In my last year living full-time in Hong Kong, I recall a particularly nasty week when a yellow fog descended on the city. When my minibus sped alongside Central’s skyscrapers, the top half of the buildings were hidden in a thick cloud.
I have wavered between accepting urban pollution as a fact of life and feeling trapped by it. In this post, I try to consider some of the ways we mentally deal with this omnipresence. When we are literally enveloped in this smog, we have peculiar ways of coping with it personally and in the public imagination.
We demonize it
Take the industrial-era Europeans. Last year, I attended a lecture by an ecocritic named Jesse Oak Taylor who presented a barrage of images from late 19th century London magazines like Punch where smog appeared as a demon–a winged figure lurking over the city.
This sketch, “Old King Coal and the fog demon,” published in Punch in 1880, is just one example of many examples of fog as a force of evil. Coal, railways, and mass industry are often implicated as well (as we see in this sketch), but smog becomes a symbol of threat and corruption.
But this isn’t just a late-Victorian moment. We have seen pollution aligned with evil and corruption for decades. My most personally memorable manifestation of the smog demon is the oil monster in that early-90s classic, Ferngully.
That movie blew my 8 year old brain. This image of pollution has been in the bedrock of my environmental imagination since 1992. Seriously, choose cartoons carefully when indoctrinating your children.
We rationalize it
Those who can’t escape severe air pollution at least often work to understand its reasons. Hong Kongers often complain about pollution drifting in from mainland China, sometimes without recognizing that pollution is a trans-national problem. Sure, national policy is necessary, but while we may not agree with the environmental policies in China, we are part of the consumerist engine that drives mass industry.
But it’s one thing to understand that pollution is a by-product of consumer-driven industry; it’s another to claim that pollution in and of itself has strategic value. Recently, though, according to TIME, an editor for the Chinese state-run news outlet CCTV tried to claim just that by giving the following benefits of smog:
1. It unifies the Chinese people.
2. It makes China more equal.
3. It raises citizen awareness of the cost of China’s economic development.
4. It makes people funnier.
5. It makes people more knowledgeable (of things like meteorology and the English word haze).
Yes, those five items totally makes respiratory disease worth it.
But my favorite rationalization of smog he SCMP reported in December that party officials was actually claiming that smog has strategic defense benefits.
Indeed, under a thick layer of haze, we are less prone to enemy surveillance, missile attacks, etc. (I also want to briefly recognize that the comics are great examples of dealing with smog by satirizing it as well.)
We aestheticize it
This response interests me the most. To make something beautiful is to make a claim on it, to transform it into something that gives you delight. Aestheticization is an expression of agency and control, but it can also distract us from the problem.
Monet’s series of paintings in London are studies of light in smog. It’s difficult to glibly say what these dream-like scenes, these studies in light, do for our understanding of smog. It certainly makes us pause and look at it, to marvel at what appears to emerge and disappear in Monet’s loose brushstrokes.
But without context, his paintings are mirages. We often view these urban scenes out of context, in the leisure of a quiet, air-conditioned room. Just as an experiment, I am imagining a droning city and the slightly asphyxiating astringency of smoke as I look at these now
Examples from China give us examples of aestheticizing smog on a more daily level. The SCMP recently collected images of smog fashion in China. Whether we find it cute or bizarre, it’s clear that smog fashion is ubiquitous:
I particularly like the smog selfie above. Is making something “cute” a coping mechanism? Is it a way to add joy to a daily encounter with something inescapable?
Regardless, there is something futile as well about holding a teddy bear to your nose. It’s a talisman against something that you cannot fix … which brings me to a final way of coping with smog.
We leave it.
This is an option that not many have; it’s an option that I feel increasingly grateful for. I left Hong Kong three years ago now, and one reason was the pollution. It sounds so insignificant–such a trite background issue. After all, my parents live there, my relatives, my friends–in some ways those who know us best in the world. But I find it increasingly hard to imagine moving back to Hong Kong and China. I now live in a place that is much quieter and more culturally isolated. But I can take clean air for granted. When I blow my nose, it isn’t speckled with black; and I don’t need to spend time each evening washing particulates off my face. But more importantly, I do not feel suspicious of air.
Of course, the above thoughts don’t begin to delve into practical responses or activism. And “leaving” is hardly a comprehensive solution. But it saddens me that we collectively inhibit our ability to live in these astonishing places in the world. I suppose the purpose of this post is to recognize how pollution manifests as part of our relationship to a place.