Capitalism fouls things up

Fine dust and fossil capital in Korea

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

There is a good reason why there are blue skies in much of the United States while those of us living in Northeast Asia are choking — most of their factories have moved over here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

There is a good reason why there are blue skies in much of the United States while those of us living in Northeast Asia are choking  — most of their factories have moved over here.

John R. Eperjesi is an Associate Professor at Kyung Hee University in Seoul. He is the author of The Imperialist Imaginary: Visions of Asia and the Pacific in American Culture.

by John R. Eperjesi

In “Spring 6,” the Korean eco-poet Kim Chiha captures the simple joy to be found in the change of seasons:

Visit flowers,
And children
Play in the park.
These are too much for me
And my heart leaps
At the wonder of all living things

But this spring in South Korea has been different. During the first weeks of March, the playgrounds were silent, as children did not go outside to play due to unhealthy levels of fine dust, also known as fine particulate matter or more clinically as PM2.5, which refers to atmospheric dust particles that have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (smaller than one twenty-fifth of a human hair).

Demonstrator at the March 15 student climate strike in Seoul / photo by John Eperjesi

And rather than feeling a sense of wonder at the change of seasons, people have been anxious, confused, depressed, and angry. The air was so bad that the Korea Baseball Organization was forced to postpone the opening games in Seoul, Suwon and Incheon, the first time this has happened since pro baseball began here in 1982.[1]

So what the hell is going on? I use that vulgar figure of speech deliberately as an allusion to the “dark satanic mills” that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. The story of air pollution in South Korea is in many ways nothing new. One of the components of fine dust is black carbon, a product of fossil-fuel combustion emitted by gas and diesel engines and coal-fired power plants.

Factories have been burning fossil fuels, polluting the air, warming the atmosphere, causing illness and death, and inspiring romantic poets like William Blake since the late 18th century. If we view the toxic skyline of Seoul through the eyes of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, rather than a narrative of progress or series of economic events linking the Industrial Revolution to the Miracle on the Han, we see instead one single ecological catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage across the planet, a catastrophe commonly referred to as the Anthropocene.

In South Korea, China is often blamed for the air pollution wreckage, a scapegoating one routinely hears from taxi drivers, random people on the subway, students, and even from some professors. The blaming of China has radiated throughout Korean society, amplified by opportunistic politicians and click-bait media headlines, resulting in a hysterical us vs. them opposition that views fine dust as an illegal immigrant, sneaking across borders and corrupting our clean air. This nationalist narrative has unleashed some disturbing online violence against China and Chinese people.

There is no doubt about the fact that a significant amount of air pollution originating in mainland China drifts across the Korean Peninsula. But here I want to offer an alternative ecocritical framework for thinking about the crisis of air pollution in South Korea in which fine dust is viewed as a product of fossil capital, defined by Andreas Malm as “an economy of self-sustaining growth predicated on growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide.”[2]

Air pollution in South Korea, both long-range or transboundary pollution, and that which comes from domestic sources, needs to be understood in the context of the global fossil economy. Just as important, the crisis of air pollution needs to be understood as part of a planetary climate emergency that has given rise to a new generation of environmental activists who have been inspired by a sixteen-year-old young woman from Sweden, Greta Thunberg.

To date, the most authoritative study on the ratio between transboundary pollution and domestic pollution is the International Cooperative Air Quality Field Study in May and June of 2016. During the admittedly brief and arbitrary time of the study, researchers determined that fine dust particles from foreign sources accounted for 48% of the total: 22% from China’s Shandong Province; 9% from North Korea; 7% from Beijing; 5% from Shanghai; and the remaining 5% from China’s Liaoning Province, Japan, and the West Sea.

Researchers determined that a little over half of the pollution came from domestic sources. The main domestic sources of fine dust, which vary across the peninsula, are industrial facilities, construction equipment, power plants, motor vehicles, and heating/air conditioning. The Ministry of Environment estimates that during normal periods, the foreign influx rate is between 30-50%, while during periods of high concentration, as it was during much of this winter and early spring when China’s energy needs increased due to cold weather, it is between 60-80%.

