RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017


135 Just air? Spatial injustices, contestation and politicisation of air pollution (1): The struggle for just air: activism in an urban setting
Affiliation Geographies of Justice Research Group
Convenor(s) Anneleen Kenis (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Maarten Loopmans (University of Leuven, Belgium)
Chair(s) Anneleen Kenis (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Timetable Thursday 31 August 2017, Session 1 (09:00 - 10:40)
Session abstract Though ‘air’ is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental dimensions of the human condition, the study of the socio-ecological processes which define its largely uneven, and recently dramatically changing metabolism, remains remarkably underdeveloped (Véron 2006, Buzzelli 2008, Heynen 2013, Graham 2015). Even in the field of Urban Political Ecology, which typically deals with urban metabolic issues and which has produced a growing body of studies on the urban metabolisms of water, forests, parks, hunger and food production, the built environment and building materials, air remains a blind spot. In so far as air is dealt with, it is often in merely physical, technical, or policy oriented terms. Air remains remarkably absent from social, political and geographical theorisation.

However, being not ‘just’ nature, but socially produced or hybrid nature (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003), air and its co-production through power, knowledge and conflict deserves a more prominent position on the research agenda. Indeed, the political construction of air reveals some interesting features that deserve further theorisation. Unlike other metabolic processes, e.g. (waste) water or food (waste), air does not need particular infrastructures. Air (pollution) appears as a ‘mere externality’ to other processes (e.g. traffic, agriculture, industrial processes), whose importance and consequences are only felt post hoc. How to ‘plan’ for a just distribution of traffic related air pollution to take just one example?

Simultaneously, air’s invisibility and intangibility stands out from other metabolic processes analysed in the Urban Political Ecology literature (Bryant 1998, Véron 2006). The air we inhale commonsensically appears to be ‘just air’. Its composition, the pollutants that it contains, and their effect on human health and ecosystems remain largely invisible. In other words, its ‘embodiedness’ and the ‘embeddedness’ of human beings in specific distributions of air fails to be perceived automatically (Mellor 1997). Resultantly, the ‘unequal power relations [which] are “inscribed” in the air’ remain misrecognised (Bryant 1998, 89) and the politicization of air pollution requires particular (discursive) mobilisations.

