Space helmets are no longer just for excursions to the moon or to colonize Mars. No, to ensure that you don’t join the legions of those poisoned by the airborne particulates of the modern city, an upscale array of data-infused wearables must be equipped so that you can remain exempt from the apocalypse—be it by way of pandemic, climate crisis, or some grisly combination of the two. Sure, you could sit at home, protected by the air purifier you snapped up in 2018 in what was then a record-breaking wildfire season. But if you want to return to the daily grind, grab a bite at a restaurant, or a cocktail at a bar, you’re gonna need to find yourself a plexiglass fishbowl equipped with a hermetic seal and battery-operated air purifying system. Thankfully, an ascendant market sector has arrived to capitalize on the increasing scarcity of clean air.
“Our mission,” proclaims VYZRtech, one such purveyor of purifying headgear, “is to take respiratory protection to the next level and bring powered air purifying technology to the people who need it most. From wildfires to urban pollution to pandemics, access to clean air can no longer be taken for granted.” As most one-percent doomsday-preppers and apostles of the Quantified Self would agree, it is we—the feckless, polluting consumers—who have taken clean air “for granted.” Now that even the world’s wealthiest cities are suffering through a cavalcade of freakish environmental catastrophes, living in a bubble has never looked so good. While the high-end BioVYZER ($379) or AIR by MicroClimate™ ($199) may not actually be any more effective at protecting you from Covid-19 than a regular cloth mask, donning these microclimate wearables can nonetheless serve as a critical sartorial statement, distinguishing you, rational citizen of the “smart city,” from the misguided and dispensable masses.
Air in the modern metropolis has, of course, always been noxious. With the acceleration of industrialization in the early twentieth century and the privileging of cars in postwar urban planning, most major American cities became so hazy that mounting public pressure led to passage of the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1963 (and properly enforced following the establishment of the EPA in 1970) to deal with the air pollution crisis. A rare victory that emerged from the environmental movements of the time, the CAA gave the Environmental Protection Agency power to enforce caps on air pollutants from major industrial entities, focusing on sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, ozone, and lead. Emissions of said pollutants drastically decreased in subsequent years, and critically, the thick haze lifted in many cities. Yet fine particulate pollution can still be found pretty much everywhere in the United States, and the rate of emissions of airborne toxins from cars and fossil fuel industries has only accelerated. Today, about 40 percent of people breathe in polluted air every day, and nearly one hundred thousand people in the United States die every year from health issues linked to air pollution.
This year’s devastating fires served as less of a wake-up call to major industrial polluters, and more like the sparks of a bright future for disaster capitalism.
All this has only been made worse by the fact that President Trump and EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler have been rabidly hacking their way through over a hundred environmental regulations established over the past half century. In their effort to defang the CAA, the administration has been working to redefine the EPA’s “cost-benefit analysis” of air pollution. While it has always been the policy of the EPA that no amount of air particulates is safe, new rules would define a certain amount of particulates as “healthy” and argue that the benefit to limiting particulate pollution is not enough to justify the cost of limiting pollution. The administration’s proposed Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule would likely result in “hundreds of thousands more deaths and illnesses every year” from air pollutants, according to a report from the NYU School of Law. The rule, which remains tangled up in the courts, would no doubt have a disproportionate impact on the 44 percent of the population living in poverty.
The intention of ACE and the Trump administration’s deregulation spree is not only to maim and kill the poor but also to hobble any future efforts to regulate carbon emissions: the new cost benefit analysis would also apply to what is considered “healthy” levels of carbon emissions in the future. The catastrophic impact of such policy cannot fully be stated, but increasingly volatile fire seasons in the United States are but a taste of things to come, the “new normal” in a nation that continues to deny the reality of climate change.
Carcinogenic air, be it spiked with the fumes of a gigafire or the workaday poisons of industry, is a condition of what environmental scholar Ashley Dawson calls the “extreme city.” Plagued by environmental injustice, the extreme city is “an urban space of stark economic inequality, the defining urban characteristic of our time . . . the primary site for the feckless depletion of natural resources that characterizes this economic system, which is founded on unbridled compound growth.” The increasing concentration of the world’s population in urban areas and the creep of industrial development into wildland-made-tinderbox by poor land management will only expose more and more people to the choking fumes of modernity.
