If you ask random folks in Tokyo about the air quality, they will generally say that the air is pretty good...now. Tokyo went through years of severe air pollution after World War II during its redevelopment. But the current levels of quantifiable pollutants in the air is not the point of this series of paintings called Air Pollution Tokyo. Sakuho is a Japanese artist who wants to focus on our relationship with nature as a way to attain sustainability, questioning the current definition of sustainability which is based on controlling emissions and filtering out chemicals from industrial processes.

Even before the current worldwide heatwave of 2022, the Japanese artist Sakuho made these striking paintings based on the legacy of pollution in the city of Tokyo. The message seemed to be what we should all be getting from this current and deadly heatwave - despite the amount of filtering of harmful chemicals, the amount of reducing harmful emissions, and the positive-sounding numbers that governments seem ready to supply to their people about how clean the air is: 1) we have not significantly changed our behavior toward the environment and 2) no city on Earth can avoid the aftereffects of decades of irresponsible behavior toward the environment.

The world now feels the bounce-back of the excess, greed and arrogance shown by previous generations and societies. But we cannot blithely play the blame game as those of us in urban areas, currently, are acting in the same manner. Our self-righteousness seems to derive from having more effective filters now to remove certain chemicals from industrial processes, possible plans for biomass to replace coal as well as other projects allegedly aimed at a sense of sustainability. Sakuho’s art suggests that we are not asking deeper questions about economic processes and the ravaging and wasteful consumerism which has been portrayed as the only possible choice for human social development. This led to unchecked industrial processes creating a vicious cycle involving population increase, over-production, hyper commercialism and pollution of the air and water. The pervading and intense violence implied in her work is the violence we have projected onto the Earth, from our wants and desires, and that we do not intend to stop. We are in a situation where we have chosen to continue to exploit the planet, but in a safe way to humanity. This is what all of our filtering, sustainability and biomass plans seem to amount to.

The paintings of Sakuho show we have failed to realize that ethics does not just apply to overt behavior between individuals. It also applies to how we live our lives in general, our relationship to the environment and the ability to curb our desires and greed and need for excessive comfort and gain in order to establish a truer sense of sustainability. The paintings serve the purpose of pinpointing the pollution problem back within the individual and to social and economic forces. As economic classes have exploited individuals, they have also exploited the planet. Yet, the common person was drawn into complicity. The production processes of industrialized capitalism had a negative effect on the environment. But, starting in the 1950s, we see carbon dioxide emissions soar to bizarre heights due to the automobile and the desire of everyone, of every social class, to move about more conveniently. American urban public transportation systems were dismantled to encourage car buying.

Sakuho’s pieces imply we have failed to unify our ethical beliefs, desires and goals to encompass both humanity and nature. Nature is the object of our desire and we have refused to consider that we can and should show restraint in regard to our consumption and lifestyles. Looking for an analogy, we are like a person dying of lung cancer who is proud of how he finally switched to filtered cigarettes.

Sakuho’s Tokyo paintings show a miasma of excessive heat in orange and red hues, a non-dissipating heat and a self-sustaining and massive feverishness that engulfs a city. We see these colors every day on the news in the wildfires in California and Europe. The imagery made me also think of iconic images of violence and responses to violence. Some of the imagery reminded me of 9/11, especially the crossed steel beams which were found among debris while a massive fire burned under the World Trade Center. The steel beams also reminded me of the anti-tank obstacles established by Ukrainians outside of Kyiv during the recent invasion by Russia. This might not have been the original intention of the artist, but I think these images of overt violence mesh nicely with the silent, unrecognized and denied violence caused by a collective of needs and desires created and met through world corporations. The term structural violence was created by a sociologist to indicate that your social and economic environment can cause real, physical harm to you. For example, life expectancy for poor folks is almost always lower than for the more affluent. What do we call this violence that we have inadvertently directed at nature? In lieu of a name, we can see it represented in Sakuho’s paintings.

Indeed, in correspondence with Sakuho, she mentioned that these paintings can be thought to be about the human ego, obsession, fear and the abandonment of the individual. To Sakuho, the perception that we are safe is due to the human ego. It is the sense of denial that has hindered effective action toward changing both the environment and ourselves. We refuse to believe there might be anything wrong with our lifestyles – we will not change for the good of the Earth. When I pointed out that most folks in Tokyo might say that they are happy with the air quality, after a bleak history where Tokyo, at times, was dangerously polluted, Sakuho asked whether we can honestly say that we live with no burden on the environment, and asserted that there is no valid “numerical” or quantitative defense while we still use pesticides, spew exhaust fumes, and use massive amounts of cleaning agents and detergents, among other pollutants.

The dream for cities would seem to be to, theoretically, have a population of 10s of millions of people, but, through the cutting of emissions, to make it “sustainable” within nature. This seems the major working model out there, right now: Our lifestyle stays the same, there is nothing wrong with it, we just need more filters, alternative fuels or other ways to turn turbines that generate electricity. The current crisis, in which we saw London reach 40C for the first time in its history, would seem to show we are not even working fast enough to address what has been wrought before us. Sakuho’s work seems to invite a new definition of sustainability: Sustainability is the absence of the unbridled greed and arrogance that has been driving the process of production and a lifestyle based on excessive consumption and self-satisfaction. This type of sustainability would be the most effective way to save our environment.