How not to fool ourselves while talking about air pollution?

Published: Mon, 12/07/2015 - 09:53 Updated: Mon, 12/07/2015 - 11:42

The way we talk of pollution shows our relationship to the city and the world
Shireen Azam Delhi

Delhi’s air pollution should be considered a Public Health Emergency, an article recently quipped. The charges are grave but somehow it just doesn’t sink in. We should not be ashamed to ask what is going on in our minds: When is grave pollution really grave? When do we know that it’s really that bad? When do you know you are living in something close to an epidemic? Air pollution causes 6% of global death, says Jos Lelieveld from the Max Planck Institute, killing more than HIV and malaria combined. But it is easy to identify an epidemic of malaria or swine flu: you see people dying, you see them hospitalized, you see marks on their body, you see that they can’t walk. Pollution? Who ever saw the symptoms of that? Delhi might have a lethal increase in breathing problems and a new set of sky shades, but somehow it is simply tough to respond to the hazard of pollution with the urgency that we find for other life-threatening elements. Our responses to pollution has been limited to a few sets: while the occasional complaining about pollution has stayed constant for many years with most us, some of us stopped bursting crackers in Diwali (interestingly, realising the pollution because we still “have to” use AC till November). Some cover faces with cloth when we can risk looking that sexy and few have donned clinical masks. But mostly, even though we have been told time and again that we live in the most polluted city of the world, it is possible to forget it. We don’t really believe that the bad air is going to kill us. It is difficult to.

Most of us heard that the WHO announced Delhi to be the most toxic city, with carcinogenic particles at a ridiculous 21 times the recommended limits. These particles are said to penetrate our lungs and dissolve directly into the blood stream, resulting in permanent lung damage and causing 1.3 million deaths annually. The imagery of particles penetrating our lungs arouses something, but besides that these are mere numbers. We don’t really believe that out of these numbers, we are the ones going to die because of air pollution. Of all the hazards to our life we face in India, between accidents, diseases and murders, we don’t believe that it is air pollution that is going to kill us. This has been put down as “insensitivity”, but perhaps it’s something more interestingly sinister than that.

It is about our relationship to the places we inhabit and the kinds of factors we think “directly” affect our selves. The idea of a rat running around in my house disturbs me more than the idea that the air I breathe kills 1.3 million people a year. Our slowness to respond to pollution knowing its lethality reminds me of an example my professor Apaar gave us while explaining incontinence: of knowing something is bad but not being able to stop doing it. For the philosopher Kant, incontinence comes out of the lack of perfect knowledge. Thus, perhaps we are still not yet fully aware of the harms of air pollution and if we knew how bad it is, we would stop. I will apologise for including smokers for the sake of an analogy:  Many smokers believe that smoking kills them, the problem perhaps is that they don’t know smoking how many cigarettes kills. Many talk about trying to control smoking and how they can’t stop it even when they want to. “It’s a lie”, according to the teacher’s theory. Smokers don’t keep smoking because they can’t control dying. They do it because they don’t know which cigarette will kill them. If they somehow knew that the next cigarette would instantly make them die, they will quit right away. It’s the lack of perfect knowledge that we don’t take it seriously. By this logic, if we would get better numbers, if we would be somehow made to realise exactly what breathing this bad air is doing to us, we will start taking air pollution more seriously.  

But we have been told this. Climate Activists have recurrently tried to show the danger of global warming in terms of its consequences. I remember reading a poem as a child that we all will need oxygen masks in 2020, that the world will be drowned in 2050, that Mumbai will be flooded by 2030. And it is, we can see these effects around us everyday. Surely people can see the effects. Surely, we do know that the world is becoming unliveable because of air pollution, we know these things.

One may call it our undying hope to deny the finitude of the world. Our imagination of the city and the world is so full of possibilities, and in some ways they are literally so large, that we can continue to believe that the concerns of pollution might just wither away somehow. If not with time, with space. We continue to feel that the expanse of air will somehow rescue us. Like the smoker thinks that there must be more strength in her hidden lungs, we feel that we must have enough clean air, if not here, then somewhere. For some, this expanse can be directly reached- by “moving”, to a better neighbourhood with more parks, to a better city and of course to “abroad”. That “moving” is our prime response to air pollution, says everything about our relationship with the city, and the world. This is the feeling that of all people I myself can get away, that the air is unbreathable, but I will escape it.

The idea is ingrained in us that what we do will not come back to us. The smoke out of the exhaust of the cars we drive will never fill the playgrounds of our children, the garbage I produce everyday will never land up on my fluffy mattress, The world is too abundant, we have spreads our wing too wide. And it is true, it might not. It is difficult to make a privileged person believe that the many litres of water and petrol they consume everyday, will come back to haunt them. That they will be one day left without petrol or water. Because they know it and we know it, it won’t. We all know that regardless of the rush with which forests are being swallowed, the privileged will always find a tree-house with greenery. That is how it works. There will always be enough petrol for the rich, there will always be enough villas and private beaches and if the day comes for electric oxygen masks, I am sure they will come in a range of metallic and punk colours with options to stylize it to “express your unique identity”. There will always be some exclusive rivers to be ferried to, like they are now at a “few hours drive” from the city. So if you want to convince the privileged, me and you, of why we shouldn’t be murdering the place where we live, there’s no point doing it by the fear of consequences. Because in the instrumental ways in which we see the world and the people that inhabit it, there is continued hope of drowning our consequences in someone else’s river. 

The way we talk of pollution shows our relationship to the city and the world
Shireen Azam Delhi

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