Exeter, Devon UK • Mar 4, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home FeaturesColumnists Everyday Ideology: sweet decay – East Asia’s culture of ecological disaster

Everyday Ideology: sweet decay – East Asia’s culture of ecological disaster

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‘Make our skies blue again’ is becoming a worn-out catchphrase of the Chinese government. The same promise was made by the Chinese premier Li Keqiang in March after a meeting of the legislative branch over the country’s ecological crisis. But nonetheless, earlier this summer, it was reported that over 13,700 companies (70% of all Chinese businesses) had ignored the Ministry of Environmental Protection’s guidelines and complied with either some of the pollution control measures, or none at all. Not only is the private sector apathetic at tackling environmental insecurity, but even the same self-proclaimed eco-conscious legislators considered classifying the deadly smog in Chinese cities as a ‘natural disaster’ (meteorological rather than industrial emissions) to protect the authorities at fault.

Hebei province takes the top six of the most polluted cities in China, according to the figures of the beleaguered MEP, with 47 micrograms of hazardous fumes every cubic metre. In December 2016, up to half a billion people were affected by smog, dubbed the ‘Airpocalypse’ in western media, with thousands of ecological migrants fleeing from the contaminated cities into the countryside. Almost one-in-three deaths in China are now related to breathing in toxic substances in the urban air, with a common sight being gas masked citizens wandering through the dense fog of the metropolitan streets.

Hebei province.

To demonstrate just how far the ecological damage has come, this case being in China’s neighbour Taiwan, three design students from the Taiwan University of the Arts drew international notice for their final year exhibition project: ‘Polluted Water Popsicles‘. They collected ditch water from up to a hundred different sources on the island-nation and froze the tainted fluids into a range of multi-coloured, multi-polluted lolly shapes, all displayed in their own brands of packaging. The choice of polluted confections come from loose industrial wastewater to rivers of plastic toxins and an eerie source of ‘black water’ (believed to be excess oil) running in a canal behind the students’ university. Some of the diseased candies still have plastic, paper and metal waste stuck inside of them.

The exhibition’s message is clear in its concern over the social attitude of disposable environments which infest commodity obsessed cultures, as the students catalogue and marketise the pollution itself. With the unbridled interplay of market forces widely considered to be a natural constituent of ‘real life’, the popsicle treats represent pollution, traumatically, as a regular setting of everyday experience. Hung Yi-chen, one of the students, hopes the exhibition will raise awareness of environmental problems in Taiwan and elsewhere: ‘We hope when more people see this they will change their lifestyles’.

‘Almost on-in-three deaths in china are related to breathing in toxic substances in the urban air.’

Perhaps in the case of the People’s Republic of China contributing much (but not all) of Taiwan’s water and air pollution, looking at the issue in terms of personal lifestyle may be problematic if ecological crisis is systemically wrought in certain parts of East Asia. In some Chinese provinces (Hebei certainly being one) pollution is ever more becoming part of the social custom, the natural backdrop of one’s life.

Despite a highly developed and accelerating economy under China’s brand of authoritarian capitalism (or Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘capitalism with Asian values’) the country’s income inequality has been ranked as one of the worst in the world. In some cities, the proliferatoin of the noxious fumes has led to airport closures but those who are able to afford a costly flight can still hope to escape the affected cities. It has now become a custom where people try to plan a day-trip to the countryside where the sky can still be seen beyond the clouds of pollution. Some agencies in Beijing specifically cater toward being able to see the blue sky as an infrequent and pleasurable leisure activity. The culture of environmental degradation even dictates one’s personal calendar. The encroaching pollution also impacts the functioning of social services such as health facilities and education, with Chinese schoolchildren often overjoyed at the regular school closures because of the toxic air.

The ‘Polluted Water Popsicles’ give a wonderful insight into how state authorities legislate collective denial as everyday experience, as is currently being done in China’s absorption of environmental decay into its daily culture. This radical message in the tainted sweets is that often the supposedly innocent, ‘little pleasures’ in life can also be part of the disease. What these lollies effectively warn against is the false expectation, for citizens of a polluted culture, that life must simply go on.

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