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Navigating Ethical Quandaries in the Aftermath: Pure War and Ecological Self in 'Sharing Air'


Navigating Ethical Quandaries in the Aftermath: Pure War and Ecological Self in 'Sharing Air'

Juveria Fatima

PhD Research Scholar

Osmania University

Hyderabad, Telangana, India


The ecological apocalypse has emerged as a secular field of literary studies, where fictional dystopian realities are constructed imagining the aftermath of an ecological disaster. Such narratives become a medium of raising ethical questions on unprecedented development at the cost of annihilation of biosphere. Manjula Padmanabhan, in her short story Sharing Air published in the year 1984 creates a post-apocalyptic dystopian world survived by no other living forms but human beings. The major cause of the apocalypse is projected as the toxification of ecosystem. This paper examines the ethical concerns raised in the short story in light of pure war, a concept propounded by Paul Virilio. A psychoanalytic examination of pure war strategy adopted by the society on the verge of ecological rupture exposes the intricacies of character’s psyche living in such precarious times. In addition, the concept of the ecological-self, a transpersonal approach to psychology is applied to examine the sense of self in post-apocalypse scenario. Further the manifestation of place under the framework given by ecocritic Lawrence Buell sheds light on the technocratic evolution of place.

Keywords: Ecological Apocalypse, Pure War, Ecological Self, Psychoanalytic theory, Space and Place, Cyborgs


Ecocentrism refers to a way of thought and action that prioritizes ecological concerns. It has emerged as a critical theoretical framework studying human relations with the environment. The movement emerged as a response to anthropocentrism and examines the impact of human activities on the environment.

Ecocentrism offers a robust ethical analysis of the negative impact that humans are having on the community of life on Earth and the physical systems on which it is dependent. (Gray et al, 130)

Ecological Apocalypse

The concept of the apocalypse has ancient roots that are traceable to the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra. Predominantly originating in Abrahamic and pagan religious beliefs, this concept has been adopted by environmentalists and eco-critics to reinforce environmental ethics.

Lawrence Buell in his work The Environmental Imagination, observes that, apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal. The genre of apocalypse allows writers to create proleptical narratives where they contemplate the dystopian future warning humanity of the impending consequences. Amy Murphy in her article “Future Traditions of Nature” traces the evolution of apocalypse narratives into three phases. The first phase of apocalypse narratives explored the supremacy of nature, depicting humanity facing the danger of natural disasters. The second phase of narratives attributed the apocalypse to the will of God from a theistic perspective, unleashing the wrath of the divine. The final phase is described as a by-product of our self-destructive hubris (10), owing to the widespread use of nuclear energy and resulting pollution.

Eco-apocalyptic narratives place the responsibility of ecological destruction on human activities. Environmental apocalypticism is sometimes disregarded by skeptics who argue that rather than invoking or reinforcing environmental ethics; these narratives emphasize the scientific capacity of the humanities to ensure sustainable development. Thus, rather than serving as warning for conservation, these narratives are accused of looking at technological solutions for survival.

Prominent ecological critic, Lawrence Buell further expanded the criteria for eco-apocalypse narratives categorizing them into

  1. A Mythography of betrayed Eden (Pg.37)
  2. A world without refuge from toxic penetration (Pg. 38)
  3. The threat of hegemonic oppression (Pg. 41)
  4. The Gothicization of pollution

The short story “Sharing Air” by Manjula Padmanabhan is a futuristic ecological dystopia, an eco-apocalyptic world survived by few and referred to as an era of individual vital supplies (630).The fictional world created by Padmanabhan is filled with toxic compounds which has completely annihilated the natural ecosystem. The magnitude of destruction is so wide spread and all-encompassing that no other life form except human kind has survived it. The surviving humans live in life support units with an oxygen plant and eating protein capsules (70). The only other living organism accompanying humans is amoebae in their petri dish. (70)

Cultural theorists Paul Virilio and Sylvere Lotringer coined the term ‘Pure war’, a phenomenon referring to self-destructive capacity of an existing culture. This concept finds its roots in the idea that war exists in its preparation (53) – thus when weapons of mass destruction are invented, a disaster in a foreseeable future becomes inevitable. The common man is implicitly dragged into the war dealing with the consequences. The constant fear of threat and existential crisis activates a defensive mechanism. Mark B Borg, in his psychoanalytical study of pure war observes that it is adopted as a strategy to maintain security and decrease awareness of overwhelming levels of anxiety within the culture (Borg 347). The short story Sharing Air is a fictional world in the aftermath of nuclear disaster. The surviving humans are in state of pure war against hostile ecosystem. They wear protective suits and use microphones for communication. The constant vigil against the toxic environment drags the individuals into a state of pure war.

