Lessons From the “Airpocalypse”

Lessons From the “Airpocalypse”
Lessons From the “Airpocalypse”

In December 2016, smog in big Chinese cities became so thick that thousands fled into the countryside, trying to reach a place where one could still see blue sky—this “airpocalypse” affected half a billion people. For those who remained, moving around began to resemble life in a post-apocalyptic movie: people walking around with large gas masks in a smog where even nearby trees were invisible. The class dimension played a crucial role: Before the authorities had to close airports because of the bad air, those who could afford an expensive flight abandoned the affected cities. And, to add insult to injury, Beijing’s lawmakers considered listing smog as a meteorological disaster, an act of nature, not an effect of industrial pollution, to prevent blaming the authorities for the catastrophe. A new category was thus added to the long list of refugees from wars, droughts, tsunamis, earthquakes, economic crises, etc.—smog refugees.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this airpocalypse is its quick normalization: After the authorities could no longer deny the problem, they established procedures that would somehow enable people to continue their daily life by way of following new routines, as if the catastrophic smog were just a new fact of life. On designated days, you try to stay at home as much as possible and, if necessary, walk around with masks. Children rejoice in the news that on many days schools are closed—an opportunity to stay at home and play. Making a trip to the countryside, where the blue sky is still visible, becomes a special occasion one looks forward to (there are already agencies in Beijing specialized for such one-day trips). The important thing is not to panic and to maintain the appearance that, in spite of all troubles, life goes on …

Such a reaction is understandable if we take into account that we are being confronted by something so completely outside our collective experience that we don’t really see it, even when the evidence is overwhelming. For us, that “something” is a blitz of enormous biological and physical alterations in the world that has been sustaining us. In order to cope with this threat, our collective ideology is mobilizing mechanisms of dissimulation and self-deception which go up to the direct will to ignorance: “a general pattern of behavior among threatened human societies is to become more blindered, rather than more focused on the crisis, as they fail.”

One thing is sure: An extraordinary social and psychological change is taking place right in front of our eyes—the impossible is becoming possible. An event first experienced as impossible but not real (the prospect of a forthcoming catastrophe which, however probable we know it is, we do not believe will effectively occur and thus dismiss as impossible) becomes real but no longer impossible (once the catastrophe occurs, it is “renormalized,” perceived as part of the normal run of things, as always-already having been possible). The gap which makes these paradoxes possible is the one between knowledge and belief: we know the (ecological) catastrophe is possible, probable even, yet we do not believe it will really happen.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times on January 10th 2017.]

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