When breathing is political

Black woman with maks with text

When people are dying, from a global pandemic, poverty or racist brutality, what is the point of big and abstract words like ‘sustainability’, ‘justice’, ‘transitions’ and ‘urban vitalism’?  In this blog Flor Avelino argues how and why transitioning towards sustainable and just cities is, or at least should be, a matter of life and death.

“One day they’ll start charging people for the air they breathe” my mother used to say when I was little. I remember finding it such a strange and unimaginable scenario. Yet I increasingly think of those words as I watch the world unfold and conduct my research on power in transition

This year I started a new challenge as theme-lead of Sustainable & Just Cities within the Vital Cities & Citizen (VCC) initiative of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. Sustainable and just cities are cities that improve quality of life and well-being, meet the needs of both present and future generations, enable justice and equity, and live within ecosystem limits (see Vanesa Castán Broto and Linda Westman 2017). While it’s impossible to find cities that fully meet all these criteria, there are countless initiatives and approaches striving towards these principles of sustainable and/or just cities.

My appointment as a theme lead was confirmed shortly before the Corona lock-down in March, followed by the global anti-racism protests in May and June. For several weeks I was rather demotivated to communicate or organize any exchange around the theme of sustainable and just cities: When people are dying, from a global pandemic, poverty and/or racist brutality, from floods, droughts or forest fires, who cares about big and vague abstract words like ‘sustainability’, ‘justice’, ‘transition’ and ‘urban vitalism’? In between these phases of discouragement, however, I also had some spurs of inspiration and apprehension of how sustainable and just cities are, or at least should be, a matter of life and death.

Cities and the political struggles over life and death

From collaborating with other academic leads in the Vital Cities & Citizens initiative, I have learned to appreciate the notion of urban vitalism and understand cities as living processes that fundamentally differ from mechanistic laws of physics or chemistry. This made me rethink sustainable just cities as human settlements that strive to enable life – not only present life but also future life, not only of humans, but of all living beings – and enable these living beings not only to survive but also to thrive and flourish. However, as many living beings inherently survive and thrive at the cost of other living beings, our cities inevitably become a stage for fierce and deeply political power struggle over life and death.

The Covid-19 pandemic made this political power underlying life and death painfully visible. Here I’m not only referring to the deadly struggles between humans, animals and viruses or the difficult choices that doctors had to make in over-crowded hospitals. What also struck me was how politicians spoke about life and death at multiple press conferences on Covid-19. The governor of New York state Andrew Cuomo, for instance, firmly stated that “you don’t have the right to risk someone else’s life” (6th of April) and that “nothing comes before the public health risk of somebody else’s life” (22nd of April 22). 

The freedom of one cannot exist at the cost of another’s life

When asked about the economic hardship for those who could not go to work and had no income, Como lectured the journalist on how nothing could be worse than death: “Economic hardship — yes, very bad — not death. Emotional stress, from being locked in a house — very bad, not death. Domestic violence on the increase? Very bad, not death. And the death of someone else. See, that’s what we have to factor into this equation. Yea, it’s your life, do whatever you want, but you’re now responsible for my life, you have a responsibility to me. It’s not just about you, you have a responsibility to me.” 

Meanwhile in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Mark Rutte addressed the Dutch nation to explain the Covid-19 measures by literally arguing that “The freedom of one person cannot exist at the cost of the health of another person” (press conference 21st of April). Mainstream politicians who normally follow a rather (neo)liberal economic logic, now seemed to switch to a state discourse on societal solidarity for protecting the health of one another, resulting in an unfathomable pause in the global economy and in urban life around the world. 

Political decisions that had seemed impossible for a long time in the context of liberal democracies when dealing with climate change, poverty, wars and economic crises, were now suddenly justified by (our fear of) a virus called Covid-19. Many people agreed and applauded the words of these and other statesmen and women. So did I. As much as I still support the social responsibility approaches to Covid-19, however, it is almost impossible to ignore the discrepancies between the supposed life-ethics called upon in the Corona-lockdowns on the one hand, and the total disregards for human life on so many other fronts.

