I have two things to say about smoke: “Don’t Inhale it, and Don’t Blow It Out.”
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Although the surgeon general had identified the dangers of smoking back in the 1950s, I really didn’t care and began smoking in high school in the 1960s. A few years later when I was a young Marine I intuitively knew that smoking cigarettes was not good for me.
I distinctly remember talking with a fellow smoker fallowing a running competition held as a part of our Marine Corps training. I said to my comrade something to the effect that, “You and I were the fastest two smokers in the platoon.” I was sort of proud of that accomplishment at the time until I started to think about the implication that maybe, just maybe, there was a reason that the fastest runners did not smoke. It took a while to sink in but several years later I quite altogether and became the worst enemy of a smoker, a reformed sinner.
Much later I learned that wood smoke, in addition to contributing to global warming by releasing CO2, also releases carbon monoxide and a number of toxic and/or cancer causing substances such as benzene, formaldehyde, and benzo-a-pyrene. The health impacts of inhaling wood smoke are real and negative.
This realization of the dangers of wood smoke became particularly relevant here in Seattle when, again this summer (smoky skyline shown above), we had to carve our way through wood smoke that at times blocked out the sun. Yikes, who knew that those fun campfires we lit to cook s’mores over as Boy Scouts were actually killing us just like the cigarettes we hid in our backpacks?
Although I have given it some thought, I cannot come up with any good reason to ever inhale smoke of any kind. There are good alternatives to burning things that put off smoke. Think cannabis edibles, nicorette chewing gum, natural gas, solar energy, etc.
Suffice it to say that inhaling smoke is inherently bad.
Smoke and Mirrors
“Don’t Blow Smoke Up My Ass, Marine!” This classic quote could be attributed to any number of Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeants who were dealing with a wayward young Marine who was caught lying. This quote also provides me an opportunity to pivot to a more nuanced and metaphorical meaning of the word smoke.
Literal smoke is pretty much water vapor laced with all sorts of toxic chemicals. The metaphorical smoke referred to by the Gunny is something else altogether. And yet, the two types of smoke share many characteristics.
We can sense it when people are “blowing smoke.” Like with literal smoke, there is a “smell” that just does not seem right. We know that our vision of the truth is being distorted when we encounter and recognize metaphorical smoke.
Kids “blow smoke” when they are trying to explain why they “just had to” break some rule.
Spouses do it when trying to “change the subject.”
Relatives do it when hiding family secrets about money or the improprieties of some uncle or aunt.
Bosses do it when trying to explain some stupid decision or policy
And of course, no one can blow smoke like politicians. The intensity and lethality of this kind of smoke is directly proportional to the autocratic, selfish, and criminal tendencies of the politician. The more they have to hide, the more smoke they blow.
In all cases our vision and understanding of the truth is curtailed by smoke.
Our vision of the truth can also be blocked by fog. But fog will eventually burn off and the fog itself does no harm. The danger in fog is that we do not see things clearly and it can lead to accidents or mistakes. I mention fog here because not all miscalculations and misunderstandings of the truth are due to smoke, sometimes “fog” is the problem. With fog there is no hidden “fire” behind it. With fog we just need time for it to burn off and reveal a more accurate picture of our surroundings: the truth.
But metaphorical smoke is different, and much more dangerous.
The people who blow smoke do so to purposely keep us from the truth. With smoke there is always something burning underneath. With smoke there is always danger, not just from what you can’t see and the accidents that it might cause, but also from the fire behind it and from the poison within the smoke itself.
As with physical smoke, metaphorical smoke always consists of poisons. In metaphorical smoke that poison is the inherent lies that invariably tear at the fabric of organizations and society.
As with physical smoke, metaphorical smoke can temporarily be blown away by strong winds, but ultimately the underlying fire must be extinguished by removing the oxygen of hate and fear that fuels it.
Clearing the Air
Getting to the truth and acting justly/wisely are the only ways we can put out the fire that causes the smoke. This applies to both literal smoke and metaphorical smoke.
Pouring water on a wood burning fire will eventually put it out, but this is a reactive response that only temporarily solves the problem. We cannot expect to permanently get rid of the literal smoke that fills the air unless we look deeply at the root causes. There is always a chain of events leading to the sun turning yellow as it did here in Seattle this summer.
Here is one chain of circumstances that leads to smoke: Smoke comes from burning forests and grasslands. Forests and grasslands can be set on fire by natural forces like lightning or be caused by humans. Forests and grasslands are most likely to burn when they are extremely dry. They are extremely dry because of a lack of rain. There is a lack of rain because of climate change. Climate change is caused by natural forces beyond our control and then magnified by human actions that produce green house gases. The greenhouse gases come from wood we burn in fireplaces, fossil fuels used in our vehicles, and from the coal used to generate our electric power. We choose to burn these substances to maintain a certain lifestyle.
And on it goes. In order to actually prevent the return of the smoke we have to examine all of the steps in the chain of circumstances leading to the fire in detail to see what actions we can take to prevent, or at least minimize, fires and the smoke they produce in the future
There is also a chain of events that leads to metaphorical smoke: Somebody wants something. This person is willing to “break the law” or “bend the rules” to get what they want. They fear that their actions will not be favorably looked on by others. They don’t want others to know exactly what they have done. This person fears “The Truth” and therefore must create an alternate reality. At this point the person trying to hide their actions is “blowing smoke” to divert others from determining the true source of the fire – their own actions which are sometimes illegal, always immoral. Repeated enough times, screened by metaphorical smoke, and left unchallenged, this alternate reality can be perceived as the “truth” when in fact it is in fact, a lie.
As with literal smoke, the immediate answer for metaphorical smoke is to pour water on the source of the fire (i.e. weed out the person who started the chain of events). But this is also only a temporary solution unless we examine the entire chain of circumstances that allowed the smoke blower to “get away with it.”
At the personal level “truth tellers” can call out friends or colleagues at the first sign of smoke. We can hold people accountable for their smoke blowing by publicly challenging them. At the macro level our society needs a complex and independent judicial system, a fair voting system, and a free press that can help us to ferret out the hidden fires that are ultimately generating the smoke.
Smoke: “Don’t Suck it in, and Don’t Blow it out!”
PS: Please see my previous post titled “Truth” if you are interested in my thoughts on how to identify the smoke blowers and make a reasonable assessment of reality. You can reach this previous post via the menu at the top of the blog welcome page or just scroll down.