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Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air

Everard, Mark


Mark Everard
Associate Professor in Ecosystem Services


The air and the atmosphere, respectively the physical ‘stuff’ we breathe and the wider gaseous and energetic layers surrounding our home planet, comprise immensely complex and dynamic flows of energy, matter and living things. The atmosphere is, by orders of magnitude, the largest habitat on our home planet. Yet, due to its fluidity, invisibility and lack of clear national ownership, it is also the most overlooked. The looming threats that stem from its frequent omission from our thoughts, and the fragmented way in which we have addressed isolated acute problems disregarding impacts elsewhere in the air system, must not be allowed to continue.

It is an irony that, though dry air is an efficient electrical insulator, in so many other respects the atmosphere is the planet’s great connector. The air transmits light, allows the conduction, convection and radiation of heat, and distributes moisture and other chemical substances throughout the globe. Air is the medium of distribution of scent trails and pheromones, of spores, pollen and seeds, and of disease organisms and their vectors. Climate systems redistribute energy captured from the sun, retained in ever-greater quantities by the global greenhouse yet countervailed by the albedo effect of cloud cover, and with it evaporation from the seas and other moist surfaces. Birds, insects and other organisms fly in it, and these creatures, the pleasant vista of the sky and the sense of space and ‘fresh air’ relax and renew us.

Air touches and is intimately interdependent with the earth and water, shaping, conveying and otherwise interacting with their constituents. The atmosphere has evolved since our home planet was formed from the condensation of dust in the embryonic solar system, and has been profoundly shaped by the emergence and activities of life. Indeed, the very nature of the atmosphere carries the fingerprint of the living processes that form and maintain it, the whole living biosphere of interacting non-living and living elements recycling, reforming and regulating itself as a single ‘superorganism’ that some refer to as ‘Gaia’.

These interdependent life forms of course include humanity. Our diverse biological needs, economic and subsistence activities and wider life enjoyment depend utterly upon the protective and sustaining properties of the thin gaseous skin surrounding our home planet. And equally, all of the activities of our technologically advanced and populous species have impacts, often profound, upon the air space and all who share it. Indeed, it is the regeneration and cleansing of air, the watering through atmospheric circulation systems of the land that grows our food and which recharges rivers, lakes and groundwater, and the flows of energy through the atmosphere that we harvest in turbines and rely on to bear away waste gases or exploit in other ways, that makes life possible, profitable, enjoyable and sustainable. We use the air to send messages of peace both acoustically and electronically, but also to bear chemical weapons, launch bombing raids and secure aerial dominance in warfare and militarily enforced peace-making.

Ask any scuba diver and they will tell you interesting things about air: how important it is to ensure that your kit is suitable and well-serviced so it will not fail when you need it most, that alternate air sources are an essential part of the scuba kit and, importantly, that the first thing to learn is how to share air with a dive buddy. Thirty metres down deep, there is no room for error. Without air, at any depth or altitude, we die. But sharing air is a matter of far deeper significance than for water sports. As shareholders in and dependents upon by far the largest habitat of this planet, we share air not merely with our buddies but with all of global civilisation and every life form. Acting as if we were all connected is then something that should come naturally or else, as we have seen, bad things can happen if we disregard its importance or treat it in a fragmented manner. Air then is the ultimate common for all life, including prospects for all of humanity. It is the medium through which we visit inequities upon others, particularly those yet to inherit it. The air is what joins us, the medium of that joining, and above all a key element of nature’s integral interconnectedness.

Breathing space: the natural and unnatural history of air takes a fresh look at the ocean of gases and physical shields immersing and surrounding us every moment of our lives. It examines the evolution, characteristics, the benefits that flow from the atmosphere to us and the harm that we inadvertently inflict upon it. We explore responses to some acute problems wrought upon the air and upper atmosphere at our hand, before then questioning whether our vision and ensuing decisions and actions are broad enough to safeguard one of the most fundamental of natural resources underpinning our collective future.

Breathing space is not a book for the specialist in any one aspect of the atmosphere, be that local air quality management, ozone depletion or climate change. Those topics, and many more, are considered in some detail. However, the principal emphasis is on the whole interdependent air-human system, and on the lessons that can emerge from looking at our systemic interdependence. It is about air as an ecosystem, as a common resource vital to all people now and yet to come. It is about what we need to do and how we might do it if we are to safeguard our common inheritance and common legacy.

