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'Café Classroom': a pursuit to relearn relationship across humans and nature

In the last of the three-part series, Café Classroom, curated by Pradip Saha, underlined the collective efforts required to combat the dire consequences of air pollution.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jul 05, 2022

The idea of coexistence and interdependency between atmosphere and humans more often than not falls into the trap of assumption – a deficit of understanding the human-led asymmetrical balance between the two. Over the years, the capitalistic way of life has sharply stifled the atmosphere, turning the natural process of breathing into a forceful exercise. As the terms pollution, toxicity, and suffocation received mainstream attention, especially in the year 2016, the urgency to curb the further deterioration of the atmosphere was all-time heightened. The series Café Classroom, part of the Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project by Khoj studios, emerges from the exigency to “relearn” our relationship with the natural world. Curated by Pradip Saha, Director of Damage Control, a communications agency in the sustainable development context, the Café Classroom acutely emphasised the collective effort of citizens, creative minds, environmentalists, economists and policymakers, to restore the equilibrium of the ecosystem. In an interview with STIR, Saha explains, “The Café Classroom was not conceived to address ‘rising air pollution’, but to use air pollution as an entry point for a larger discussion about ecological crisis. We used two threads. One was to enter through air pollution and move towards the larger crisis of climate change. The other was to connect ecological crisis (environment is a management term, it is anthropocentric and fails to address larger issues) to its reason which is political economy.”

Dr. Sandhya Rao on Are you Climate Vulnerable? for the Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project at Khoj | Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project | STIRworld
Dr. Sandhya Rao on Are you Climate Vulnerable? for the Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project at Khoj Image: Courtesy of Khoj International Artists’ Association

The Café Classroom began with in-person talk Decoding Dirty Air: Joining the Dots for the Big Solution by Anumita Roy Chowdhury, who is the Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Centre for Science and Environment, India. The lecture at the Canteen, Khoj, Khoj studios traced the spiral concern around air pollution since the year 1996. Against the political and social issues, the crisis of air pollution and entailing health issues are deemed of lesser importance. The detrimental air makes for a “compelling human story,” which continues to be the most conflicted and unresolved one. While giving the statistical data on the declining quality of the air in the national capital New Delhi, India, Chowdhury observed the road design structure favours the car owner resulting in the disproportional effect on the pedestrians. The unfavourable road structures fail to promote the interest among the public to take a walk across the short distance. The talk walked us through the variety of places in Delhi which have been transformed into people-friendly and accessible on foot. Largely, the mobility by a vehicle is perceived as a sign of privilege. To deflate such preconceived notions of entitlement, Chowdhury gave an example of a Dutch minister who visited the queen on a bicycle. The image introduced the idea of owning the environment rather than being a purchaser of an automobile. When the atmosphere is a universal equaliser, we need to reciprocate it in a similar fashion.

Head of the Environment, Energy, and Resilience at UNDP India, Ashish Chaturvedi during his talk Adaptation: Rewriting Development for the Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project at Khoj | Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project | STIRworld
Head of the Environment, Energy, and Resilience at UNDP India, Ashish Chaturvedi during his talk Adaptation: Rewriting Development for the Cafe Classroom episode of Does the Blue Sky Lie? Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities project at Khoj Image: Courtesy of Khoj International Artists’ Association

The next in-person talk Assessment of Vulnerability/Risk to Climate Change by Sandhya Rao focussed on the interconnection between climate change and vulnerability. While looking at the data produced by the IPCC report, Rao underlined how humans are forcing a substantial increase in the temperature globally. Be it Texas cold snap in February 2021, Canada heat wave in July 2021, floods in Germany in July 2021, Greece wildfire in August 2021, a Day Zero declared in Chennai, summer of 2019, Delhi urban flood in July 2021 and ongoing heat wave in the Indian Subcontinent are the cumulative results of the urbanisation and destruction of natural habitats. The vulnerability determined by climate change highlights the inequality among humans. The talk had Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand as the case studies to indicate how the factors such as economic, social, cultural, institutional, and politics play a significant role to define the living conditions of the people. Rao highlighted an informed decision-making process is pertinent to make an appropriate adaptation.

