“Habitable Air” is a project that addresses the under-analyzed relationship between three urgent issues: (1) the rapid growth of urban inequality; (2) the ongoing amplification of political divisions in major democracies; and (3) the increasing impact of pollution and global warming. Our project’s primary objective is to examine how the urban poor, living on the margins of a jointly-owned petrochemical company in South Africa, Germany, and the U.S., manage the cultural and corporeal effects of chemical air pollution. Our secondary objective is to analyze how long-standing struggles over industrial toxicity are newly being shaped as climate science becomes increasingly integral to contemporary governance. The project uses qualitative methods – including ethnographic participant observation and the analysis of historical archival documents – at a scale that only quantitative studies of climate change have yet achieved by working within a clear network of scientists, policymakers, workers, and residents in transnational sites. The project makes a theoretical contribution about the complex ways industrial toxicity intersects with global warming by shifting the focus to ordinary citizens, their practices and interactions, as they grapple with an industry that is at the center of their lives and community debates about their own health and that of the planet. By studying networked citizen practices and interactions as key drivers for reordering urban life and politics, as well as in what ways they fail or are effective, we may better be able to dismantle a homogenized view of air pollution across borders to help create more equitable and sustainable cities. Through major publications, teaching and training, a documentary film, policy briefs, media outreach, public workshops, and an international symposium, the project will produce actionable knowledge to build cooperation between the public, governments, and marginalized communities.
“Habitable Air” is a project that examines how the urban poor, living in the shadows of jointly-owned petrochemical companies, manage the cultural and corporeal effects of chemical air pollution. Our central research question is: What political life is possible for – and created by – the world’s most environmentally precarious communities in emerging orders of climate governance? Modern democratic theory rests on the foundational principle that all citizens have an equal share in political life. In contemporary South Africa, the United States, and Germany, legacies of colonialism and segregation, along with neoliberalism and climate change, test that very foundation. We approach political life as not merely defined by the laws, policies, and decisions of state-sanctioned agents, but by everyday practices among ordinary citizens and their interactions with the environment. We tackle the main R&D challenge of our multiple research sites by using qualitative methods at a transnational scale, allowing us to work comparatively within a clear network of actors, including climate activists, scientists, cancer survivors, environmental lawyers, and plant workers. Drawing from over a decade of ethnographic research in interconnected petrochemical hubs of South Africa and Louisiana’s “cancer alley,” and expanding to a new field site in Germany, our project offers a critical examination of how the urban poor, living on the precarious margins, come to inhabit political roles and practice climate politics in twenty-first century liberal democracies, especially as climate science becomes increasingly integral to contemporary governance.