Pollution Pods installation in front of Somerset House.
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

Pictures of the air pollution in developing countries have gone viral, and stories about toxic fog have proliferated for years. Yet they can feel unreal and divorced from the everyday experience in Western countries, where huge strides have been made to clean up the air (for wealthy people anyways). A new art exhibition in London transports your lungs to New Delhi, Beijing, and Sao Paolo, in an effort to make it clear just how horrific the air quality is there, and to serve as a reminder that the iPhones, H&M shirts, and other tchotchke we buy are part of a system that is taking years off people’s lives.

Artist Michael Pinsky has installed an exhibit dubbed Pollution Pods in front of Somerset House, an art museum in London. The city is no stranger to horrific air quality issues in the past that many developing countries are living today. The installation consists of a series of pods that use chemicals to replicate the air in the aforementioned developing cities, as well as the relatively clean air of modern London and Tautra Island, Norway, as a point of contrast.

The pods are inspired by architect Buckminster Fullers’ geodesic domes, which were conceived as sustainable shelters that could be made available to the masses. According to the exhibit website, that form and its original intent “starkly contrasts with the interpretation of toxic everyday realities within.”

The pods are interconnected, and take visitors on a seamless journey from some of the cleanest air on the planet to some of the dirtiest. Pinsky told Earther his choice of Somerset House as a venue was intentional, because it’s located in one of the most polluted parts of London in addition being part of Kings College, which has a major environmental research program.

By starting with Tautra Island’s pure air, the exhibit only further underscores on how bad the air quality is even in one of the wealthiest cities on the globe.

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Photo: Michael Pinsky

But while Londoners lose an average of roughly 16 months of their life to air pollution, the toll is much higher in the developed world cities. According to an analysis by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, Beijing residents are currently losing nearly six and a half years of their lives compared to if air quality were cleaned up to meet World Health Organization standards. Residents of New Delhi are losing nine years of life.

The interconnected nature of the exhibit makes it clear that the premature deaths in those cities are part of a much bigger picture. Manufacturing cheap goods for purchase in the developed world is a huge driver of poor air quality in the developing world, to say nothing of the host of other environmental and human rights abuses free-market capitalism fosters. We’re all trapped in the system to some extent, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make decisions that start to break it down.

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Asked what he’d like visitors to take away from their experience, Pinsky told Earther, “I would like them to consider how their growing consumption of cheap goods produced in the east provides a market for industries that care little about the welfare of their workers or the environment.”