Portrait of Pradip Saha | STIRworld
Portrait of Pradip Saha Image: Pradip Saha

The third live talk Adaptation: Rewriting Development by Ashish Chaturvedi reaffirmed that the phenomenon of climate change is experienced equally by the developing and developed countries irrespective of economic lifestyle. Talking about the journey of climate change through the cycle of past, present and future, Chaturvedi, the Head of the Environment, Energy, and Resilience at UNDP India, indicated that humans in the current times are the dominant agents of change. Within the framework of the carbon story - the industrialisation of the 17th century was the starting point for the emission of harmful gases, later the use of oil, the car manufacturers, aviation and now urbanisation - have immensely compounded climate change. As Rao looked at the economic factors which exacerbate climate change, Chaturvedi discussed how anthropogenic changes incur an irreversible loss that directly affects human health and livelihoods. The crucial argument of the talk was to perform any kind of development while keeping a close eye on the climate risk involved. The way forward when it comes to strengthening development initiatives involves strengthening the bridge between the traditional knowledge system and climate science.

Bharati Chaturvedi who serves as a Director of Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group with her engaging talk Waste Management is Passé brought forth the significance of a circular economy where the design of the product ought to carry the potential for a possible repair and distribution in an effort to reduce the creation of multiple goods. Mindful of the recent incident of fire at Bhalswa landfill in New Delhi, Chaturvedi highlighted how the unsegregated waste led to the production of flammable methane gas. The effect of which was accentuated under the roaring heatwave experienced by the city. In addition, the tall heaps of waste affect the well-being of slum dwellers who live near the landfill. As Saha succinctly puts it, “Waste is the index of our consumption,” the lecture suggested the generative approach to everyday life to remove the glorification value attached to the exercise of recycling. Many a time, recycling is seen as the ultimate solution to the problem of waste, but most commonly found: single-used plastic, synthetic fabric, polyethene and aluminium materials are beyond this cycle of repair. Chaturvedi eloquently drew an analogy between the production of waste and excessive flow of water to emphasise as it is pertinent to close the tap to control the overflow, it is of equal significance to nip the production of non-recyclable materials in the bud.

Saha expounds, “Circularity is an economic model, that can help us break the chain of constant cycle of extraction and production and consumption and waste generation, a linear paradigm and the root cause of ecological crisis.” Chaturvedi introduced the concept of circular economy where we design products to be used longer, or to be repurposed after first use, and reduce consumption in a big way. “Circular economy sounded like a theoretical position. So we brought in Vishwanath Srikantaiah, who has disconnected himself from municipality water and sewage system,” Saha maintains, while adding, “he showed us how circularity can be achieved within a house in a metropolitan city by reusing nutrient and energy.”

Srikantaiah, a Civil Engineer and Urban Planner by qualification, has consistently strived to offer individual and community-based solutions to meet the water and waste problems. The demonstrative lecture A Circular Lifestyle: The Loop of Energy and Nutrient by Srikantaiah illustrated how the waste neither from the kitchen nor toilet goes unutilised. Reinforcing the importance of the roof as the space where waste collected from home could be treated to produce energy, which is productive by all means. The lecture at once placed the importance on the smart design of urban households and also highlighted how the city planning could successfully enhance the livelihood as well as reverse the dire climate change. For instance: Jakkur lakes, which faced drought, with appropriated water retreated to the original form: brimming with water and home to fish. This water was purposely used by the silkworm farmer Muniraju to cultivate mulberry fields in Vijaypura, a small town near Bengaluru. Consequently, it enhanced the preparation of the textile silk. The lecture by Srikantaiah rightfully suggested if things were done right – a shit could be a useful source for the production of much sought-after textile silk.