Chapter 1, Air and the making of the atmosphere, highlights the properties of the airspace, including why this has contributed to its widespread omission from major global, national and local studies such as the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. The formation and subsequent evolution of the atmosphere are considered, including its current structure and the major properties of atmospheric layers. The depth and significance of the interdependence of the atmospheric system with landscapes and life are summarised, along with key properties and functioning of the climatic system and weather. We consider the deep interdependences between life and the environment that supports it: the dynamic biosphere of our home planet.

Chapter 2, Living in a bubble, relates to the biological interdependence of people with air and the atmospheric system. It addresses how we are biologically embedded in the bubble of air that surrounds planet Earth, touching on the role of the atmosphere in human senses, the many ways that our deep relationship with air and the atmosphere shapes beliefs and myths, the places we live and the livelihoods within them, and how it influences our technological development and aesthetic expression.

Chapter 3, What does air do for us? then considers the breadth of benefits we derive from the air and atmosphere within the context of the ecosystem services framework. It draws upon prior studies and new insights from discussion throughout this book to draw out these benefits by ecosystem service category and by atmospheric layer.

Chapter 4, Abuses of the air, outlines the many ways in which human activities have impacted on aspects of both air and the atmosphere. It considers how all matter entering the common airspace spreads and may accumulate with unforeseen consequences. Our industrial trajectory is discussed, as are broader implications for the air and atmosphere arising from massive conversion of terrestrial habitats. Forests and wetlands in particular are addressed due to their deep influence on regeneration and regulation of the airspace and its services. Significant threats such as ozone depletion and climate change are highlighted, together with a range of emerging concerns.

Chapter 5, Managing our impacts on air, explores the timelines of various forms of legislative and other responses to address pressures upon the air and the atmosphere. Examples include how we have tackled key challenges such as acid rain, ozone depletion and climate change, and some of the lessons that arise from this. The chapter explores the evolution of the law and the current ways in which air is included or overlooked, suggesting future developments for more integrated protection of this vital resource.

Chapter 6, Thinking in a connected way, highlights the journey towards systemic thinking, introducing the Ecosystem Approach and its implications. It addresses various case studies of how some issues were tackled in the past and how systemic insights could or should have led to alternative approaches, drawing out key lessons.

Chapter 7, Rediscovering our place in the breathing space, acknowledges a number of important principles and then applies them to a range of settings including, for example, urban design, rural land use, value retention in material life cycles, novel economic approaches, attitudes to risk and appropriate regulation, looking to the future and how we need to approach it.

Chapter 8, Resolution for integrated management of the air space, argues that perhaps what we need is a set of consensual, science-based but high-level ‘Atmospheric Principles’ recognising important aspects of the services provided by the air and the atmosphere. A set of such ‘Atmospheric Principles’ is proposed, emulating those that we already have for integrated management of water and land resources, to guide the assimilation of this vital yet still commonly overlooked environmental medium in implementation of the Ecosystem Approach at scales from the biospheric to the international and intranational, though to local and corporate settings.

Annex 1 reproduces the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment classification of ecosystem services and also key aspects of the Ecosystem Approach as a ready reference for readers who may be less familiar with these concepts and their sources.

The very notion that air and the atmosphere are an ecosystem will be novel to many, and the presentation of it as the Earth’s biggest and most neglected habitat will perhaps be surprising. However, when one takes account of the breadth of services that the atmosphere provides to humanity, the scale and diversity of negative impacts that modern lifestyles exert upon it, and the lack of connections in the ways that we seek to safeguard it, the importance of taking a more integrated approach becomes compelling. Breathing space: the natural and unnatural history of the air makes this case with solid proposals for further integrated development of society’s interactions with this vital, yet massively undervalued, living heritage and natural resource.


Everard, M. (2015). Breathing Space: The Natural and Unnatural History of Air. London: Zed Books

Book Type Authored Book
Publication Date Apr 9, 2015
Peer Reviewed Not Peer Reviewed
ISBN 9781783603855
Keywords air, atmosphere, ecosystem services, ecosystem approach
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