Therefore, this panel session addresses air from a fundamentally political point of view. It aims to investigate the (in)justices involved in the distribution and metabolism of air, and to put this increasingly salient political issue on the social geographical research agenda.
Linked Sessions Just air? Spatial injustices, contestation and politicisation of air pollution (2): The politics of air and the dual challenge of air pollution and climate change
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
On the strategic omission of environmental justice in a struggle for urban air quality
Maarten Loopmans (University of Leuven, Belgium)
Environmental justice has proven to be a strong trigger for social protest movements. Demonstrating the unequal distribution of ecological risks, vulnerability and their production and arguing the injustice of it, EJ movements have succeeded in mobilizing numerous local communities. In Antwerp, Belgium, the distribution of air pollution is largely determined by the Antwerp Ring road, a highway cutting through the poorest neighborhoods of the city. The planned expansion of the Ring triggered the development of one of the largest and most persistent protest movements in Belgian history. It has crafted a powerful communication strategy, almost single-handedly putting traffic-related air pollution on the Belgian policy agenda. Curiously enough, the movement has strategically decided not to play the environmental justice card in its communication.
Air as an agent of social exclusion: interfacing the boundaries of home
Stefan Bouzarovski (The University of Manchester, UK)
Air is a carrier of heat: a material property that implicates atmospheric circulations in a complex set of socio-technical linkages surrounding, inter alia, the transfer of energy in the built environment. Inspired by metabolic and political ecology approaches, this paper explores the ability of air to act as an social and physical agent of deprivation and injustice in the case of energy poverty: a condition characterized by the inability of households to secure adequate levels of energy services in the home. I use vignettes from a recently-completed ethnographic study of more than 150 households across 4 European cities to examine how the power relations enmeshed in air – and their associated material properties – are implicated in the rise and experience of multiple vulnerabilities to energy poverty. The paper highlights the existence of multiple socio-technical entanglements between air and energy service deprivation (much as the lack of socially and materially-necessitated levels of space heating and cooling, ventilation and refrigeration) to argue that the political ecologies of atmosphere are integral to the rise of distributive and spatial injustice. At the same time, I wish to overcome the discursive binary between indoor and outdoor air ‘quality’, whose associated narrative and political representations serve to deepen existing infrastructural inequalities. By stressing the ability of air to permeate the social (re)production of physically bounded domesticities, I wish to unpack the political and institutional imaginations that have allowed, in particular, outdoor ‘polluted’ and indoor ‘cold’ air to be treated within separate policy registers.
Passive, reactive and participatory governance of the air: three approaches under scrutiny
Nicola Da Schio (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)
Bas Van Heur (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium)
To understand the governance of urban air quality it is of primary importance to look at knowledge and science on pollution, and at how this is generated, interpreted and shared (see, for instance, Whitehead 2009). Indeed, as opposed to the management of other urban metabolic flows, a central component of air management is the systems of sensors, models and maps that measure the presence in the air of specific contaminants. This information, together with a series of considerations on the level of concentration that is socially and biologically acceptable, is then used to influence the governance of other sectors and possibly prevent excessive pollution.
We propose a review of three initiatives on air quality in the Brussels Capital Region (BCR), which are characterised by a particular emphasis on knowledge: the pollution peak emergency plan (PPEP), the regulation on environmental impact assessment (EIA), and the expAIR project, a participatory pollutionsensing and awareness-raising campaign conducted by the regional administration and a local civil society group. In a city such as BCR, characterised by a government often inhibited by the complexity of its multilayered institutional system and by a particularly vibrant civil society, these initiatives are indicative of different forms of interaction that exist between decision makers, experts, and citizens.
To illustrate the different ways knowledge is generated, interpreted and shared in these initiatives, we build on the literature on citizens participation and on knowledge co-production (e.g. see Reed 2008; Philipson and Liddon 2007), and we propose a typology based on how information flows among the different parties: in PPEP information flows one way from policy makers to citizens, who are passive receiver; in the case of EIA, information is given to citizens, who can react and provide feedbacks to it; the expAIR project , finally, entails a process of actual co-production of knowledge. We investigate how these different initiatives relate to different approaches to air governance, to show that “what we know about air pollution, and the ways in which atmosphere are governed, are not inevitable parts of closed systems of air science and government, but are legitimate objects of political contestation and potential transformation” (Whitehead 2009). In a context of an uneven spatial and social distribution of air pollution such as the Belgian capital, moreover, we develop a critical assessment of the implications of the three different approaches toward a more just and sustainable urban ecology.
Tracking Neoliberal Natures: Delhi’s Air and Emergent Political Forms
Rohit Negi (Ambedkar University Delhi, India)
Prema Srigyan (Ambedkar University Delhi, India)
The question of the environment, and in particular, the city’s toxic air, has defined the urban agenda in Delhi recently. Facts, figures and technical concerns have dominated a vibrant public discourse on the causes of air pollution and on state interventions attempting to clean it.
The present debate, accelerated by the publication of a WHO report in 2014 that termed Delhi the ‘most polluted city in the world’, however, does not inaugurate the centrality of air to the city’s politics. In the late 1990s too, there were discussions and actions linked to air pollution. Then, certain gaseous chemicals were defined as the problem and an activist judiciary mediated interventions like the relocation of polluting industries at the city’s margins and the conversion of public vehicles to natural gases. In contrast, in more recent discussions, fine Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) and the elected government are salient.

Concomitant to these debates has been the neoliberalisation of the Indian economy, with its specifically urban footprint including the privatisation of commons, the commodification of public goods, and the ascendancy of real estate capital. The manner in which these two—political economic and ecological—dimensions of urban change in Delhi intersect has been commented on widely. The turn of the century interventions around air were criticised by social activists and scholars as ‘bourgeois environmentalism’, that is, the disenfranchisement of subalterns in favour of middle-class visions of a post-industrial and green ‘world city’. More recent discussions on the air though have been far less suspicious of environmentalism.

Our chapter reads these shifts in urban politics through an in-depth analysis of the two conjunctures when Delhi’s air became ‘visible’. We compare the respective vocabulary and concepts, the differentiated interpellation of citizens, and state interventions across the two moments. With the city’s air as our vantage point, we argue that many of the conceptual tools with which scholars understood Delhi through the 2000s must be reconsidered in the light of recent shifts in political economic and discursive landscapes of the city. The period of economic growth, during which much of the contemporary conceptual vocabulary on Delhi was generated, has given way to recession since the global meltdown of 2008, while politics-as-usual has been disrupted by the ascendance of erstwhile social activists to state power. Finally, environmentalism’s self-critique and responses to social justice concerns have led to a reframing of the question of air, creating openings for more just urban futures.