The ratio between transboundary pollution and domestic pollution is variable and fluctuates widely as it is influenced by the season and shifting meteorological conditions, which include wind velocity and direction, atmospheric pressure, humidity, temperature, and precipitation. As the KORUS-AQ report states,

“Seoul is affected by transport on many scales: local to regional to hemispheric. The land-sea breezes and the complex topography around Seoul can influence pollution distributions on very short time scales.”[3]

How can we begin to think about hazardous air pollution without getting stuck in the us vs. them structure of repetition that appears whenever pollution levels spike? And just as important, how can we confront the ecological amnesia that drifts over the country whenever those high levels go back down to their normal, moderately bad range and people return to business and baseball games as usual? As Donna Haraway urges, “Think we must; we must think. That means, simply, we must change the story; the story must change.”[4]

In order to change the story, we could start by looking around our apartments, in our closets, and in our garages. Many of the clothes, shoes, appliances, electronic devices, and automobiles that saturate our lives are manufactured in China. China is a world factory, just as England was in the nineteenth century and the US in the twentieth. Attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) has been the driver of national development in post-Maoist China since the early 1990s, an economic mission that has supported the migration of hundreds of millions of farmers from the country to the city. In 2010, China passed Germany as the world’s top exporter of manufactured goods.

The reason why companies from around the world, including South Korea, move production to China is not hard to figure out: lower labor costs and fewer environmental regulations. Therefore, one alternative starting point for thinking about transboundary pollution is consumer demand for cheap products in the US, the EU, Japan, South Korea, and other parts of the world.

There is a good reason why there are blue skies in much of the United States while those of us living in Northeast Asia are choking  — most of their factories have moved over here. The endless desire for cheap stuff in the overdeveloped world forms part of the reason why parks have been empty and baseball games cancelled. There are currently around 1,100 US companies located in Shandong, the province responsible for much of the transboundary pollution that plagues South Korea.[5]

Korean FDI in China represents 6-10% of China’s inflow of investments. Mathew Shapiro suggests that:

“Korean investors  — both SME’s and large multinational firms — are quite possibly exporting a portion of their pollution-producing entities to mainland China where environmental standards and lax enforcement (not to mention lower labor costs) provide a more advantageous profit margin.”[6]

As the Korean economy has developed, Korean capital has followed the post-Fordist, neoliberal trajectory and moved offshore. This means that a significant percentage of pollution and carbon emissions have moved offshore with it. One popular destination for Korean capital since the signing of the China-Korea Free Trade Agreement on June 1, 2015, has been Shandong. Major Korean chaebols — LG Corp, Doosan Heavy Industries, Hyundai Motor Company — operate in Shandong, making everything from high-end maritime equipment to cosmetics. After the signing of the FTA, Korean FDI in Yantai, located in Northeast Shandong, increased 65%; Weifang, which borders Yantai, does $1.08 billion in trade with South Korea.[7]

So rather than simply blaming China for transboundary pollution, changing the story about air pollution in South Korea involves directing attention to fossil capital, the economic system of production, circulation, and consumption that is pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and pollutants into our lungs.

For Malm, the idea of fossil capital works to connect the activities that shape our everyday lives — shopping, eating, traveling, paying the utility bill — to the infrastructure that is constantly expanding carbon emissions: cars, highways, airplanes, runways, mines, oil wells, gas fields, electricity grids, factories, power stations, pipelines, cargo ships, oil tankers, and so on. The fossil economy produces inertia and carbon lock-in, “a cementation of fossil fuel-based technologies, deflecting alternatives, and obstructing policies of climate change mitigation.”[8]

One of the most insidious products of the fossil economy is atmospheric dust with a diameter under 2.5 micrometers. When those dust particles move deep into the lungs they travel through the pulmonary alveoli and into the bloodstream where they can cause respiratory tract disease, cardiopulmonary disease, lung cancer, or strokes. Current research is exploring links between air pollution and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells writes:

“New research into the behavioral effects is perhaps even scarier: air pollution has been linked to worse memory, attention, and vocabulary, and to ADHD and autism spectrum disorders. Pollution has been shown to damage the development of neurons in the brain, and proximity to a coal plant can deform your DNA.”[9]

The elderly, pregnant women, adolescents, children, and people with chronic conditions like asthma or bronchitis are especially vulnerable to fine dust poisoning.

