Monday, March 21, 2016

[Friday Seminar Recap] Airborne Schizophrenia: On the Dual Identity of Air Pollution in China

Airborne Schizophrenia: On the Dual Identity of Air Pollution in China

Time: 1:00 – 2:30 pm, 11 Mar 2016 (Friday)

Venue: Room 401, Humanities Building, New Asia College, CUHK
Speaker: Edwin Schmitt (PhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)

Edwin Schmitt, our PhD candidate, gave a seminar on “Airborne Schizophrenia: On the Dual Identity of Air Pollution in China” on 11 March. In the seminar, Schmitt shared with the audience his ethnographic research on the perceptions and understandings of air pollution in Chengdu, and discussed why Chinese society has stressed the importance of smog but not the problem of climate change.

Edwin Schmitt

Schmitt first talked about ecological civilization in China and the Chinese government’s stance of balancing economic development and environmental integrity. He shared his research findings of the media coverage in China, from which he traced the international and domestic political discourse on climate change and smog. Taking a page printed by People’s Daily as an example, Schmitt explained how the Chinese media arranged its content to balance the reports on climate change with APEC announcements related to economic development. He also highlighted the myriad sources of smog information, such as from social media and official websites of monitoring stations, that are accessible to the general public.

Schmitt collaborated with two local NGOs and the Neighborhood Management Office in Chengdu to conduct a survey about Ecological Housing Estate Projects. He interviewed 41 individuals and asked them to do free listing on four topics, and air quality had been mentioned in all four. He also surveyed the environmental perceptions of 245 households, and found out that their concern for air quality was second only to food safety. In addition, he asked people to define in their own words what ecological civilization was, and a considerable proportion of respondents reported that they didn’t know. Schmitt then discovered that those who did not know about Ecological Civilization perceived air quality to be significantly less important to their life when compared with those who did know about the ideology. This finding revealed the important influence of ideology over the way people perceive the environment. As Schmitt mentioned, social class also had a role to play in people’s perception of air quality, in which the upper classes exhibited a significantly higher concern for air quality than those from the lower classes.

Apart from the state discourse that had been disseminated through the media, Schmitt, citing Fei’s differential mode of association, pointed out that the importance of family in China contributes to the duality of the “farness” of climate change and the “nearness” of smog. This duality might prevent the public from asking systematic questions and finding solutions to the problems of air pollution. To break down the duality, an older frame could mesh with a new mode of scientific thought that brings issues of climate change and smog together. However, Schmitt also highlighted that we cannot assume that bringing these issues together would be an apolitical process. Solutions to air pollution must consider the way that different social groups perceive the problem and realize that not everyone would be in favor of the breaking down of the duality that Schmitt highlighted in this talk.

The audience

Schmitt’s talk not only provided the audience with insights into the dual identity of air pollution in China, but also led us to reflect on the influence of media, state discourse, and social class on our perceptions of the environment.                        

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