The damage caused by air pollution is now being compared to the effects of tobacco use. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution poses the greatest environmental threat to global health in 2019, killing seven million people prematurely every year, which is around the number of deaths caused by cigarettes.
No wonder a common joke about air pollution in contemporary India says that “living in Delhi is just like smoking 50 cigarettes in a day.”
Or that a joke in China even suggests ways of dealing with the air pollution in the best Graucho Marx manner: “Individual therapy: put a mask on. Family therapy: buy health insurance. If you have money and the time: go on holiday. If you’ve no class: emigrate. National therapy: wait for the wind.”
Unfortunately, as usually with dark humor, the joke is reality. When in January 2017 China announced the first ever nationwide red level fog alarm, haze-avoidance soon became a trend and hundreds of thousands of Chinese would start traveling abroad during winter months — when pollution is critical — specifically to escape air pollution. At the same time, those who do not have the means to escape have to stay with masks and literally wait for… air.
When we hear or read about air pollution, we immediately think of India or China. Yet the death rate from air pollution in Hungary happens to be the second highest in the world, coming just behind China. As many as 10,000 people die prematurely in the country each year because of diseases linked to air pollution.
In 2018, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report showing that air pollution causes almost 500,000 premature deaths in Europe every year. The report warned that the toll on health was worse in Eastern European countries than China and India.
CHINESE SCIENCE FICTION, EUROPE’S REALITY?
Only a few years ago it would have sounded ludicrous to compare Europe’s present to Chinese science fiction: how could an imagination of a future coming from today’s China be telling us a story about Europe’s own destiny? Yet, to understand Europe’s current ecological catastrophe, it is useful to reach out for one of China’s best contemporary science fiction writers, Hao Jingfang and her Folding Beijing.
It depicts a future Beijing which is divided in three social classes, each of which live on a different physical surface of the city. What Folding Beijing describes is a polluted dystopia in which the main character works as a waste processing worker belonging to the third class. Sunlight is so scarce that it is rationed based on economic class. Technology and automation serve the rich who live in a First space with fresh air, while the poor literally live in and from garbage.
It is a truly disturbing depiction of a future where worlds are literally separated — even Time itself is carefully divided and parceled out to separate classes — as a sort of “parallel realities,” which are, nonetheless, interconnected and part of the structure of one and the same world serving the ones living in the First space.
As with every good science fiction, this story does not so much describe a distant future, but a world which is already unfolding below our feet. But what if Folding Beijing is not just pursuing the current social inequalities in China and its rapid development to its logical conclusion — in order to depict an inevitable future if the current trends continue? What if it might represent Europe’s current ecological catastrophe and environmental breakdown?
Over the past years we have already become accustomed to the smog photos from Beijing as one of the worst places for air quality in the world. But these days we are witnessing similar images from Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and other less developed European countries.
At the end of January 2019, 1.7 million inhabitants of Belgrade, the Serbian capital, woke up in the morning to find themselves in the most polluted city in the world. That day, in a city and country with continuing and growing anti-government protests, the activists of the social movement Don’t Drown Belgrade sent a gas mask to the mayor with a simple message: “Soon everyone will need a gas mask.”
FRESH AIR IN THE WEST, GAS MASKS IN THE EAST
And here we come from Folding Beijing to “Folding Europe.” There is a sharp divide in air quality between the West and East of Europe. Even Forbes magazine recently called it “the New Iron Curtain.” But beside naming the reasons for this air pollution, such as brown coal as the main energy source of post-communist countries, Forbes did not name the true origin of the problem.
The problem is not so much that Eastern European countries — former Yugoslavia and the Eastern Bloc states — are not “developed” enough. The problem is that the current architecture of the European Union is actually based on a deep and growing divide between the center (Western Europe) and periphery (Eastern Europe). Without the under-developed East, the West could not really go through its “green transition” — or what the Germans would call Energiewende.
If it was ever tangible that Europe is rapidly transforming itself into a dystopian “Folding Europe,” with different spaces of air quality depending on whether you belong to the center or the periphery, to the global rich or the global poor, then it was with the current Diesel ban in Germany — and its consequences for the East.
The ban itself, of course, is a development in the right direction, but it does not solve the deeper ecological and economic problem which goes beyond national borders. Even if Germany is at the moment, as one of Europe’s most developed countries, going through its “green transition,” this has devastating environmental and health consequences for the rest of the European Union.
In late January, when children in Belgium were protesting against climate change, it became clearer than ever that you cannot just “outsource” or “export” air pollution while at the same time schools were closed in Macedonia because of extremely high levels of air pollution. Already in December 2018, two cities in Macedonia — the western city of Tetovo and the capital, Skopje — were named by the European Air Quality Index as the most polluted cities in Europe.
In other words, Western Europe is literally exporting “air pollution” to the periphery of the EU. According to the German Handelsblatt, the export of German used diesel cars increased to 233,321 in 2017, up 18 percent from the year before. Although the main export is still to France, Austria and Italy, a significant number went to Eastern Europe: 11,841 cars went to Hungary, 9,439 to Slovakia and 10,899 to Romania. In 2017, the import of second-hand diesel cars from Germany to Croatia rose by 89 percent.
But once again, this time explicitly, the framing of the story was a typical dismissal of the true problem. The German newspaper carried the title “Eastern Europe’s appetite for dirty old diesels,” as if the people of Hungary, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania and Bulgaria would not be happy with an Energiewende and would not rather breathe fresh air instead of… wearing gas masks.
“THERE IS NO GREEN TRANSITION IN ONE COUNTRY”
What this reality of “Folding Europe” — less science fiction, more capitalist realism — makes more and more evident is that the solution to today’s universal problems (like climate change or environmental breakdown) cannot lie in solutions that are already distributed according to the different realities or “folders” of contemporary Europe: “green transition” for the West, Diesel for the East.
This “uneven development” is not only manifested in the stark division between the center and the periphery, becoming tangible with air pollution; it is at the same time a deep class division within societies, as became visible with the Yellow Vests protests in France, where it was — once again — the poor who were destined to pay the costs of the “green transition” through a “carbon tax.”
What is becoming more obvious when faced with the recent reports about a complete planetary environmental breakdown is that “green transition” for the rich, and ecological catastrophe for the poor, is not a solution if we want to have a liveable planet at all.