This story is changing — for the worse. At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was ratified by all UN members, pledging a reduction in the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming and air pollution. Since the signing of that document, rather than carbon emissions declining, they have dramatically expanded. In 2012, carbon dioxide emissions were 58 percent higher than in 1990. In the first decade of the 21st century, more coal-fired power plants were built than in any previous decade, a fact that reveals a fossil economy built on inertia, with “each generation in the fossil economy passing on a heavier nightmare to the next.”[10]

But this might be starting to change. On March 15, 2019, young people around the world, inspired by a sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, left their classrooms and gathered in the streets to work toward ending this expensive nightmare.

Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford University’s Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department and one of the contributors to the IPCC’s Third Assessment Report, estimates that we are putting 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, which will cost future generations an average of $8 trillion annually to deal with. Allen frames the struggle over climate change as one of intergenerational justice.[11]

I attended the March 15 climate strike in Seoul, and while I have great respect for the organizers and students who showed up, the turnout of around one hundred students, many of them from foreign schools, was a bit disappointing — but it’s a start. People in South Korea have not joined the global movements to confront global warming for a variety of reasons, negligence by the media, the government, and in education is a big one.

Too often, fine dust is reified, viewed as separate from the fossil economy that produces it, and attributed instead to a vaguely defined, amorphous and ominous Other — “China.” Fine dust and rising sea levels are both products of fossil capital; reducing the former is part of the fight to stabilize the latter.

The global climate strikes recall the US environmental movements of the 1960s, a “revolt of the young” that led 20 million Americans to join in the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, which led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency as well as Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was also formed in 1970, the world’s leading funder of climate research.[12]

The climate strikes have created a sense of hope, but whether they can effect radical change in which decarbonization is linked to environmental justice and economic redistribution, is an open question. In order to change the story we need to maintain a sense of hope, but as China Miéville adds, “We must learn to hope with teeth.”[13]


[1] On March 4, 2019, fine dust concentration levels in Seoul reached 160.5 micrograms per cubic meter, the very unhealthy category in which everyone may experience health effects and are advised to limit time outside. The World Health Organization recommends keeping levels below 10 micrograms. Over the past year, Seoul has averaged 23.4 micrograms, while the OECD average is 13.9. Beijing has averaged 38.9 over the past year, while Shandong has averaged 50.3. See

[2] Malm, Andreas, Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming (London: Verso, 2016), p. 11.

[3] KORUS-AQ, p. 33. The KORUS-AQ report is available at: “NASA and NIER study finds that 48% of particulate matter comes from outside S. Korea,” The Hankyoreh, 20 July 2017.

[4] Haraway, Donna J., “Staying with the Trouble: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason M. Moore (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2016), p. 45.

[5] “AmCham China to add chapter in Shandong, American Expat Financial News Journal, 10 December 2018:

[6] Shapiro, Matthew, “Transboundary Air Pollution in Northeast Asia:The Political Economy of Yellow Dust, Particulate Matter, and PM2.5,” Korean Economic Institute of America, May 19, 2016:

[7] “Shandong Cashes in on China-South Korea FTA,” China Daily, 2 July 2016:

[8] Malm, p. 7.

[9] Wallace-Wells, David, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), p. 104.

[10] Malm, p. 359.

[11] Myles Allen’s comments were made during a Skype presentation for an international symposium, “Environmental Humanities: Status Quo and Future Directions,” Kyung Hee University, 20 April 2019.

[12][12] Streeby, Shelley. Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018), p. 10.

[13] Miéville, China, “Introduction.” Thomas More, Utopia (New York: Verso, 2019), p. 24.