In constant confrontation with hostile ecosystem, some individuals to distract themselves from the threat of war may develop a defensive strategy. They may resort to coping mechanism in the form of undesirable behavior. Individuals deliberately trivialize the imminent danger by exposing themselves to it in the name of adventure.

French cultural theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari observe that in such dystopian society "a schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model [for living] than a neurotic lying on the analyst's couch" (Anti-Oedipus 2).

This coping mechanism may lead to individual resorting to unethical behavior transgressing the social boundaries. Such individuals are categorized as schizophrenic. Their act of resistance deterritorializes their existence making them an outlaw. The Character of X in the story can be categorized as a schizophrenic. He is the founder of a Toxic Club, a place where individuals gather together resorting to an act of breathing the toxic air. This act is in defiance of the technological assistance.

The constant state of war against the toxic environment using technology to ensure survival of humanity makes the toxies adopt the defense strategy of pure war. In such a society where all means of protection from toxic air are accessible, a group of toxies resort to deliberate, willful exposure to toxic air. The act becomes a means of reclaiming the toxic space that threatens their existence.  Foucault defines such acts of resistance as "the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us" (Foucault xiii).

Mr. X, who leads the toxies, began to take his facemask off completely (52) removes his protective gear breathing in the toxic air. Inhaling toxic air becomes an act of reclaiming one’s freedom. Through this character the author brings the idea of freedom into question. For Mr. X and his group, breathing and living in open air is freedom, whereas for the narrator it represents disorder. The narrator considers the right of exercising the choice over the kind of air she breathes as freedom. The author juxtaposes two characters with different perspectives to raise ethical concerns towards technological advancements and consequent environmental degradation.

Ecological Self

Ecological Self is an ecosophical concept propounded by Norweigan philosopher Arne Naess. It is the product of transpersonal psychology which propagates the idea of higher order thinking and spiritual self. It contends that the connection and deep observation of natural surroundings would positively contribute to introspection increasing self-awareness and acknowledgment of interdependence of all living forms. However, this brings us to question whether all individuals are capable of attaining the sense of self as proposed by Naess. Sigmund Freud in his psychoanalytical model classified an individual sense of self into three zones: Id, Ego and Super ego. An individual sense of self is categorized and controlled by the pleasure principal, reality principal and morality principal. These principals corresponding to each zone, constitute a sense of self making an individual adhere to the societal norms. The individual’s adherence to these norms is in safeguarding is own personal interests rather than upholding the common good. This renders the Freudian sense of self narrow and selfish.

Transpersonal psychology has emerged as a new dimension on the study of human psyche. It takes inspiration from the epistemology of traditional knowledge systems like advaitavedanta and buddhism. These are spiritual philosophies are based on the premise of exploration of spiritual self, transcending the physical boundaries. The advaitavedanta regards each self as a part of a larger unified spirit - brahma. According to this philosophy, humans and not considered as separate entities but rather a part of a single unified whole. It prioritizes unity of souls over material aspect of self. Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess employed this concept of spiritual philosophy to explore the fourth dimension of human psyche as ecological self. The ecological self widens the horizons of sense of self, expanding it to include the universe. Human then is not considered as a separate entity but a part of nature. Naess articulates that this ecological maturity can be achieved through the process of identification. When the self identifies itself with a unifying energy it becomes comprehensive part of the cosmos. The threat to the cosmos then becomes a threat to self. The idea of identification is based on incorporation of biosphere into one’s sense of self. Thus, the threat against nature is conceived as threat against self, i.e., ecological self. The ecological self doesn’t empathize with natural destruction, as empathy is shown to an external entity. It rather considers it as a personal loss.

The story Sharing air, opens with the narrator placing an order for customized 20th century air. The uncanny image of open air unsuitable for inhalation creates an image of ecological destruction. After trying the air, she expresses that it was strong and wonders how her ancestors survived breathing such toxic air. The author sets the tone of post-apocalyptic narrative and presents a scene of wide spread destruction where basic necessities like clean air and water are commodified. Humans live in stimulated and filtered world aided by technology.

The narrator recalls an incident when she casually joined a club which offered twentieth century experience. The Club is named as Toxic Club and its members are referred to as toxies. X is the founder of toxic club and has chosen an abandoned cooling tower of a decommissioned nuclear plant as the venue for its meetings. This further suggests that the levels of toxins in the environment have reached to such alarming levels that nuclear plants are left defunct. Thus, the reader can trace the cause of the eco-apocalypse to a nuclear disaster which has eliminated all forms of life. X has inherited the cooling tower from his ancestors and uses it for club meetings. The club provides experience of inhalation of twentieth century air by removing the protective masks and breathing openly. In addition to this, the club members also play videos of twentieth century life invoking nostalgia and condemning the technological control of the present.

