God, the chemistry of air and the State
For anyone who has never got in touch with the ordinary procedures of parliamentary debates, the text quoted above, a transcription of a dialogue at the House of Commons on 14th of July 1999, is at best a tedious record of the traditional mechanisms of democratic politics. One recognizes the old-aged practice of rhetoric, tempered by provocative irony, which comes politely encoded as a flat speech around a small – and apparently unimportant – amendment in written law. Rarefied of any real clash of forces or ideological polarization, the short fragment seems to reveal nothing extraordinary about politics apart from its professional slowness and eloquent discursive boredom that at the end might turn out being a funny comment on the art of government. Throughout the reading, one could speculate on the ideas that drives the individuals behind their manifestations or denounce the hidden interests involved in each spoken word; one could try to identify the parties, their alliances and the position they assume in that given situation; one could even go further to question the validity of that mode of public representation and the efficiency of the dialogical mechanism embodied in the spatial diagram of the chamber where the conversation took place. Still, the depicted situation is far too common to reveal something yet not known about politics, for even if not used to the democratic protocols, it is well known that it runs through the interplay between different opinions, values and interests of the citizens’ representatives in speech-purpose-designed architectural assemblies.
Besides the presumptive mode of the discourse, however, what grasp a more attuned reader (or listener-viewer, since most of the recordings can be found in audio-video format as well), is the generally unnoticed fact that government is concerned not only with the subjects that altogether compound the supposed cohere body politic of a nation-state, but also, and perhaps mainly, with objects and materials that surround those subjects and that make collective life possible. Materials as simple as water and air, which in that particular case, under the threat of being damaged by the debris of human activities, necessarily demand the attention of government. The record is a section of a discussion on proposed amendments for the Pollution Prevention and Control Act of 1999 of United Kingdom legislation, which as every environmental regulation has necessarily to do with substances commonly found out-there in nature. Historically, at least from the point of view of law, since the Clean Air Act of 1956 in England, an regulative measure undertook as a response to what was thought to be until the late nineteenth century a “natural phenomena”, namely the deadly mixture of fogs and smokes known as “smogs” that in December of 1952 caused over 4000 deaths in London, government’s concern with the city’s atmosphere becomes apparent.
Following the speech proffered at the House of Commons, one can see the evolution of governmental interest in the environment updated: it might have started with the acute problems in London, when the well-being of the city’s inhabitants demanded a direct State intervention on the air of the city, but more recently it has to be addressed at supranational levels – as Mr. Green clearly recognizes – for the problem of pollution, and in particular air pollution, would proved to be a transnational problem since 1972, when some Sweden scientists reported at the United Nations their worries about a serious increase in the acidity levels of Scandinavian lakes due to unwelcome and harmful substances that were being brought from England by continental air flows. The dialogue then turns out as a more interesting political problem, for we start to move away from the traditional domain of the “subject-orientated” politics, in which the political is understood inside the limits of disputes between representative parties according to the laws of the social contract, towards a more “object-oriented” politics, in which the political is understood outside the limits of “the social”, incorporating a set of material artefacts that in connection with humans constitute a field for political intervention. The basic question remains the same – what matters to public life? – but the emphasis is put not just on the individuals that are “the public”, but upon the matters themselves to which their lives are attached. Among those matters, a very special one, because not only our life depends on it, but actually would be impossible without it – air.
Mr. Green, whose name ironically imprint some fictional connotation to the dialogue, evokes God and mobilizes some atoms in the chemistry of air to question the transcendental power that the mere presence of the adverb “any” in the written law could attribute to government. For the Secretary of Sate, he argues, would then have the right to govern Nature – “breathing out could be regulated as a polluting activity”. Because while breathing we are emitting some “natural chemicals” that are considered pollutants, not “any” kind of pollution should be controlled by law, since that would make a complete mess in the social order, for legislation would interfere in a process that is part of the natural world. The apparently innocent but devastating effect of the word “any” would possibly turn around the ontological status of the action of breathing, transferring it from the realm of humans’ natural biologic functions to the realm of social activities that fall under the power of government.
It is somehow unexpected to discover that we are polluting the air we breath while we breath it, as if by sustaining our biological life we were at the same time causing a slight damage on it. Was not pollution an artificial-collateral effect of industrialized cultures rather than a by-product of that vital experience of breathing air? The fact is even more uncertain because the revelation comes from Mr. Green, who is speaking from inside a chamber where none of this natural facts are supposed to be represented, understood or investigated, and therefore does not seem to be an expert in those matters. If he was a proper scientist, making public some results of experimental research conducted inside the controlled chamber of the laboratory, perhaps the fact would have the force of natural law. Although not explicit, the reasoning behind Mr. Green’s assertion is that the legislation in question is badly written because government is about the regulation of society and not nature. If any intervention in the way people inhale and expel air in-out their bodies should be done, it would certainly be a matter of lung-expert biologists, doctors, toxicologists, epidemiologists and other sorts of natural scientists in general. Or perhaps just a question of a simple technological artefact, such as the now very common filter-masks, those bodily-prosthesis that are often seen attached to the mouths of some Beijing’s citizens struggling to breath properly in a very hostile atmosphere, an image which inevitably resemble the soldiers at the front-line of First World War with their mechanical respiratory filters fighting for life against an attack directed to the air they were drawing into their lungs. Breathing air: a question for techno-science (whether civilian or military), but by no means, it is presupposed by the dialogue at the House of Commons, a question for anyone who deals with the science of politics.
Nevertheless, the minister of parliament agreed that pollution should be regulated, so that at the end the action of breathing might be affected anyway, although not directly by law, but by the indirect effects that a more carefully governed material such as air shall produce upon it. After the Clean Air Act of 1956, so to speak, government would improve the respiration of London’s population.
Peter Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution: coal, smoke and culture in Britain since 1800, Ohio University Press, 2006.
 Historians of environmental regulation and legislation point out that fact that during the 60s and 70s, scientific research on the capacities of pollution to “travel” across borders would foster a “new phase” in the process of environmental politics. In 1979, during a meeting of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on the Protection of the Environment, the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution was signed by 34 Governments and the European Community (EC). As the historical accounts on environmental legislation describes, The Convention was the first international legally instrument to deal with problems of air pollution on a broad regional basis.