My PhD project resulted in an ethnographic monograph based on prolonged fieldwork comprising of participant observation and qualitative interviews conducted in Mandarin Chinese. Taking as its starting point the notion that how we view catastrophes is part of the catastrophes themselves, the monograph sought to explore what enables environmental crises to continue to unfold in spite of widespread knowledge about their dire consequences. It demonstrated that the air pollution wrapping Beijing in thick, industrial fog was interpreted in variegated and often contradictory ways. A lack of meaningful options when faced with air pollution, uncertainties about the effects of inhaling the smog and modes of relating the polluted present to history came together in normalizing atmospheric toxicity. The peculiar result was that for many of Beijing’s residents, the polluted air became but another fact of daily life unworthy of attention.
Titled Breathing in the Anthropocene China’s environmental crisis and the eschatological unconscious, the monograph emphasized that underlying much of the accept for pollution in the here-and-now was the idea of a materially better off future from the vantage point of which the present was rendered tolerable. Whether informed by imaginaries of economic growth, teleological historical unfolding along a set trajectory or memories of recent poverty, the present was considered more endurable when read against personal biography and national history.