It happened today - December 4, 2015

On this day in 1952, Dec. 4, many Londoners drew their last breath. And don’t think it was easy.

It was the beginning of the last and worst of London’s infamous “pea soup” fogs. They may seem romantic in a Sherlock Holmes story. But in fact they were the product of horrifying pollution generated by a great city heating itself with coal.

Year after year, the problem got worse. And periodically, an “inversion” would trap the dirty air over the city, full of smoke particles, hydrochloric acid, sulphur dioxide and so on, choking the young, the old, the unwell and causing a spike in unnecessary deaths. At least 4,000, and perhaps as many as 12,000, before the fog dissipated on Dec. 8.

It is amazing how bad it was. You literally couldn’t see three feet in front of you. All transit had to stop, and all traffic.

It wasn’t the first such fog. Indeed, in the classic “penny dreadful” novel The Trail of Fu Manchu (OK, now you know, I’ve read such stuff) describes the 1934 fog that could actually be seen seeping into a hotel and “coming down the steps in waves.” If such things get worse slowly, you tend to ignore the fact that they’re getting worse. Until they get really intolerable.

After 1952 the British acted. They acted with good humour (indeed this fog prompted the classic 1954 Goon Show “Forog”). But they also acted with determination. They placed serious restrictions on the more unbreathable forms of pollution and as energy technology advanced and the rules were tightened, the air over London gradually cleared.

It’s a lesson worth remembering on all sorts of grounds. First, and the left might want to cheer here, it’s not all doom and gloom on the environment. Moreover, the government can do some things right including on that file. Second, and the right might want to cheer here, government succeeded here because it enforced rather than violating property rights, specifically your right not to have the air on your own land and in public spaces fouled, and because it set rules and let entrepreneurs find solutions rather than dictating mechanisms. Third, smog that kills babies is real pollution. Carbon dioxide isn’t.

That one may produce some hissing. But it’s true anyway.