Who decides over life and death in Covid-19 and beyond?

Who decides who gets to live and die, how, when and at what cost? This question has haunted me ever since the Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent (semi-)lock-down policies. The surrealistic empty streets in the otherwise bustling city of Amsterdam seemed to be devoid of urban life, so as to starve and kill that tiny terrifying microorganism before it could kill us. For a considerable while, I got enraged by anyone who celebrated the environmental or personal benefits of Covid-19 or framed it as a ‘blessing’ for the environment or nature’s rightful revenge. At the same time, I could not help noticing and enjoying the clean air, the silence of absent traffic, the sound of singing birds. Never did I experience spring season’s beginnings of new life as fully and intensely as I did this year, closely witnessing the blossoming leaves and flowers across the balconies, gardens and parks around our house. Even more unique was cycling through the center of Amsterdam, soaking up its architectural beauty without ploughing through masses of tourists, marihuana vapors or drunk guys gawking at prostitutes. 

After having lived in Amsterdam for almost a decade, it was as if the Corona lock-down enabled my first real introduction to the city without the violent distraction of mass tourism, overconsumption, commuting and travelling, both by myself and others. Of course, these ‘charming’ moments of the Corona semi-lock-down for highly privileged people like myself, were quashed as soon as the political reality sunk in regarding Corona’s exacerbation of existing inequalities in our outrageously unjust and unsustainable cities.

Black Lives Matters protests in Amsterdam

An example of such inequalities was vividly illustrated in Amsterdam on Monday the 1st of June. At 12:00 restaurants and terraces opened for the first time in three months and at 17:00 an anti-racism #BlackLivesMatter protest was organized on Dam Square. It was as if the city exploded, with protestors, but also with people drinking, eating, shopping, sight-seeing and getting sunburned. As if urbanity had to catch up after three months of quiet streets. 

Amsterdam’s law enforcement underestimated that 250-300 people would show up for the demonstration instead of the 5000+ that did, which made it nearly impossible for people to keep the mandatory 1,5 meter distance from each other. In order to avoid escalation between police and protestors in an otherwise peaceful demonstration, the mayor decided not to dissolve the crowd, a decision supported by many but also fervently criticized. What followed was a heated political debate that lasted over two weeks. 

Dutch citizens across the country expressed their sense of injustice about being forbidden by Covid-19 measures to attend the commemoration of World War II or the funeral of a grandparent, while Black Lives Matter protestors were allowed to gather in masses. Politicians across the right Dutch political spectrum demanded the resignation of Amsterdam’s mayor (who also happens to be its first female and Green Left mayor) and even issued a motion of no confidence. Legal scholars and journalists debated the fundamental difference between the constitutional right to demonstrate versus commemoration ceremonies, and how and when the state can be expected to use its supposed monopoly on violence for police intervention. 

While these debates and public ‘wars of indignation’ are philosophically fascinating, I also found it painful to witness the selective fury that detonated across the Netherlands directed at the Black Live Matters protestors. That day, local law enforcers all across the Netherlands had been overwhelmed and taken by surprise, by the masses of people in cafés, parks, shops, malls, on terraces and beaches. Rather than getting upset with the shoppers, drinkers and sun-bathers, the political indignation seemed to be entirely channeled towards Black Live Matters protestors and the mayor of Amsterdam. As my friend Daniel Schut sharply pointed out that day, there is a cynical irony in black people being condemned for attending a protest against racism while white people are excused for gathering in masses on terraces and beaches for their sole entertainment.  

Struggles for breathing 

Ever since the Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been focusing my contemplations on the politics of life specifically on one of its most mundane dimensions: the act of breathing. I became particularly attentive to signals of people having difficulty to breathe, which I suddenly started noticing everywhere, at a large and small scale, on the news and in my own surroundings. 

I saw it in the videos of Covid-19 patients gasping for air from behind their mechanical ventilators. 

I saw it in my father who is an asthmatic survivor of lung cancer and prefers not to visit us in Amsterdam because of its air pollution. 

I saw it in the videos of angry people protesting against Covid-19 measures, claiming their freedom is stifled and that the mandatory masks are suffocating them. 

