RGS-IBG Annual Conference Tuesday 29 August to Friday 1 September 2017



Session organisers: Anneleen Kenis and Maarten Loopmans

(University of Leuven)

Sponsored by the Geographies of Justice Research Group and the Political Geography Research Group

Though ‘air’ is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental dimensions of the human condition, the study of the socio-ecological processes which define its largely uneven, and recently dramatically changing metabolism, remains remarkably underdeveloped (Véron 2006, Buzzelli 2008, Heynen 2013, Graham 2015). Even in the field of Urban Political Ecology, which typically deals with these issues, air remains a blind spot.
However, being not ‘just’ nature, but socially produced or hybrid nature (Swyngedouw and Heynen 2003), air and its co-production through power, knowledge and conflict deserves a more prominent position on the research agenda. Indeed, the political construction of air reveals some interesting features that deserve further theorisation. Unlike other metabolic processes, e.g. water or food , air does not need particular infrastructures. Air (pollution) appears as a ‘mere externality’ to other processes, whose importance and consequences are only felt post hoc.  How to ‘plan’ for a just distribution of traffic related air pollution to take just one example?

Simultaneously, air’s invisibility and intangibility stands out from other metabolic processes analysed  in the Urban Political Ecology literature (Bryant 1998, Véron 2006). The air we inhale commonsensically appears to be ‘just air’. Its composition, the pollutants that it contains, and their effect on human health and ecosystems remain largely invisible. In other words, its ‘embodiedness’ and the ‘embeddedness’ of human beings in specific distributions of air fails to be perceived automatically (Mellor 1997). Resultantly, the ‘unequal power relations [which] are “inscribed” in the air’ remain misrecognised (Bryant 1998, 89) and the politicisation of air pollution requires particular (discursive) mobilisations.

Therefore, this panel session addresses air from a fundamentally political point of view. It aims to investigate the (in)justices involved in the distribution and metabolism of air, and to put this increasingly salient political issue on the social geographical research agenda.

We welcome submissions on any aspect related to this upcoming research field. The following questions provide possible starting points, but other perspectives relating to air and social (in)justice are very welcome too!

  • How to reconstruct the political genealogy of the unequal distribution of air pollution in different places around the globe?
  • How to understand the current distribution of air quality as the outcome of power struggles?
  • How is air pollution, despite its invisibility, politicised in a number of cities across the globe?
  • In so far as air pollution is largely invisible, it needs scientists and a whole range of other actors, to make it visible to emerge on the public agenda: which place does this observation provide for scholarly activism in air pollution research? How to deal with the expert knowledge that scholar activists, as scientists, possibly have obtained? What does this mean for the way we can embed our research in and contribute to the struggles taking place?
  • Not only air pollution as such should be made visible but also its unequal distribution. Which responsibility does this give to geographers in politicising (the uneven distribution of) air pollution? How to be part of social movements without dominating them by adopting an expert point of view?
  • How to understand our  own embeddedness and embodiedness in the distribution of air pollution? How to make sense of our own positionality, both in the social and in the bodily meaning of the term?
  • How to integrate the body, and the bodily experiences of smell, breathlessness, coughs, disease and death in the theorisation of the (changing) metabolism of (urban) air these days?
  • How to politicise air pollution? How to turn it into an object of political debate and contention?
  • Which role can there be played by (mental) mapping of the injustices of air pollution in the process of making air pollution visible and political?
  • How to  discursively construct air as an important political theme?


This session is being organised by Anneleen Kenis ( and Maarten Loopmans ( Please submit abstracts between 300 and 500 words and full contact details to both organisers by the 10th of February 2017.

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