beast. From that fateful day of July 8, 1943, that it first rolled into Los Angeles and up to the present, smog has managed to define life in southern California in many respects. Simultaneously, the beast’s reign of terror and humanity’s response to it parallel our entire civilization’s relationship with the planet.

Despite its clear intention of making a case for environmental awareness and action, Smogtown is not your typical “green’s” diatribe against big business and weak government. No, Jacobs and Kelly are much smarter–and fairer–than that in this book.

As you might expect, they pull no punches when detailing the ways that major corporations, particularly car companies and power producers, create the ingredients of smog. Since well before Los Angeles mushroomed into the megalopolis and mega-market that it is today, various producers have pushed development, consumption, and idyllic comfort to the masses…creating the desire for what those businesses are there to sell.

But along with this critical account of corporate influence, and government complicit weakness, Jacobs and Kelly train the spotlight on southern Californians themselves as key contributors to the very problem that has damaged so many aspects of life in the area.

Because of this focus on the human element, Smogtown plays out like a soap opera, with a cast of characters ranging from arch-villains to valiant heroes: “the dragon lady,” “Haagy,” “Moonbeam,” “The Governator.” The authors’ historical story exposes the roots and rampages of smog, how a prodigious population explosion and growing consumption “essentially…turned nature against itself.”1

Jacobs and Kelly show how self-sacrifice for the sake of defeating the beast has been hard to sell to Angelenos no matter the time or condition. Initially, after having endured serious hardships during the years of World War II, people were understandably worn out from all forms of “rationing” for a good they could not immediately experience. But later, once peace and prosperity returned, this resistance simply became selfishness after people had grown accustomed to lives of comfort.

Jacobs and Kelly give a convincing portrayal of how southern Californians loved and fed the beast even as they tried to kill it. For example, they describe “the image of the two-faced Angeleno” seen by outsiders (221). This perception, the authors explain, grew from “The community’s schizophrenic attitudes–banish the fumebank, not the mechanical contraption that prodigiously coughs it out”–i.e., the automobile. Similarly, despite tax breaks and other incentives, residents “showed little interest in driving electric vehicles, turning instead to the large sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks that clog state highways today” (302).

The death of the electric car is particularly ironic and indicative, since the majority of Californians in public and private and corporate life (like many folks today…) banked on some grand technological savior to deal with smog. Anything except change their lifestyles! But because the electric car did not fit the convenience bill, even that potential technological fix got kicked to the curb.

The effects of such selfish resistance to clearly beneficial measures are profound. Smog is still around, after all. But even beyond that localized problem, Jacobs and Kelly observe that nowadays, “the average Angeleno [is] responsible for ten times more greenhouse gas emissions per capita than the average person in the world” (338).

Smogtown remains balanced not despite but because of this focus on the human causes of smog. Jacobs and Kelly show readers the personal, social, and environmental damages that the beast has done. But they also show that great results still came of the battle with smog. Their interest in the human side of things highlights the many citizen soldiers and brave leaders who tried to make a change for the good of all. And other benefits came about as well; thanks to the fight with smog, for example, “Today’s automobiles emit just one percent of the noxious fumes they did back in the 1960s” (191).

As a result, Smogtown provides a compelling case history of one city’s experience with its self-created scourge that, in turn, reveals much about modern society at large. So Jacobs and Kelly put us all in the spotlight as they look at the bigger picture: life not in one city but on one endangered planet. For, as they rightly say in their closing sentence, “the planet can’t afford to ignore the story of Smogtown as an admonition to live wisely” (358).

1. Jacobs, Chip, and William J. Kelly. Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2008. 77.

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