I saw it in accounts of people who have been stuck inside their homes for months, with others who need constant care and/or with abusive housemates, not allowed to go outside for fresh air. 

We all saw it as a black man named George Floyd was killed through slow suffocation under the knee of a police officer while begging “I can’t breathe”. 

We see it on the Covid-19 masks that have been turned into “I can’t breathe” protest signs at Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities all across the world.

Climate change and air pollution 

Meanwhile, the planet that we all inhabit, is at a systematic level becoming a more difficult place to breathe. Its signs are all around us in devastating floods, droughts and forest fires, in increasing temperatures and rising sea levels. Even if we would not care about our 4-billion-year-old planet or the survival of its ecosystems and the many living species in it. Even if we were to only worry about our own human species. Even if we think that the detrimental consequences of climate change are too unpredictable and far away to consider and act upon. Even if we focus just on us, on tangible human suffering in the here and now, even then the effects of environmental degradation are already literally killing people every day. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) indicates that one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution and that “Every day around 93% of the world’s children under the age of 15 years (1.8 billion children) breathe air that is so polluted it puts their health and development at serious risk. Tragically, many of them die: WHO estimates that in 2016, 600,000 children died from acute lower respiratory infections caused by polluted air”.

Environmental and social (in)justice 

To make matters worse, these deaths caused by air pollution are far from being equally distributed, for those who suffer most from air pollution are not those who primarily cause it. Economic, environmental and racial injustice are intimately intertwined. Air pollution is just one example in a long list of multi-layered injustices in our cities and beyond. As pointed out over and over again and recently summarized in an article on environmental (in)justice by Isabelle Anguelovski, Panagiota Kotsila and Helen Cole:  “low income and minority communities are consistently exposed to greater environmental hazards and have access to fewer environmental amenities than their more affluent counterparts, facing worse health and lower life expectancy”. 

So where are the bold statements by our national and urban leaders when it comes to these other life-threatening crises caused by ecological degradation, racism and poverty? What if the literal quote by the Dutch Prime Minister that “the freedom of one person cannot exist at the cost of the health of another person”, would not only be applied to beat Covid-19 but also to regulating and taxing industrial complexes around e.g. fossil fuels, air travel, pharmaceuticals, military and advertising? Might that help us arrange for the urgent, basic access to adequate housing, food, water, health care, energy, transport, public space and clean air in cities and other communities across the world?

Taking a stance for the right to breathe

Perhaps we need to approach sustainable and just cities more explicitly and literally in terms of life and death. Not just our political leaders, but also us as researchers, teachers, activists, entrepreneurs, engaged citizens and voters. Maybe we can be more solidary to each other’s causes in a shared indignation on and commitment to the right to life, in the same way that we have done and continue to do in the Covid-19 pandemic. Underneath the the universal declaration of Human Rights and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the specialized United Nation summits and conventions, the intricate parliamentary debates, complex policy programmes and fancy academic theories on justice and sustainability, it ultimately comes down to the right to breathe and the question of who gets to decide who lives or dies, how, when and at what cost. 

The past months have made many of us even more aware about our privileges, whether it is because we are healthy, wealthy and/or white, because we are loved, have income security or even just a roof above our head. Recently, Johan Fretz called upon anyone who is still breathing to dare open their mouth and speak out against racism. I full-heartedly embrace that plea, and further call upon all city-makers and thinkers to take a stance on the right of all current and future generations to live in a place that enables them to breathe, to survive and to thrive.

Further reading and/or action: 

About Vital Cities and Citizens

With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens, Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes:


dr. Flor Avelino

Flor Avelino is theme lead of Sustainable & Just Cities within the Vital Cities & Citizen (VCC) initiative of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. She works at DRIFT as senior researcher in the politics of sustainability transitions and social innovation. She specialises in power and empowerment theories, and is involved in research projects on transformative social innovation (TRANSIT), sustainable & just cities (UrbanA) and social innovation in energy transitions (SONNET & PROSEU).

Personal page Flor Avelino

Britt Boeddha van Dongen MSc.

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