Written by Ming-sho Ho.
Social constructionism is a theory which ascertains how people perceive reality because it is through this process which we are able to actually define what this reality is. In a sense, people co-produce the world around them. When applied to environmental studies, this approach suggests that pollution is a matter of subjective perception.
The emergence of Taiwan’s recent anti-air pollution movement in 2011, to use the founding of Air Clean Taiwan (ACT 台灣健康空氣行動聯盟) as a reference point, illustrates the powerful impact of social construction. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report indicates that the number of days with Pollution Standards Index (PSI) exceeding 100 has steadily declined between 2007 and 2016. If this scientific measure reflects the actual air quality experienced by people in Taiwan, we would have difficulties in explaining why there is a new wave of anti-pollution activists. Why did the Taiwanese become more concerned about pollution when their air quality has been incrementally improving?
“The Taichung Power Plant, the largest coal-fired plant in the world, emerged as the prime target for protesters in Nantou County, which does not have any large-scale industrial facilities within its borders.“
True, environmentalists have always been suspicious of the figures given by the reports, and they complained about incomplete official monitoring systems. Nevertheless, the recent campaign had the following novel features. Ever since the advent of the environmental movement in the mid-1980s, air pollution has been one of the key instigators of popular protests. In the past, protests usually targeted a nearby facility as they were driven to protest by acute discomfort or pain. The source of toxicity was easily identifiable without the need for scientific investigation. Successful protests usually led to compensation for victims, or an improvement in the control or monitoring of pollution.
More recent protests, however, have been mounted by people who have been indirectly affected by air pollution. Often the source of the alleged pollutant was from some distance away. For instance, the Taichung Power Plant, the largest coal-fired plant in the world, emerged as the prime target for protesters in Nantou County, which does not have any large-scale industrial facilities within its borders. In what might be called “citizen science” or “popular epidemiology”, scientific terms, such as PSI, Air Quality Index, and Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, were used to justify their victimisation claim. The ACT, for instance, once campaigned for the inclusion of PM 2.5 in the weather forecast. Absent was the demand for monetary compensation; rather, campaigners pressured local and national governments for policy-level changes.
A number of preceding events helped “construct” this new style of environmental activism. Firstly, whilst the Kuokuang Petrochemical Project was heatedly debated in 2010, an environmental engineer estimated that the increase in air pollution in terms of PM 2.5 would have cost each person on average 23 days from their life expectancy. Although the study was contested by environmental officials, Taiwan’s media popularised this research, which in part led to the demise of the project. The event increased public understanding of the harmful effects of PM 2.5 and the EPA decided to include that pollutant into its monitoring scheme in 2012. To continue pursuing environmental concerns, some anti-Kuokuang campaigners formed the ACT, whose advocacy has inspired many local initiatives.
In March 2015, a Chinese documentary Under the Dome (穹顶之下) was released online. The film vividly demonstrated the devastation caused by air pollution and targeted some state-owned enterprises as the main culprits. Although the documentary sparked speculation regarding its ulterior political motives and quickly became banned in China, it went viral in Taiwan with more and more people becoming aware of the term PM 2.5. On June 6 of that year, the ACT launched rallies simultaneously in many cities and won the endorsement of politicians from different parties. Using the Google Trends service, the following graphic plots the internet search for “PM 2.5” in Taiwan from 2004 to 2017. Clearly, the popularity of Under the Dome as well as the subsequent protests helped construct a new wave of anti-air pollution protestors.
There are other probable causes which have contributed to the growing concern of air quality control. For example, in recent years, outdoor activities, such as cycling, road running, and camping increased the number of people who are particularly vulnerable to air pollution. Key events which contributed to this growing popularity included the launch of YouBike, a bicycle-sharing system originating in Taipei and later extending to other cities in 2009, as well as the start of the Taipei International Marathon in 2004. As there were more bikers, road runners and campers in Taiwan, poor air quality became more hazardous. In fact, many environmental organisations had criticised local governments’ enthusiasm to sponsor marathons or other road running events without considering air quality, because inhaling toxic air intensively and on a large scale was seen to amount to a “collective, slow suicide.”
In addition, the advancement of internet communication technology might also have helped to spread the awareness of air pollution. It has become convenient to access real-time information concerning air quality. There exist hundreds of free apps which provide constantly updated PM2.5 index for smart phone users. Recently, parents and environmentalist organisations have been arguing that primary schools should suspend outdoor activities on the days when PM 2.5 exceeds the safety level.
