In the time of toxic air

Published in Himal Southasian, 29 June 2015

You are on life support, it’s fragile, it’s technical, it’s public, it’s political, it could break down – it is breaking down – it’s being fixed, you are not too confident of those who fix it.

– Bruno Latour, from his essay on air.

The debate on urban India’s air has heated up lately, with Delhi being positioned as the city with the most toxic air in the world, according to recent reports. The situation in the capital is so bad that being a couch potato may be better for one’s health in the long run than getting regular outdoor exercise. It is fairly evident that most cities and towns across Southasia are today faced with a similar problem, which is usually posed as a health challenge with techno-scientific (emission norms, ban on diesel vehicles) and urban planning (public transportation, mixed land uses) solutions. No doubt, much thinking and action is required on each of these fronts, but the matter has implications beyond just air and impairment of biologies. It comes in the wake of an ongoing crisis regarding the basic building blocks of modernist thought and its environmentalist critique, compelling us to think afresh about how to conceptualise the emergent problem and to imagine possible futures beyond the impasse.

The unravelling of environmentalism
The notion that society has, through science, comprehensively mapped and modelled the world has been challenged by recent events. We were brought up to believe that the natural world was mostly uncomplicated and that its vagaries and accidents could be safely ‘handled’ by experts. This is no longer a certainty today – even the best science struggles to gain a handle on two of the better-funded areas in health and environmental science, respectively, cancer prevention and climate change. The gap between an ideology of linear progress and reality is apparent in nuclear disasters like Fukushima and industrial tragedy in Bhopal.

As a critique of modernist ways of understanding and relating with the world, environmentalists have responded in two ways: first, by arguing for the protection of nature; and second, by campaigning to preserve the life-worlds of indigenous and other communities under threat due to extractive and developmental projects. Although the second of these does not apply to cities like Delhi, it is worth noting what Marxian philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre has called ‘planetary urbanisation’ – the transformation in space, production and technologies, even in places far removed from the cities, which has ensured that there can now be no isolated preservable world but only varying consequences to political choices.

Puritanical environmentalism, centred on the protection of nature, appears not to be grounded on emergent realities. The idea of nature as wilderness is no longer tenable: the human-led transformation of forests, rivers, and even the subterranean region has meant that the entity we term nature, as in the ‘other’ of society, has disappeared for some time. Critical theorist Walter Benjamin uses the term ‘new nature’ for these manufactured landscapes, and political ecologists use other concepts like ‘social-natures’, ‘hybrids’ or ‘cyborg’ to talk about the novel entanglements of humans, non-humans and biophysical entities.

In any event, keeping, as the saying goes, ‘the oil in the soil and the coal in the hole’ is unworkable given the changing nature of social mobility across the region. All one has to do is visit any small town in India to realise the scale of cement, sand, steel, and paint in demand – the reality on the ground forces one to discard blanket positions. In the town of Banjar in Himachal Pradesh where I conduct research, for example, the material for construction has entirely transitioned from wood and stone used in the kathkuni architectural style to concrete. This is, in part, because the environmentalist agenda has resulted in the termination of state-sanctioned allotment of timber to locals. The induced scarcity has pushed prices so high that most families cannot afford more than the necessary use of wooden material. One unintended effect of this shift in construction technology is to leave such towns open to risks in the event of an earthquake. The kathkuni architecture is more resilient than haphazardly constructed concrete structures. Moreover, among the materials needed now are gravel and sand, usually sourced by cutting into mountains and surreptitiously hollowing out riverbeds.

Urban air is an entity that, according to ecological theorist Timothy Morton, shows up the redundancy of the notion of what we call the (city’s) environment. Environment refers to what surrounds habitats, a sort of blanket within which social-ecological processes work out. But given its toxicity, air stops being the backdrop and instead enters our bodies, lives, and social policy, altering each from the inside. The boundaries between home and the city is similarly dissolved; the home does not shelter us from the unpredictable and polluting elements out there, but is itself a reservoir of strange objects of all kinds – liquefied petroleum gas, mosquitoes, microwaves, faeces, viruses, and of course, air. This is the middle-class home; millions living in all other urban settings struggle quite simply with smoke from the combustion of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking and heating. In Delhi alone, over 100,000 households report these as their primary source of energy – the proportions are likely to be even more in peri-urban spaces and smaller towns.

