RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017


169 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
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 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
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 (1): The struggle for just air: activism in an urban setting
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
How a large-scale citizen science project managed to combine scientific rigour, policy influence and deep citizen engagement by measuring ambient air quality in Antwerp
Suzanne Van Brussel (Ghent University, Belgium)
Huib Huyse (KU Leuven, Belgium)
Citizen Science projects are increasingly recognised as a stepping stone for triggering behaviour change and building social capital around environmental issues. However, overview studies observe recurrent challenges in many citizen science projects in terms of combining high levels of data quality with deep citizen engagement and policy influence. This paper reports on the findings of the CurieuzeNeuzen project (www.CurieuzeNeuzen.eu), a large scale citizen science project on air quality conducted in Antwerp in 2016, which managed to deliver simultaneously in the three result areas described above. CurieuzeNeuzen was initiated as an academic offspring by the citizen group Ringland, currently the largest citizen initiative in Belgium in the area of mobility, city planning and liveability. Through CurieuzeNeuzen, 2000 citizen studied the air quality levels in and around Antwerp and were intensively deliberating on possible causes and solutions. The findings from CurieuzeNeuzen were picked-up academically and contributed actively to policy debates on air quality at the level of both city and region. The paper frames the project within the literature on citizen science, offers an overview of how the project combined the triple objectives, and examines underlying factors that contributed to this, together with remaining challenges. Surveys were conducted among the participants at the start of the project and after the first dissemination of the results, and indicated to have influence the participants in some way. The fact that CurieuzeNeuzen focused on air quality is of additional interest, as ordinary citizens often just have anecdotal knowledge on this topic, and such projects can enhance not only their scientific knowledge, but it also renders environmental science more democratic.
The politics of small particles: following PMs and their mobilities
Gordon Walker (Lancaster University, UK)
Barbara Maher (Lancaster University, UK)
Particles have long been central to the politicisation of air quality, with their materiality and mobility essential to the consequences they have directly and indirectly for human bodies. The science of particles has progressively developed an understanding of how source, size and form matters for how particular particulate categories behave, how they are mobile and where within the body they travel to and with what potential consequence. And as regulatory measures have progressively borne down on larger more visible particles, new techniques for revealing the invisibilities of their smaller counterparts have emerged, destabilising previous understandings of how particle size does and doesn’t matter why, where and to whom. In this paper we follow ongoing interactions between the science of particulate mobility and the unequal consequences of inhalation in space and time, focusing in particular on recent developments that show how particles travel to and accumulate in the brain. This new liminality has the potential to open up new differentiated patterns of vulnerability, political concern and implication, and new sites of contestation and public making.
Breathing Modernity: Politicising Air (Pollution) in China-Africa Development Cooperation
Han Cheng (University of Cambridge, UK)
This paper seeks to interrogate the processes by which a key organising concept - modernisation - in China-Africa development relations is contested and constantly formed, through the lens of political and daily negotiation and rethinking of air and air pollution. Modernisation discourses have strong historical roots in China and many African countries (owing to colonial humiliation, socialism, post-war nationalist projects and so on), and are beginning to regain prominence in recent years’ producing of knowledge and practices in Southern development cooperation (e.g. China’s 2nd Africa policy paper in 2016). The representation of ‘becoming modern’ is by no means linear and straightforward, but sometimes conflicting or ‘awkward’ even (Lorimer, 2014). The case of air pollution, for instance in Beijing and Addis Ababa, generate contradictions and ambiguities in the landscape of despair and hope, rupturing the boundaries of individual and collective cultural imaginaries. In this paper, I define air in a material sense that it is no singular, void or vague object, by rather attending to the ‘thing power’ of air (Bennet, 2004). Air can therefore be profoundly literal and solid, not least for its moving of ‘manufactured’ chemicals, one’s bodily senses of encompassing bio-physical environment, and social construction of meaning and order (Bickerstaff, 2001, 2004; Veron, 2006). ‘Political atmospheres’ in Choy’s term (2011) is borrowed here to help explore the dialectics of air (pollution) and modernity in terms of lived experiences, competing story-telling, geographies of social stratification, and other dimensions. Beck (1992, 2015) is useful in conceptualising the inducing of new normative horizons by the power of (negative) side effects (‘metamorphosis of the world’ in his terms). This framework can serve as a potential motif for assessing the impacts of air pollution vis-à-vis reflexive modernity discourses and practices in China-Africa development relations (e.g. re-interpreting citizenship, reforming statehood, transfiguring modes of being). For Berman (1982), Marx’s ‘all that is solid melts into air’ (1848) perhaps says much about modernity as about air, much about solidifying as about melting, all fluid and edgy. Situated within critical development geography and political ecology, this paper attempts to contribute towards cultural critiques of modernity, development trajectories of the Global South and China-Africa studies, as well as society theories of air and urban metabolism.
The politics of science and the media: the controversy on record air pollution in Oxford Street and other debates on bad air in London
Anneleen Kenis (KU Leuven, Belgium)
This paper studies how air pollution as a largely invisible social-natural artefact has been translated into an issue of contention and debate in London during the last 20 years. Starting from the coverage of air pollution in five main newspapers, the paper identifies the critical discursive moments which significantly changed the terms of the debate. The staging of Oxford Street as the most polluted street of the world, the controversy around Sahara Dust as a ‘natural’ explanation for a smog episode in 2014, and the action of Black Lives Matter at London City Airport, which stated that those who are the first to die are not the first to fly, are just a few of the examples of initiatives that put air pollution on the agenda in recent years.

The paper investigates the decisions, choices and exclusions that inevitably take place in this staging of air as a political issue. Already at the level of the construction of a scientific ‘fact’, processes of inclusion and exclusion take place. The spatial location of monitoring stations, the focus on particular pollutants and the chosen time frame influence the way the ‘fact’ of air pollution is constructed. But important choices also take place in the translation of these scientific ‘facts’ into ‘political ‘problems’. From high to illegal levels of air pollution, from the number of deaths to the level of costs, from people’s health to children’s health: these constructions all influence the terms of the debate. The emergence of political fault lines and antagonisms and the (lack of) activity of a whole range of social actors result from this and will in their turn further push the debate in specific directions. The paper analyses how this complex set of relations, and the forms of power involved, determined the framing of air pollution as we know it today.