Blue, 2017, Video, Hanna Husberg Video: Hanna Husberg

If the Cafe Classroom expanded the discussion from the perspective of environmental researchers and advocators, the two-day Thinking Lab - How to Care for Air gauged the phenomenon of air and its toxicity from the lenses of hard facts and data, artistic knowledge system and affective truth. The Thinking Lab - How to Care for Air, initiated by Khoj and the interdisciplinary research collaborative Towards Atmospheric Care (Hanna Husberg and Agata Marzecova), invited gender and media scholars and artists and curators. Indranjan Banerjee, Curator and Program Manager at Khoj Studio, in an interview with STIR mentions, “Thinking Lab attempted to broaden reductivist understanding of air as merely a sum of gases in order to generate more relational and ecological imaginaries of air as a connective tissue connecting terrestrial bodies, flows of matter, radiation, information and the outer atmosphere, while at the same time carrying epoch-defining technologies such as satellites and wireless communication.”

The day I moderated, curator Taru Elfving had the participants: artist Karolina Sobecka and scholar Harshavardhan Bhat. Sobecka with her audio-visual work - heatmap generated from the surrounding area in Zurich - talked about the relationship between the bodily heat and controlled temperature of the building. The temperature of the body is determined by the outside surroundings and vice-versa. The visual analytics of the climate change appeared on the device to underscore the affiliation across the environmental concerns and carbon footprint. Bhat, a researcher and writer based in Bangalore, talked about the entangled connection between the air and soil by having the jackfruit - native to the Western Ghats – at the centre of the discussion. The stickiness of the fruit, collected from the speaker’s grandmother’s home in southern Karnataka, stressed the interdependency of air, soil and water.

The day second moderated by Banerjee had gender scholar Liu Xin and media scholar Rahul Mukherjee examine air as a phenomenon i.e. common and essential to our existence, yet immensely exploited to suit the demands of the capitalistic society. Xin talked about the air pollution crisis in the city of Beijing. The lecture looked at the air quality, environmental politics and how finance companies leverage on the severe decline in the health of the atmosphere to mint money in the form of insurance policies. The advertisement Change Air Pollution Before it Changes You discussed by Xin rightly pointed at the potential of human resilience against pollution. Rising to the situation, the protagonist of the advertisement does not succumb to the changes enforced by the pollution but rather looks at the sky as it ought to be: experienced and inhaled true to its capacity.

The talk followed by Mukherjee drew attention to the bodily exposure to the invisible sensors of the proliferating wireless network in the urban cities. The wireless signal, not the obvious reason for the exponential rise in the level of toxicity in the air, is indeed a potent space to weaken the already delicate situation. The author of the book Radiant Infrastructures: Media, Environment, and Cultures of Uncertainty, Mukherjee interrogated the consumption of air-conditioners and the internet as the regular sources of pollutant emissions. The talk also looked at the case study done by Shivani Kapoor on the city design and social violation: the people of lower caste working in tannery industries were looked down upon by the urban dwellers. Towards the end of the talk, Mukherjee played the sound clip by the sound artist Adam Diller who recorded the constant leaking of sound from cooling tanks outside the Google Data Center, Dalles. The careful listening to sonic valency from the infrastructures suggests the persistent devaluation of the blue air.

Even a courtesy glance at the global map available on the opening page of the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) website could not give a glaring patch of deep red hue harbouring the geographical territory of India a miss. It evidently stands out, when compared to the subtle tangerine of the rest of the countries, to indicate the soaring threats of particulate pollution. The latest AQLI report, for the year 2020, published by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago mentioned that air pollution reduces the life expectancy of an Indian by five years. The one commonality connects the diverse speakers of the Café Classroom: everyone is equally responsible for the current air crisis looming overhead and the onus lies on one and all to find a solution to stop its intensity experienced by the vulnerable of our society.

Also read:
Part I: Air expo 2022 by Khoj sensitised viewers about the common issue of air pollution
Part II: 'Does the Blue Sky Lie?’ at Khoj looks at testimonials around air
Part IV: Twenty five years of Khoj in support of expanding the idea of art in the region

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