Remembering Kirk R Smith (1947-2020)

Kirk leaves us with the power of imagining change and hope 

By Sunita Narain, Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Tuesday 16 June 2020
Kirk R Smith was professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley

It is not easy to write about Kirk. Many memories are deeply etched and putting them in an order is nearly impossible. Kirk Smith, as the world knows him, visited the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) for the first time way back in the early 1980s. That was the time when CSE’s flagship report India’s State of Environment was examining the connection between the environment and poor people’s chulhas (cookstoves) that burn biomass and solid fuels.

Those days, government policies were asking poor rural women to use improved stoves to reduce firewood usage and protect forests in the process. Sitting in our office, Kirk debunked that logic. 

He weighed in that it was more important to make women and others aware of the dangers of inhaling toxic indoor smoke and how it hurt human lungs, especially those of women and children. Forest protection was not central or primary to this agenda.

This helped to build a powerful narrative on what has remained one of the most compelling public health challenges even today.

From that time onward, Kirk became and remained one of our closest friends. He often shared with us, his scientific insight and advice that was like a litmus test of what we said and did on air pollution.

Global spotlight on India’s chulha trap

We owe it to Kirk for catapulting the most persistent public health problem of the Global South — the link between energy poverty and household air pollution, to the global centre stage. He persuaded the world, the multilateral agencies and forums that address public health, to integrate mitigation of household air pollution and attach primacy to it.

He made India conscious of chronic energy poverty — the chulha trap. He frequently reminded us that though the percentage share of households using solid fuels for cooking in the growing demography had reduced over time, the absolute numbers of households still caught in the chulha trap had not changed. This was unacceptable.

India remained his lab for research and place for advocacy for 40 years. He is our very own.

WatchKirk Smith talks about clean cooking fuel

He had started by monitoring exposure of one woman inside her home in Gujarat’s Kheda district, way back in 1981; He said she was the “first person in human history” to have been monitored for exposure to chulha smoke.

His pleasure knew no bounds when he traced the same lady after 30 years and found the household using clean fuel. By then, he had further expanded his work to villages in Haryana to not only assess household air pollution, but also monitor rural ambient air quality.

Challenged convention — shifted focus to exposure 

Over the last few years, Delhi became Kirk’s home when he was not teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in the United States. But this was also the time when he got deeply involved with the air quality narrative in India and changed the way air quality management was understood and approached.

As an advisor to the first-ever committee on air pollution and health of the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Kirk challenged the conventional approach of focusing only on managing general ambient air quality

He made an emphatic argument that it was the total integrated exposure from all sources close to us that mattered more from a public health standpoint. The official recommendations of the ministry now include that it is more important to know how close we are to the pollution source and what are we inhaling. General ambient concentration is not a good surrogate for total air pollution risk and health outcome.

Broke silos

It was Kirk’s persuasive argument that convinced all that we cannot keep outdoor and household air pollution in silos anymore. He showed with numbers that household air pollution was about a quarter of the outdoor air pollution.

We cannot achieve clean air without stopping household air pollution. He put forth findings from research to show that if India stopped household air pollution, it would be easier to meet the national clean air standard for particulate matter nationwide. There was certainly a reason for his excitement and cheer when the new schemes came up to shift the subsidy for Liquified Petroleum Gas from the rich to the poor of India.

Helped to understand risk transition

When the poor Global South was struggling hard to reduce health risks, Kirk helped the world to understand the nature of the environment risk transition with the changing economy. This also helped us with the framing of our narrative on air pollution during our early years of campaign.

Kirk said when countries are poorer they are burdened with the traditional risk of infection. With economic growth and growing toxicity, modern risk related to metabolic diseases and cancer increases.

And post-modern risk is when the rich nations fall into the spiral of greenhouse gas emissions and transport the risk of climate change to the world. He  warned that India was facing the overlap of traditional and modern risks leading to higher per capita disease burden. India’s traditional and modern risks are strong at once.

Towards a blue sky

This is our last and deeply moving personal memory of Kirk.

In recent times, when strong negativity as well as negative imaging of dirty smoggy skies in our cities sapped hope, Kirk called us and suggested that we do a photo competition together; ask all to visualise in whichever way possible and click photos of a clean blue sky or of evidence of change on ground and share.

His message was clear and strong: It is not negativity but positive visioning that empowers change. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the deadline of this photo contest. But he hurried us up and said, do not wait too long, and fixed August 15 as the new deadline.

Kirk did not live to see the collective visioning of a blue sky from the people of India. He left us too early. But he has left with us this mantra and the power of imagining change and hope.

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