Society for East Asian Anthropology
Anthropology And Environment Society
Cosponsored - Oral Presentation Session
Abstract: “Bad Air” and the Everyday Landscape of Asia
"Bad air" has emerged as a significant problem in the everyday lives of people in urban and rural Asia in recent decades. Widespread processes of deforestation, fossil fuel-fired power plants, increasing traffic density, and uneven industrial development have intensified air quality issues across the region. The impact of these pollutants has manifested locally in complex ways, exacerbated by variables such as seasonal sandstorms, indoor air management crises, household coal burning, and urban-rural divides. While the multiple layers of thick haze, smog, and yellow sand have become a “new normal” landscape in Asian cities, unpredictable and severe “spikes” in microparticles and volatile organic compounds bring a sense of crisis and urgency to the everyday lives of the region. The “bad air” blurs the line between the mundane and the catastrophic.
The panel will explore how “bad air” has impacted people’s lived experiences as well as conditioned their understanding of the world around them. The perceived toxicity is not merely a result of environmental causes, but also generative of new forms of uncertainty, precarity, and knowledge. In many countries, harmful substances in the air is measured and updated on an hourly basis through weather forecasts and mobile apps, creating an overflow of real-time information. More broadly, the “bad air” has become a cultural idiom through which people narrate the connection of their bodies with the environmental, economic, and geopolitical instability of the region.
Drawing on ethnographic studies based in central and northeast Asia, including Korea, China, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan, the panel asks: How do sensory experiences entangle with the fear over and desire to control the ambiguous toxicity in indoor and outdoor air? In what ways do substances in the air become legible by state policies, religious rituals, and scientific institutions? How do ideas about the movement of air rework existing urban/rural divides and reshape the imaginary cartography of the region? How does "bad air" mark and blur the distinction between the interior and exterior of bodies, built environments, communities, markets and national territories?
The papers suggest that air quality is a transboundary problem moving across these locations while revealing locally specific ideas and differing modes of problematization in each context. The papers also illustrate individual and collective attempts to filter out harmful substances in the air and analyze how these practices foster new engagement with education, parenthood, housing, health, religion, and urban nature. The projection, intervention, and governance of air quality articulate various logics and modes of living and ultimately shape our sense of dwelling in a problematic atmosphere that has become synonymous to the conditions of everyday life.