Reassembling futures
So here we are, left with a profound material and conceptual crisis. There is no environment to fall back upon, it is impossible to return our city’s air to a ‘natural’ state, and our homes cannot protect us from risky substances in the air either. Of course, some people are more vulnerable than others depending on their lung function, age, time spent in polluted areas and so on. In all of this, PM 2.5, fine particulates that travel deep into the lungs and impair their function, has emerged as a particularly knotty adversary. But the good news is we are now ready to ask the right questions: how are we to think of air, and what sort of politics and policy should we adopt?

In a job interview last year, I was asked to comment on the coal mine allotment scam – a political scandal in which the government had illegally allotted coal to private companies and public-sector entities – by a leading (non-resident) Indian intellectual on the selection committee. Since it was a position in an environmental studies department, I was probably expected to outline the ‘no mining’ agenda. The expert seemed to lose interest when I said that mining was certainly needed, alongside long-term projection of requirement, prevention of land speculation, and serious ecological restoration of sites once mined. ‘Save nature’ may work as a slogan – a sort of strategic essentialism – but concrete situations involve only messy alternatives. Translated to air, it follows that a recreation of urban air minus human-induced chemical contributions is impossible – the task is instead to manage the chemistry as a hybrid of human involvement and the biophysical sphere.

It is odd that despite recent changes in air quality standards, levels of acceptability vary dramatically between Indian ones and those prescribed internationally. Is it on account of some inherent differences or – more logically – because we seem to hold immediate bread-and-butter needs more critical than long-term health impacts? Even well-meaning social activists typically deride court-mediated action on air as ‘bourgeois environmentalism’, and the supposed trade-off is positioned within the development versus environment debate. Just as the environment is a fiction, our prevailing conception of development is too, for what is development other than the creation of things, intended and unintended, useful and hazardous? Development is a catch-all for the proliferation of objects, from roads and dams to laptops, while the-stuff-previously-known-as-nature is that and more – bitumen, silt, e-waste, etc. There is no trade-off here at all, but an overlap that mutates into an antagonism in the public realm, with each side gathering its own army of believers while casting aspersions on the other; a battle between growth-wallas /neoliberals, and jhola-wallas/anti-development activists.

During US President Barack Obama’s visit to Delhi this January, an American media outlet told us the exposure to the city’s air was taking six hours off his life. Obstinate as we are, our response was that we would rather fill our stomachs and live five years less (two hours a day over an average person’s life) rather than worry about the air. But our retort is mistaken in the way it views air as a postponed crisis. Those five years are not cut back from the end of our life, but life itself is reduced to everyday suffering. We continually cough, wheeze and swallow pills, altering the chemistry of our entrails. A million lives end prematurely due to the air we breathe. To borrow Timothy Morton’s metaphor for the present ecological crisis, the city has become a giant emergency ward – there’s blood, vomit and chaos everywhere one looks, and yet there are also (but not always) medics who suture wounds and help people survive.

Our cities need medics and they desperately need suturing; not kneejerk responses, but radical and especially creative ways to deal with the issue. Let us use the technologies we possess to recreate air as a strange but ultimately benign neighbour. To begin with, it is logic defying that instead of rewarding cyclists, the Southasian city only makes their life on the road more precarious with each round of transportation-linked investment, aimed as these are to the promotion of the automobile. The absence of rudimentary systems-thinking might be to blame, in addition to lobbying by auto industry, for the failure to realise that wider roads and more flyovers only bring additional vehicles on to the roads. Meanwhile, policies that favour subsidised diesel create incentives for consumers to opt for vehicles emitting more of PM 2.5.

Instead, why not remove traffic entirely from certain arterial roads, at least in larger cities like Delhi, plant corridors of native trees, build public toilets at certain intervals and allow only walkers and cyclists on these roads? Let us then tear apart footpaths and the median strips and put at-grade public means of transport like tram or light metro in the middle. Over short distances people would walk, for slightly longer distances they would cycle, and for even longer ones they would hop on the rail. City planners dismantled these means through the twentieth century, but they are returning everywhere. For instance, tram is cheaper to build, convenient for commuters, and a great icon for a progressive city. It is often remarked that Indians buy cars as a marker of status. Let them do as they please, but there is no compulsion to use them – like gold jewellery in a middle-class home, a car can be on hand only for special occasions.

Finally, the larger need to generate power through renewables cannot be held hostage to the prevailing low oil prices, which, as it turns out, is part of a Saudi plan to wean countries off greener energy sources while also weeding out smaller oil producers. Locating energy in the connected milieu of globalised warming and localised air is in fact critical going forward.

These are but preliminary thoughts, and perhaps some of them are unworkable. But they are true to the philosophical context in the aftermath of toxic air, harnessing innovations while refusing to accept the linearity of solutions proposed by modernity.

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