As early as 1972, a “transboundary haze” began afflicting cities in Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia during the dry season. Attributed to smoke and ash particles from fires intentionally started to clear the jungle for land development, the hazy air pollution borne of this unchecked development would soon become a seasonal occurrence, often stretching across entire nations. The annual haze, which has only grown worse since the 1970s, is not simply the result of poor farmers using dangerous land practices; the main culprit is the boom in palm oil production in Indonesia and Malaysia, and the rich ecosystem there that multinational industries have been more than happy to exploit.
The island of Borneo—home to one of the largest and most biodiverse rainforests on the planet—is one of the primary sources for the haze. Since the 1980s, Borneo has become the heart of the world’s supply of palm oil. Taking advantage of threadbare environmental and labor regulations, plantations have gone from covering six hundred thousand hectares of the island in 1985 to over 6 million hectares and growing by 2007. Only half of Borneo’s forest cover remains today, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Along with the deforestation, the draining of vital peatlands and an increasingly dry climate have created the perfect conditions for devastating fires. In 1982, the then largest fire in recorded history broke out on the island, destroying nearly eight million acres of land—a gigafire before gigafires existed. Disastrous fires subsequently broke out in 1987, 1991, 1994, 1997, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2014, 2015, and 2019. The 1997 fire remains the largest in recorded history, incinerating nearly twenty million acres of land and clearing plenty of room for palm oil plantations. The attendant hazes have impacted millions of people in the surrounding nations, who’ve found themselves choking on carbon dioxide and the immolated biomatter of innumerable species—many potentially lost for good.
Since then, the distressed but still nutrient-rich land has remained a fruitful resource plantation for multinational corporations like Nestlé, P&G, Unilever, and Mondelēz. As such, catastrophic fires, intentional and otherwise, have occurred time and time again, making what should be the world’s largest terrestrial carbon “sink” into one of the largest wellsprings of carbon emissions on the planet. Apart from the obviously grim implications of losing huge swathes of ancient rainforests, the over twenty-one million people of Borneo, and millions of others spread across surrounding islands and nations, are now regularly exposed to the poisonous smog and smoke of palm oil production. The rapid urbanization of Borneo due to the hundreds of thousands of transmigrants who’ve come to the island seeking work in the lucrative—if viciously exploitative—industry has only exacerbated the air quality crisis. The devastating 1997 “haze” in Indonesia and Malaysia, fueled by intentional burns for agriculture, ended up affecting seventy-five million people and hospitalized thousands—but measuring the full extent of the damage is likely impossible, as the toxic cloud blanketed over one million square miles. Just last year in Borneo, nearly a million people were treated for acute respiratory problems caused by the over eight hundred thousand acres of land that was set ablaze across Indonesia.
These bleak scenes of the ecological devastation make for an unbeatable ad campaign.
The immolation of the world’s “lungs” on behalf of industry has long been an appalling, if distant, violence for denizens of the United States. It’s easy enough for most to experience some intangible moral ache when peering at the drone footage of yet another rainforest razed for the sake of an overstocked shelf at Target, be it the coniferous Siberian or the deciduous Amazon—and do absolutely nothing about it. Even if one did want to do something, the consumer has little leverage. For not unlike petroleum oil, the wily traders of global palm oil have made it ubiquitous. Toothpaste, bread, soap, chocolate, lipstick, cookies, detergent, pizza, ice cream, and countless other goods—the material of our everyday lives—are are derived from this cataclysmic agriculture. To see the turmeric fog and alien sunsets of East Kalimantan and Jinan is unsettling, and yet we do not choke on the fumes of it when we go to brush our teeth with Colgate or open up a package of Oreos. The emotional resonance of these distant calamities is nothing compared to the disease and pain that are present in the generations of people who have inhaled it.
