“The mayor was not opposed to an air pollution study, but he was not enthusiastic. He observed that pollution control might be a ‘nice idea,’ but added that as long as he saw smoke issuing from the stacks at the steel mill, he knew that Gary was prosperous.”

—Philip Roth in Goodbye, Columbus

The official explanation for Los Angeles’ smog problem is a harrowingly complex one, a seemingly impenetrable mass of conflicting health and economic data, adverse weather conditions and contradictory scientific studies wielded as political cudgels by warring state and local agencies. The truth is far more simple and awesome: At the bottom line, smog is a political problem.

The politics of smog are the politics of expediency. It was, for instance, a “nice idea” to set up the world’s first air pollution control authority in this city in 1947. It was a “nice idea” to have industry install relatively cheap first-generation smog control devices in the ’50s — popular with the citizenry and not so irritating as to slow the city’s industrial growth rate.

But the first law of the politics of smog is that politically acceptable strategies tend to be ineffective in the long run, and strategies that are effective — strategies like sensible land use planning and a growth policy that recognizes that L.A. has already outstripped its people-carrying capacity — are not politically acceptable, especially to politicians whose major concern is staying within their electorate’s zone of indifference and not offending the business, industrial and development interests that finance their campaigns. And so, for 33 years, Los Angeles has waged war on smog on a “nice idea” basis, and as a result we still have the world’s filthiest, most toxic smog.

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