David Ludlum on atmospheric pollution

From David Ludlum’s Vermont Weather Book (1985)

The atmosphere is still undergoing change. Alternate warm and cool periods lasting several centuries, as well as long spells of wetness and dryness, have resulted in stress to humans and their agricultural activities. During the past century, the petrochemical age, we have altered the constituents of the very air we breathe, and only in the past three decades have we come to realize the damage we have done. Now we are trying to restore the atmosphere to its former purity. We should not have left to unregulated industrial freedom the composition of our most valuable possession. (4)

This version of environmentalism is almost 40 years old. In some respects, the sentiment sounds dated. Ludlum writes in the wake of the U.S. “Clean Air” acts of the 1960s and 1970s, which were concerned with specific sources of pollution like coal plants or combustion engines. From the current era’s perspective, the notion that we need to clean up the air sounds quite optimistic and doable. Today air is still a problem, but it’s a symptom. Mainstream attention has moved to the potential collapse of the entire planetary atmosphere that makes Earth conducive to life. “Dirty” is defined differently: not particular sites of pollution like factories, but a circulating background of particles, atmospheric CO₂. Global CO₂ is far harder to address, because it is a dispersed marker of the entire planet’s polluting activities. The shift in the understanding of atmospheric pollution is a great example of how systems-level thinking can define a problem more completely, at the same time as it makes it more daunting to address.


David Ludlum, The Vermont Weather Book (Vermont Historical Society, 1985).

Tags climate weather