The Breathe Project

Aspiring enlightened activism through collective responsibility of a critical natural resource

It is fairly known that Pittsburgh has had an exhausting struggle with air pollution, dating back to the mid-19th century with the rise of iron, steel, and coke industries filling the air with putrid, dense smoke, leading to Pittsburgh’s nickname of “Hell with the Lid Off”. But with the air pollution, there have been protests striding right alongside, most prominently the creation of several environmental ordinances in 1946 with the help of then Mayor David L. Lawrence, to the shutdown of the steel industry in the 1980s. While it does appear that the quality of air has greatly improved in the recent decade, it is sadly not the case. In fact, Allegheny County still ranks in the top 2% of counties in the United States for cancer risk from air pollution, with our year-round particulate pollution levels resulting in asthma, strokes, neurodegenerative disorders, birth defects and varied forms of cancer. It is even more pertinent now, given the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the impact of global warming of 1.5C. They claim the world is now headed to 3C, and that keeping to the preferred target of 1.5C above pre-industrial levels will mean “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

Compared to the other projects present here today, this is a situation involving the necessity of a vital natural pooled resource that every living being requires to survive. It goes without saying that a natural resource like air is a commons – shared and used by everyone in abundance, with no question of ownership. But when the quality of this resource is brought into question, who should claim responsibility? It is fairly evident that fighting for an improved quality of air is paramount. The state has clearly not been doing their civic duty of protecting our common good, and the market has been creating jobs at the expense of the environment to this day. Citizens have been concerned about the constant news about the quality of air, from innumerable events to raise awareness about the issues related to air quality to actively protesting downtown – taking responsibility into their own hands seems to be the only way. However, these citizens were not aware of how dire the situation was, and were uncertain of how to move forward and make an impact other than protest. There was an issue with access to information, data and knowledge about how environmentally conscious individuals could work towards improving air quality. With the rapidly advancing digital commons created by the internet, The Breathe Project comes into action in that precise location.

The Breathe Project was created in 2011 – a clearinghouse of information, research and empowerment on air quality for Pittsburgh and Southwestern Pennsylvania – and has been a public facing organization since March of this year. With the help of science, technology, and research, The Breathe Project aims at empowering citizens with political awareness and factual evidence to take action towards better air, clearly an organization not willing to hold power and resources, but rather disseminate information and power to the masses.

Consisting of a number of organizations that fall under environmental advocates, public health professionals, academics and citizens, ranging from Carnegie Mellon University, the Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), The Heinz Endowments, and the American Lung Association in Pennsylvania, The Breathe Project is slowly becoming “an ecology of civic institutions” – a platform to bring organizations of various levels together to work towards the common good.

As of now, there are a little over 2 dozen organizations working together that make up The Breathe Project. The best method to provide an insight to the network this creates would be through the lens of one means of empowerment – The Smell Pittsburgh App. Funded by the Heinz Endowments, the app was created by Carnegie Mellon University’s Create Lab as a method to collect data from citizens about various odors and poor air quality in Pittsburgh, which is compiled in a report that is sent to the Allegheny County Health Department, as well as made available online for anyone to use – such as the Clean Air Council’s “Fridays with Fitzgerald Event”, where an endless roll of smell reports was displayed outside County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s office downtown. It is a clear example of how a central digital location for all information pertinent to air pollution can make a significant impact in more enlightened protest.

There are four main resources The Breathe Project uses to aid citizens and groups in the fight for better air quality – Making your voice heard, through the citizen toolkit, Grasping relevant topics with a vast research database, making visible the air pollution through tech tools, and bringing people together through a community portal, through a stepped process of collecting data, increasing awareness, engaging citizens, and taking relevant action. To explain this method a bit more in detail, let us look at two of these resources.

The Citizen Toolkit, for example, is an extremely valuable resource that provides concerned residents with information on local laws, policy updates, dates and behavior maintained in public meetings and hearings, as well as the organization chart of the local government. Through this plethora of information, citizens can raise their concerns and make it known to others through writing op-eds and letters to the editors of local newspapers and magazines. With the knowledge of local government authorities and adequate amounts of written concerns, citizens can now protest in a more enlightened fashion at the offices of the appropriate public officials.

The Tech Tools, on the other hand, use a number of devices created by academics and researchers – such as the Smell PGH App created by CMU’s Create Lab – to collect data through crowdsourcing, in an attempt to share it publicly, as well as send directly to public officials and organizations. This accumulation of data no doubts exhibits the dire need for concern about air quality in the region, increasing the awareness of the citizens, who, with this information, can participate in more educated protests, resulting in the drafting of new regulations and ordinances that pertain to air quality.

While The Breathe Project does not exist on the spatial plane like other physical instances of citizen empowerment and commoning, it still aims at bringing a crowd of like-minded individuals together to work towards the common goal of improving air quality in Pittsburgh. The Breathe Project follows the practices of a shared economy, where individuals shared previously inaccessible information through an online platform. By providing a digital space where active citizens can learn more about a particular issue and implement methods to work alongside individuals of one mind, The Breathe Project has been succeeding in empowering citizens by engaging them, increasing awareness and making them both politically and environmentally conscious towards improving air quality in Pittsburgh as well as southwestern Pennsylvania.

The next steps for The Breathe project have been to involve local and state officials in their endeavor to improve air quality, such as recently elected state representative Summer Lee of Braddock. These more environmentally conscious authority figures should be the next actors involved in The Breathe Project, performing their civic duties through the creation of new regulations and ordinances towards environmental revitalization. Furthermore, as The Breathe Project involves more and more organizations towards their cause, the time is coming where this umbrella organization would have to implement some forms of hierarchy and structure to move forward. This is an excellent opportunity for The Breathe Project to implement new forms of collaboration, more specifically sociocracy, where the organizations seek to achieve solutions that create harmonious social environments as well as productive organizations through the use of consent rather than majority voting in decision-making. As there are so many organizations within The Breathe Project, it would be likely that some organizations’ goals would not align with others. This is where pluralistic agonism – a method of collaboration where accepting conflict for improvement – would be highly beneficial.

So, what can we learn from the practices of The Breathe Project? Firstly, air and other natural resources is not owned by everyone, but everyone is responsible for it. Everyone should be held accountable for the degradation of these natural resources. Secondly, as everyone has a stake in air quality, everyone should be involved to help formulate strategies that could work towards improvement. Thirdly, with the incessant expansion of the internet and the rising trend of open data, we should make full use of the internet to share information and knowledge pertaining to concerning issues. And lastly, crowdfunding as a practice easily reveals the issues and aspirations the public is most concerned about. It also provides citizens with an opportunity to feel involved and that sharing valuable information can result in a positive change.

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