The recent anti-air pollution movement has garnered some success, as local governments promulgate more restrictive regulations on the use of coal and petroleum coke, even though this was opposed by the central authorities, under both the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party. The challenge for the latter appears greater since its announced a commitment to phase out nuclear energy by 2025 which might have intensified the need for fossil fuels in such a transition period.
Taiwan’s pro-nuclear camp used to justify nuclear energy for its low carbon emissions, and more recently, its contribution to clean air. Like other environmentalists, Taiwan’s anti-air pollution campaigners were nuclear skeptics, but would accept the Faustian bargain of nuclear energy for clean air. Nevertheless, it remains a great challenge for Taiwan to now see how they can reconcile the demand for a nuclear-free homeland whilst simultaneously demanding clean air; something which will be hotly contested for years to come.
Ming-sho Ho is professor in Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, with research interests on social movements, labor, and environmental issues. He published Working Class Formation in Taiwan (2014, Palgrave Macmillan) and is working on a book on Taiwan Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Is ‘pollution a matter of subjective perception’ or is it rather that improved knowledge about the health hazards of air pollution and shifting values (e.g. from even more economic prosperity to better health) instigate society to protest? There is no need to utilise social construction theory to understand why less severe pollution today irks people even more than it did ten years ago. Better knowledge and rearranged values are rational and straight forward explanations.
The following statement from the article feels very much like an insinuation: “In what might be called ‘citizen science’ or ‘popular epidemiology’, scientific terms, such as PSI, Air Quality Index, and Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, were used to justify their victimisation claim.”
When participants in protests use scientific terms then their messages “might be called ‘citizen science’ or ‘popular epidemiology'” derogatively? Where there no scientists among the protesters? Where there no relevant, scientific papers supporting their claims? Did they use scientific terms to justify claims or did they base their claims on meticulous measurements by government institutions and scientific research findings? Did they just make up bogus horror stories? One might think so after reading that statement quoted above.
If increased outdoor activity makes one more considerate of air pollution, does this mean that she/he engages in ‘socially constructing’ air pollution? Or does it just mean that they get more mindful of air pollution and such more inclined to protest?
It is true, how undesirable we perceive air pollution is subjective. But it is also true, that air pollution is objectively real, that it is measurable and that it is detrimental to health. Protest might be based on ‘socially constructed’ myths sometimes, to some extent. But this does not mean that air pollution itself is ‘constructed’ because it is less severe today than it used to be.
Thank you, Henri Dutilleux. Your response was perfect.
Hi, Henri, if I may,
Thank you very much for the comments.
I agree on one point. Social construction of how we perceive the air quality should have included the increasing scientific knowledge about its health consequence as well as the fact these findings are more and more popularized in mainstream media. I should have add this in my short piece.
But I am hoping you can understand that social constructionist theory following John Hannigan does not imply it is merely arbitrary, subjective, and hence “unscientific”. The approach maintains the public’s own understanding matters because it is also an integral part of the social process. In addition, I don’t think the reference to citizen science and popular epidemiology comes with the derogatory implications. The use of quotation marks means an alert for less familiar readers who encounter these terms for the first time.
Hello Ming-sho, thank you for taking the time to reply.
I am not familiar with social constructionist theory, so I cannot judge if the results of its application are scientific or not, arbitrary or not, subjective or not. But when you write ‘this approach suggests that pollution is a matter of subjective perception’, as you do at the end of your first paragraph in your piece, I cannot but interpret this statement as meaning that you suggest pollution being a matter of subjective perception only, considering your description of the theory in the preceding sentences. Had you stated that people co-produce the way they perceive the world around them by exchanging stories about the world, instead of ‘people co-produce the world around them’, I would have no objection.
An image of the world is not the world as it is, but images are all we ever will have. However, some images are derived from scientific observation and some are artistic expressions. Many of us value those. But other images are based on rumours, superstition and/or sloppy conclusions. Many of us reject those. So, it makes sense to differentiate.
The trouble with Trump, evolution deniers and bible absolutists is that they insist on their image of the world being the world. And the trouble with post-modernists is that they suggest any image of the world is as valid as all others. And the trouble with many environmentalists and other civic activists is that they often focus on a narrow slice of an image to the exclusion of all other considerations, such distorting the image.
Perhaps, that is what you meant anyway, albeit using other concepts I am unfamiliar with. So I got Hannigan from the library to learn what there is to social constructionist theory in environmentalism. Thanks for the inspiration,