But this year, the same blood red sun hung in the sky over the West Coast: the climate crisis was finally, viscerally here. From the Cold Springs Fires in Washington state to the Valley Fire outside of San Diego, over three million acres of land across the western United States went up in flames this year. Whereas no amount of particulates in the air is ideal, anything above fifty on the air quality index (AQI) is concerning. The smoke from this year’s fires caused AQI in parts of the United States to reach as high as five hundred in cities across the West. It hit 710 in Salem, Oregon, this September, and for a brief time, the city had the worst air quality on the planet. Nearly fifty million people have been exposed to dangerous air pollution this year. Ash raining from the sky, dark red skies at midday, impenetrable, poisonous fog shrouding titanic skyscrapers—these frightening scenes, long common in some of the poorest cities of the world, are now likely to become familiar in the richest.
Thankfully, these bleak scenes of ecological devastation make for an unbeatable ad campaign. Looking beyond the causes of these gargantuan blazes and the fossil fuel infrastructure that will ensure their growth in years to come, there are plenty willing to capitalize on the anxiety they will exacerbate. In the last decade, the increasing toxicity of urban life, along with jarring “natural” disasters like Hurricane Sandy in New York and Katrina in New Orleans, have produced a profitable opportunity for speculative entrepreneurs intent on designing and selling a resilient urban lifestyle through tech innovations—rather than accounting for the ongoing injustices of the extreme city.
Their narrow tech “solutions” operate on an individualist logic, exemplified by the futurist fishbowls offered by BioVYZR and Air, even as their makers boast of the universal progress their designs ostensibly signal. They are the telling artifacts of an industrial culture that has taken up a new position on the biosphere: the climate crisis is as inevitable as market growth, but with the right tools, you can live life without compromise, forgoing the virulent air the working poor in Borneo—and countless other urban people in the Global South—have been inhaling for decades.
The immolation of the world’s “lungs” on behalf of industry has long been an appalling, if distant, violence for denizens of the United States.
The overpriced plexiglass fishbowl is but one useful device for moving through the city of the future: urban life-support requires an array of different technologies. Many of which fall under the utopian umbrella described as the “smart city.” The smart city concept proposes that with enough data about the city and people living there, there is just no need for social ecological policy, nor to limit the growth of private transportation models that are the leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, nor to regulate land development in fire-prone regions of the country—we need none of that to erect utopia. For the smart city “there is one and only one universal and transcendently correct solution to each identified individual or collective human need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something which can be encoded in public policy, again without distortion,” writes Adam Greenfield, in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. Tracking air quality and a wide array of climate monitoring “solutions” has been fundamental to sculpting infrastructure to insulate citizens from the fumes—but these designers have no interest in addressing the systems and urban development that are largely responsible for the toxic air in the first place.
Even if we are to believe that mass data tracking and technology will be enough to create a shield against dangerous air particulates, the products and services that might do so will come at a high price, thereby ensuring that the already stark inequalities of the extreme city, economic as well as environmental, will only grow. At the same time that fossil fuel companies and industrial associations have been cheering on the Trump administration’s deregulation blitz, they have been diligently working to find new ways of shackling individuals with the guilt of their carbon footprint, sidestepping as much of the blame for the climate crisis as they can. And so continues the long tradition of shifting the responsibility of environmental destruction onto individual consumers. There is little reason to think that it will be any different as air quality declines precipitously. If products like personal air filtration masks are any indication, this year’s devastating fires served as less of a wake-up call to major industrial polluters and more like the sparks of a bright future for disaster capitalism.
“From Uber to airline, AIR by MicroClimate™ will keep you comfortable the whole trip” —is a strikingly oblivious, but nonetheless earnest offer of relief to consumers anxious about the threat of pandemic and poor air quality. This idealization of an efficient urban living for oneself alone is echoed by countless ventures that see the future city as one fed by data and economic growth, where privatization is the solution, not the obvious and overwhelming problem. Even as the climate crisis threatens to make the already pernicious inequalities of the wealthiest cities the sites of the worst catastrophes, there will always be a way to profit from the perils that the majority of people will be unable to escape. In this global pandemic, exacerbated by another record-breaking fire season, products like these prey on the public’s worst anxieties. For their peddlers, the solution to the floods, fires, hurricanes, droughts, and more, is omnipresent urban tech devices. Microclimate and VYZRtech implore us that clean air cannot be taken for granted, and instead, must be bought and sold as a precious commodity in the deteriorating landscape of the extreme city.