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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Where the Air Is Pure

We suffocate the world with industry, then we commodify air- and find new ways to blame the most vulnerable.

The only Thai restaurant in Bishkek has begun selling anti-pollution masks for children: for less than $10, apparently, you can outfit your family with respiratory gear while waiting for your pad see ew. The advertisement for these masks boasted of a range of sizes, an array of colors. I came across it in January, at a time when cities across Central Asia were in the grips of what has become a grim annual event: the settling of impenetrable blankets of smog over urban skylines once fall settles in, as though to counterweight the coming whiteness of snow with the blackness of soot. This was neither the first nor the last time I would see anti-pollution aids on offer in the places I least expected to find them: in line at a coffee shop last winter, for instance, I noticed a placard next to the specials board advertising air purification devices. The photo showed a gleaming white box with smooth edges parked in a room whose cream-colored minimalist décor in no way matched the atmosphere of the Soviet-era apartment blocks of our city. I imagined the machine emitting a quiet, almost contented whirr as it set about the task of rendering the corrupted pure. 

Like many capitals in the global south, Bishkek has seen a catastrophic rise in air pollution over the past decade or so, with measures of particulate matter in the air regularly spiking to levels at which any outdoors exertion is considered unhealthy. Come winter, when the smog hits its noxious peak, the topic of air quality becomes ubiquitous in conversations, in the way that people under less smoke-dimmed skies might chat about the weather. We weigh the relative merits of AQI versus PM2.5 measurements; we observe how the smog peaks and ebbs throughout the course of the day, as though the city itself is a creature that breathes in and then out again from the belly of the earth. And meanwhile all around us, as the temperature drops and the air quality worsens, the engines of capital are revved into action to see what money can be got out of urban environmental collapse.

With more and more cities around the globe afflicted by toxic smog (or, in the case of many cities on the American West Coast, wildfire smoke), the number of those who would profit from the suffering of these citizens has only increased. It’s a situation that gives the lie to liberals’ insistence that “we’re all in this together,” a slogan wielded in the face of both the COVID and the climate crises even as those who use it advocate policies that do little to nothing to attack the root causes of these problems. While it has become axiomatic on the left that the brunt of the already-enfolding environmental catastrophe will be borne by the poor and the marginalized while leaving the wealthy relatively unscathed, liberals have largely failed to recognize the class and racial dimensions of environmental degradation. “We all breathe the same air,” insist op-ed writers for newspapers across America and politicians calling for bipartisan environmental policies. But living in Central Asia has shown me that on the most literal of levels, this is false.

A single bottle of Vitality Air will set you back roughly $25, not including the cost of shipping from Canada. The containers, which bear an unnerving resemblance to cans of bug spray meant to be fitted over your mouth, are filled with nothing more than what the name suggests––to wit, about 160 of what the marketing material odiously dubs “shots” (roughly a minute’s worth of breath, all told—though it’s not clear how you tell when the can is “empty”). As one respondent in a Washington Post product review stated after his first inhalation of the stuff (and what more, really, is there to add?), “That’s air.”

There are “flavored” options (who among us has not yearned to huff rootbeer-scented gas?), there are limited-edition collectibles (shell out $15,000 and you too can own an oxygen canister studded with diamonds and signed by 2Chainz), but the ostensible heart of this poorly conceived business is the original product: air that purports to come from Canada’s Banff National Park. Though the ad copy skirts dangerously close to making unsubstantiated health claims, fine print on the labels cautions that the air is for “recreational use only,” prompting anyone reading it to wonder how and when breathing ceased to be a baseline bodily function and instead became a fun activity for the whole family. One can only assume that the people enjoying themselves in this scenario are none other than the company’s founders—given the price per bottle, they’re no doubt laughing their way to the bank. The company explicitly targets buyers in Asia, particularly residents of cities in China and India where the air pollution crisis is most severe. As such, they create a cycle whereby entrepreneurs in Western countries sell those in the global south “solutions” to the catastrophic environmental devastation for which Western outsourcing of industrial production in search of a more exploitable workforce is partly responsible.

Vitality is not the only company charging exorbitant prices for “pristine” air or to leverage the health fears of residents of smog-choked cities for profit. There’s Aethaer, which is apparently able to command prices of over $100 for jars of air “farmed” from across England. There are also a raft of Swiss companies that trade on the cultural cachet of the Alps. Reading media coverage of these firms, I’m struck by how few writers raise what would seem to be obvious points of criticism. Many articles seem content to treat these ventures as vaguely amusing novelties, the latest kooky start-up in an infinite disruptive series. When pressed during interviews, founders make bland statements of concern regarding their concerns about pollution but fail to connect the dots regarding the fossil fuels consumed in the production of the plastic-nozzled bottles in which their products are sold. (As for the bottles themselves, any pseudo-virtuous promises of recyclability are undercut by the fact that much of the plastic we so diligently sort ends up in landfills anyway). And what about the gas burned on the trips to and from the “unspoiled” landscapes from which the air is supposedly taken? Then again, of course, given the fact that more pollution presumably means more customers, it pays not to think too hard about these questions. 

