In Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton observes that, “You can no longer have a routine conversation about the weather with a stranger. The presence of global warming looms into the conversation like a shadow, introducing strange gaps.”
These days in Seoul, South Korea, you can no longer have routine conversations on the street about the weather due to the simple fact that your and your interlocutor’s faces are probably both covered in air pollution masks. With the increasing number of “unhealthy” air days due to high levels of PM2.5, also referred to as fine particulate matter or fine dust, there is no point in stopping to take off the mask to make small talk about the nasty air; the mask performs that conversation for you in advance. When I run into a friend on the street or colleague on campus, instead of stopping we give each other a knowing look that signifies, “Hey, I want to stop and chat but this weather sucks and I don’t want to take off this mask,” and keep on walking.
For Morton, an English professor at Rice University who has collaborated with artists ranging from Bjork to Haim Steinbach and Olafur Eliasson, hyperobjects refer to entities that are really, really big, to “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans,” and it is imperative for humanities scholars who profess to be concerned about the planet to start leveling their thinking up. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster, and PM2.5 are all hyperobjects. So are black holes, the Solar System, and the biosphere. The point, or one of the points, of this critical concept is simple: to intensify ecological awareness at a moment when the world as we have come to know it is ending, or has perhaps already ended.
People in Korea are very aware of the fact that fine dust is massively distributed in space. Many casual conversations about the nasty air end with someone saying “China,” which is followed by a solemn nodding of heads and shift to a new topic. Quotidian nationalism tries to map and contain the hyperobject through a narrative in which PM2.5 is contemptuously imagined as an illegal immigrant, sneaking across borders and corrupting our clean air. While it is true that the air pollution in South Korea does partially originate in wind patterns that blow sand from the deserts of northern China over the Korean Peninsula, picking up industrial pollutants along the way, transboundary pollution is only part of the story.
“Silent Killer: Fine Particulate Matter,” a report put together by Greenpeace, emphasizes that:
A common misconception in South Korea is that the majority of the particular matter in the country originates in China. However, in 2013, the Korean government reported the amount of fine particulate matter originating in China to be just 30 to 50 percent, meaning more than half of this dangerous pollutant is domestically produced. The main sources of these emissions are vehicles, factories and coal-fired power plants.
Viewed as a hyperobject, PM2.5 is not only massively distributed in relation to China, but also in relation to all those countries that export coal to feed South Korea’s carbon addiction: Australia (40 percent), Indonesia (29 percent), Russia (12 percent), Canada (10 percent), China (2 percent), and Vietnam (1 percent). Unlike much of the world, which is slowly weaning itself off the coal pipe -- the president of Costa Rica recently announced a nationwide ban on fossil fuels and total decarbonization of society -- South Korea, the fourth largest importer of coal in the world, began operation on eight new coal plants in 2017, while seven more are being planned, appears to be moving in the opposite direction.
In addition to being nonlocal, hyperobjects, Morton argues, are viscous, they saturate our everyday lives, they are everywhere: “Like faces pressed against a window, they leer at me menacingly: their very nearness is what menaces… The more I struggle to understand hyperobjects, the more I discover that I am stuck to them. They are all over me. They are me.” PM2.5 is viscous; it sticks to your skin and your hair and your clothes and your pets. It sticks to your furniture and pillows and sheets. It sticks to your lungs and pulmonary alveoli. It sticks to your hospital bill when you are having chest pains or headaches. It sticks to your feelings of depression and anxiety, perhaps the result of a vitamin D deficiency from lack of exposure to the sun. It sticks to the text messages from the government warning you to stay inside because of the hazardous air.
The discourse about fine dust appears to be changing. Dust Out, for example, is an online community composed of around 40,000 Korean mothers who have been calling for more government action to address air pollution. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes, “During extraordinary historical moments…the usual categories dividing “activists” and “regular people” became meaningless because the project of changing society was so deeply woven into the project of life. Activists were, quite simply, everyone.” While Klein has the civil rights movement in mind here, her analysis works as a pretty good description of the massive demonstrations in 2017 on the streets of Seoul and around the country that led to the impeachment of the president, demonstrations in which activists were everyone. Korean citizens dramatically changed the story. If ordinary people become as angry about the corruption of their air as they do about corrupt politicians, things here could change very fast. It is exhilarating to see how fast things can change here.
John R. Eperjesi
John R. Eperjesi is an Associate Professor of Literature at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. -- Ed.