Breathable for Whom? Air Quality in the Geopolitical Arena

Part of Pow! Interdisciplinary Collisions symposium at the Royal College of Art, 12th September 2019.

Airspaces – atmospheres – can be weathered and differentiated according to air’s ‘breathability’, which is a possible translation of Luce Irigaray’s ‘valeur respirable’ – literally ‘breathable value’ (1983, 13). Breathability refers to how healthy or not air is to breathe. Often the term ‘quality’ – as in ‘air quality’ – is used to express the same idea. Yet I argue that ‘quality’ in this context acts as a euphemism to gloss over the lived and breathed effects of air pollution. There are three geopolitical points to raise here.   

First, qualifications of the breathability of air are being made at a time when human lungs are constantly exposed to the material flows of transport, industry and other polluting activities. At the time of writing this talk, nine out of ten people worldwide are inhaling polluted air (WHO). So the inevitable ‘acceleration of urban development’ has already changed the ‘aerial and atmospheric matter within which urban inhabitants must live’, writes Human Geographer Peter Adey (2013, 299). Human activity is the main influencer of climate and environment. This is the defining condition of the Anthropocene, our current geological era. Air quality indices, therefore, tend to start from a context of accepting that most of us are always already exposed to airborne contamination. In short, inhaling polluted air is normalised.

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Sabin, L. (2019). Breathability: A Geopolitical Migraine. Pow! Interdisciplinary Collisions. Royal College of Art, London. Thursday 11th September 2019.

Featured Image: Nazneen Ayubb-Wood.