Written by Valentina Gianera
It was an everyday morning in Tehran. The sky was grey, sparked with clouds of snow and smog. Cars and motorbikes rushed in masses along the highways dividing the city into hundreds of parcels, turning it into a big, messy hive. The fruit dealer, sitting in his white plastic chair, watched over the stock of dusty oranges piled in front of his shop window. Long gone were the times when he used to clean them with his feather duster.
“It’s better to leave it than to breathe the dust,” he thought, and stayed lingering in the white plastic chair. He squinted at the missing sunlight. A few lost snowflakes were blown through the air.
Not far from there, a middle-aged man with sparse grey hair and cloudy eyes walked into a sporadically furnished living room.
The students shook their heads; maybe later. He shrugged his shoulders, stepped to the only window and looked down onto the chalky street leading to his apartment.
“You’ll have noticed”, he slowly began, “that there’s no clean air in this city. We cannot breathe. Our lungs and hearts grow heavy from the dust we inhale. And while the city grows, and bears new buildings and roads, every minute we speak the people in it die. It’s the extinction of a species.”
A month earlier, in December of 2017, the municipality of Tehran had ordered the closure of all schools due to excessively toxic levels of air pollution in the city. Elderly people, children, pregnant women, and people with heart issues were advised not to leave their homes. This event was not the first. Over the last few decades, Tehran has increasingly faced some of the worst pollution levels in the world. As cooler temperatures make their way into Iran, the temperature inversion can create a layer of warm air above the city. Exhaust gases from over eight million cars and motorbikes, and other sources, are trapped by the warm air and leave the population choking under a layer of thick, yellow clouds. In 2014, air pollution left nearly 2000 people in need of medical treatment from heart and respiratory issues. In 2012, the health ministry estimated the number of premature deaths caused by pollution as nearly 4500.
Surprised by the middle-aged man’s dramatic opening, the students exchanged quick glances.
One cleared her throat and asked cautiously, “How are you, and your organization, trying to change these unbearable living conditions?”
“Change the living conditions?”, his clouded gaze quickly caught hers before continuing. “We don’t change anything… A few years back, when the government eased its grip on the NGOs, my colleagues and me, my friends, all of them artists, decided to put our efforts together to work on something that we deeply cared about. We set up this environmental organization to show our care and compassion for those we loved that aims at drawing attention to the issues this city is facing through art projects.. Still, my nine-year-old son, when walking outside, asks me to lift him up, so he can taste the air ‘up there’, he says. But the air up there is just as thick and polluted as on the ground. So no, we are not as foolish to hope that we can change the conditions that this city, humanity, finds itself in.”
To the question of whether he was a pessimist he vehemently shook his head.
“No”, he mumbled, “not a pessimist. But hope is a terrible vice. It’s good to lose hope sometimes, by losing it we can finally stall the engines of change. You see, the government runs this country to achieve maximum economic growth at all times and at all costs. They do so much and they think so little. And all of that at the expense of the environment, the nature that surrounds us. But it’s not only our government, it’s all the governments of this world. And it’s not just the governments, but the population’s striving towards limitless progress, and our reluctance to give up any of the comforts that we gained through the rapid economic and technological development we experienced.’
Over the past 200 years, the Iranian capital has witnessed steady economic growth, swelling to become one of the biggest cities in the world. Yet, with the growing concentration of people and resources, the social and environmental issues faced by the city have been piling up as well. High living costs, lack of adequate housing, and overcrowding go hand in hand with impoverishment and social polarisation. Water, air, land and noise pollution have led Tehran to join the pantheon of the most polluted cities on earth.
“Of course, there are those pushing for change, proposing sustainable solutions – to what I call a humanitarian disaster – in order to sustain the way of life we have now. But it isn’t as simple as that. Recycling or electric cars alone are not a solution. They merely invite further consumption, hide the symptoms of capitalist destruction for a while… Changing the social structure, actively striving for political utopias is a Sisyphean task. Every change we strive for will come back to us one way or the other. We must stop wanting to change the system, and accept that we must change ourselves, our motivations and desires. And thereby, by not doing much, we would actually do a lot”, he finished with a disenchanted smile. “So no, I am not pessimistic about the future. We are at a turning point, an environmental crossroad in time. Change will come, a change of our perspectives, our comforts and desires.”
For a brief moment, a deep silence filled the living room as the students pondered the sparkle of truth that had been conveyed by this middle-aged man with the clouded grey hair. Then the first hands began to raise and some questions were asked, answered or found.
Meanwhile, the fruit vendor was sitting in his white plastic chair, following the white flocks that drifted down from the sky. Doing not much. In fact, nothing at all.