By Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder, March 19, 2014
Air pollution is deteriorating in many places around the world. In Shanghai, such is the oppressive smog, covering the city with a toxic cloud, that authorities have had to instal gigantic TV screens to broadcast the sunrise. Salt Lake City has such poor air quality that chemicals in the atmosphere not only give it a different hue, but leave residents with a foul-smelling, metallic taste in their mouths. Paris has experienced some of its worst air pollution in recent days, while in the European Union as a whole, even at permitted concentrations, industrial and traffic-related pollution is harming cardiovascular health.
Is clean air, along with drinkable water, becoming one of the most precious resources on the planet? Or should we reframe the question and challenge the thinking that converts everything, including the very air we breathe, into economically measurable reserves and commodities?
Today we live in a world so complicated and, moreover, organised so differently according to the cultures we belong to, that encountering each other as humans has become almost impossible. However, instead of asking what it means to be human, alleged experts discuss at great length how to establish coexistence among people. No doubt such an objective is both relevant and urgent, but these experts in peace stray far from a solution, getting lost in technical detail without considering the universal sharing of life, from which we could start again. Even if it makes sceptics laugh, we have no viable solution but to experience the universal human condition as that of a living being, standing naked in the garden that the Earth is. With every breath we take, we expose our lungs to the outside world, regardless of all the barriers we have erected between the environment and ourselves. The resistance to envisaging this alternative is due to a nihilistic preference for certain powers — be they material or spiritual, capitalist or cultural — over life itself. Such a stance is both suicidal and murderous, even though few people actually intend it to be so negative. How can they recover their taste for life and learn ways of cultivating it, in themselves, with others, and in the natural world?
The fact that public parks become crowded as soon as the sun shines proves that people long to breathe in green, open spaces. And, in these surroundings, they are generally both peaceful and peaceable. It is rare to see people fighting in a garden. If human beings can breathe and share air, they do not need to struggle with one another. And consequently, it appears to be a basic crime against humanity to contribute to air pollution.
Unfortunately, in western tradition, neither materialist nor idealist theoreticians give enough consideration to this basic condition for life. As for politicians, despite proposing curbs on pollution, they have not yet called for it to be made a crime. Wealthy countries are allowed to pollute if they pay for it.
But is our life worth anything other than money? The plant world shows us in silence what faithfulness to life consists of. It also helps us to a new beginning, urging us to care for our breath, not only at a vital but also at a spiritual level. We must, in turn, care for it, opposing pollution that destroys both our world and that of plants. The interdependence to which we must pay the closest attention is that between ourselves and the vegetal world. Often described as “the lungs of the planet”, the woods that cover the earth offer us the gift of breathable air by releasing oxygen. As we know, rapid deforestation combined with the massive burning of fossil fuels, is an explosive recipe for an irreversible disaster.
The fight over the appropriation of resources will lead the entire planet to an abyss unless humans learn to share life, both with each other and with plants. The lesson taught by plants is that sharing life augments and enhances it, while dividing life into so-called natural or human resources diminishes it. We must come to view air, plants and ourselves as participants in the symphony of life, rather than a mesh of quantifiable objects or productive potentialities at our disposal. Perhaps then we would finally begin to live, rather than being concerned with bare survival.