Despite one Vitality founder’s stated desire to become “the king of air,” I have a hard time envisioning a future where canned air gains mass traction among the masses: it’s patently absurd, offers no health benefits, and boasts an eye-watering price tag (then again, given the ubiquity of bottled water, perhaps I will soon find myself eating my words). Right now, bottled air is marketed as a luxury item, and company officials admit that many of the purchases are as gag gifts rather than for the purpose of practical (and I use that term sparingly) use. But there’s an assumption underpinning the existence of these companies that seems to have been smuggled in more or less successfully. Skeptical commentators have posed the question of why someone would pay for air—what most fail to ask is why they should. As such, the main objection being raised is one of feasibility and not morality—having already ceded the point that air may be sold, the bone of contention is merely at what price. I am tempted to write that this points towards a dangerous precedent for the future. But the fact of the matter is—as I see in Bishkek—that the dystopian future is now.

It’s worth mentioning that in a sense the commodification of air is not new. The 19th-century gentlemen and ladies who flocked to chic spa towns in the Alps or beside the sea to “take the air” were essentially paying to breathe. As the coalstacks of the Industrial Revolution increasingly blackened city skies, locales with purer air took on a new value that the well-to-do were willing to pay for, and in an era before the advent of antibiotics, the prevailing medical wisdom held that fresh air was the best treatment for tuberculosis and other lung ailments. As historian Alison F. Frank points out, around the same time as Marx explicitly listed air as an example of a non-commodity in the opening chapter of Das Kapital, air was becoming a major selling point of the Kurorts and sanatoria to which the wealthy and the consumptive now turned.

What is new, however, is the nature of that commodification. The Victorian convalescents taking in sea breezes or mountain gusts were removing themselves from the city temporarily until such time as they (hopefully) recovered. Today, of course, vacation destinations still draw visitors with promises of purity and wellness. But those with the desire and the means to distance themselves from the deleterious effects of industrial capitalism no longer have to resort to places of great spatial remove in order to do so. Technology has increasingly allowed for the superposition of healthy (or healthier) city onto unhealthy city as the wealthy and the poor navigate the same streets but with vastly different experiences thereof.

Consider the panoply of air purifier devices currently available for homes and cars. Or the array of deluxe masks that promise buyers ever-more protection from the dangerous health effects of smog. MicroClimate Air, a wearable air filtration system that resembles a baggy astronaut’s helmet, sports a fan system and HEPA filtration. It’s surely no coincidence that the ads feature (white) businessmen in sleek suits checking their smartphones or striding through an airport terminal for a work trip: as disease-free breathing becomes a commodity, this is the class of people who will be able to pay the price. 

Rather than imagining the heady vision of a Vitality-chugging future, what we have before us is a present in which the divide between rich and poor is marked by an ever-widening difference in access to the clean, breathable air that is our right. The World Health Organization currently estimates that ambient air pollution is responsible for millions of deaths each year from lung cancer, heart failure, strokes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and infections; the vast majority of these deaths are of people in low-and middle-income countries. Within the United States, the American Lung Association has collected an array of studies from across the country to show that neighborhoods with low income, high unemployment, and predominantly nonwhite populations were far more likely to see residents die premature deaths due to particle pollution—a correlation that is particularly strong for Black communities. The structural racism of America’s housing market—which has shut out minorities from certain areas and forced many to settle in areas dangerously close to sources of pollution—has created a reality in which the wealthy and the working class, the white and the nonwhite, breathe fundamentally different air.

In 2014, an article in The Daily Mail breathlessly reported that Beijing’s pollution had so unmoored the city from the natural world that its citizens were reduced to wistfully watching the sunrise on television screens. The story—subsequently picked up by outlets around the world—was accompanied by a harrowing image in which Beijing residents appeared to crowd around an LED screen beaming forth an image of a radiant sky as the air around them swirled with impenetrable grey smoke. Only none of it was true: the supposed ersatz sunrise, it was later revealed, was in actuality nothing more than part of a travel advertisement, a clip that had probably flickered across the electronic billboard for no more than a few seconds before dissolving. In the Western media’s eagerness to believe the most outlandish of stories about China’s pollution—not to mention the almost-palpable delight with which they relate them—it’s easy to detect a modern echo of racist colonial notions of “the East” as dirty, uncultured, alien, and diseased. 

If we want to meaningfully organize around pollution, we first have to deconstruct popular narratives that demonize those most victimized by it. Fail to do this, and environmental concerns will only serve to solidify already-existing social divisions.

In Bishkek, the story of the air pollution crisis is fundamentally a story of class inequality. Much of the smog comes from the burning of coal, clothing scraps, and trash by residents of novostroiki, outlying settlements that the municipal government refuses to formally recognize as part of the city. In denying official status to these areas (whose population numbers in the tens of thousands, mostly poor migrants from the countryside who moved in search of work), City Hall slyly dodges responsibility for paying to connect them to public utilities such as gas lines, meaning that residents have no choice but to heat their homes using whatever they can afford to gather up and burn.Yet these are the people whom you might hear being complained about by long-term residents of the city, who deem these migrants “dirty,” “messy,” “uncultured,” as though they are a form of pollution in and of themselves. And meanwhile the well-to-do residents of the center ride through the streets in private cars, windows rolled up against the smog; they work in insulated office buildings and meet friends at chic coffee houses that purify their air; and perhaps they have already invested in their own purification system for their apartment, so that when they return home the rooms that receive them are blissfully devoid of the reek of the air outside. And as they make their way home they pass people selling used books or apples or honey on the street, wares spread out on the ground on a blanket or arrayed on a card table. These merchants would have spent the day breathing in exhaust from the cars that whizz by, and when they pack up for the evening it is to queue for who knows how long before a shuttle bus comes to bear them homeward. In the night, as the cold snakes its way in, they stoke coal fires in their living rooms. Perhaps they wear a mask, and perhaps they do not, but if the fire is in the house with you I expect it hardly makes a difference.

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