Mr. X, the founder of toxic club is one of the few survivors of eco-apocalypse. The fact that he chose the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant for rebellion suggests that, he has selected the place responsible for the annihilation of biosphere as a place of resistance. His ideology of freeing the humanity from the clutches of technological dependence is ironic as the very technology is aiding his survival. Though, he is aware of the stark reality of humanity’s perilous existence, he still invokes nostalgia for times, when basic amenities like air and water were available in abundance. He blames the policies of twentieth century government for the annihilation of biosphere. The author criticizes the corrupt decision making of all governments that prioritize development by sanctioning industries neglecting the damage caused to the natural landscape. Such materialistic and one-dimensional thinking has led humanity to its present condition and may further lead towards extinction. The technology is not preventing but slowing the journey towards self-destruction and consequent extinction. He blames the precarious decision making and policies of the past governments for the disaster. Ironically, the pre-apocalypse world that he seeks is also not free from pollution as the Toxies expose themselves to twentieth century air described as

 pump in the air and zap it with chemicals. Sulphur, methane, tincture of titanium, xeon, freon, fly-ash, construction dust, soot, you name it…Air to Air communication, no radios, no sound processors. (47)

X wants to free the surviving humans from governmental and technological control. He wants human beings to adjust and adapt to the raw toxic environment instead of depending on technology for survival. He is disillusioned with the technological advancements which have annihilated the ecosystem and is extremely critical of depending on the same for survival. The dependence on mechanical devices is weakening the human immune system and causing addiction of conditioned environments. Thus, X is critical of the industrial development of the past governments as well as the technological dependence of the present. He wants humanity to break free from the shackles of technology and resort to primitive ways of living.

The Narrator, who joins the toxic club for a one-time experience finds the idea of living in natural surrounding archaic. For her, imagination of a world where everyone shares the natural ecosystem is unhygienic and fatal. She prefers to stay in the comfort of her protective suit exercising the freedom of choice over the air she breathes. Buell argues that ecological self, is formed through the process of identification. The character of X identifies with the life style of his ancestors and promotes living in open air shunning the technically stimulated environments. On the other hand, the narrator identifies with her cyborg self and filtered form of living. She is unable to identify with the concept of life mediated by X. She finds it extremely unhygienic and fatal.

If ecological self is formed on the basis of identification with the environment then this makes the manifestation of one’s self dynamic. The Ecological self of narrator is in stark contrast with that of Mr. X. The characters modes of identification are based on their experiences. The unnamed narrator has not seen natural habitat or any other living form thus is incapable of realizing the ecological self of X who identifies with the nature. The ecological self in this context becomes a relational phenomenon. In order to understand the development of ecological self, let us look at the concept of place given by Lawrence Buell.

The Metamorphosis of Space and Place

Place and space are concepts at times used interchangeably. Place is sometimes conceived as tangible whereas space as non-tangible element. Nevertheless, place theorists continue to use the terms interchangeably. Place is defined as ‘space to which meaning is ascribed’ (60) which also makes it as ‘deeply personal phenomenon founded in one’s life – world and everyday practices’ (60). An individual’s sense of place is influenced by various factors like society, culture, religion, class, etc., making it a social construct. Place then becomes a phenomenological. If a said place doesn’t confirm with one’s idea of place, they fail to find a sense of belonging. Thus ‘one’s sense of place’s elusiveness may actually grow in proportion to one’s rapport and expertise’.

Lawrence Buell in his work Writing for an Endangered World classifies phenomenology of places into five dimensions. The first dimension of space determined by Buell traces its origin to the traditional idea of place in the form of concentric zones. Buell takes this idea from the Yi Fu Tuan’s concept of Topophilia signifying affective aspect of environmental interaction. The home remains in the centre of the concentric circles and other circles include the places one visits like the school, playground, office, markets etc., The place exploration always starts at home and includes all the places of contact. This model is contextualized for the ‘geographical delimited societies’ who ascribe emotional attachment to places.

The second dimension takes into account the globalized world and refers to place as an archipelago of locales. It considers the interconnectedness of the world. As societies and cultures disperse all across the globe, it creates a sense of inhabiting different places simultaneously. An Indian living in US may create mini India at his home, giving him a sense of place at the same time interacting harmoniously with other cultures. Consequently, a unique personal identity is shaped as the result of amalgamation of all cultures. The idea of continuous evolution of place leads the third dimension of place. The dynamism of place must not be attributed only to human action but has existed since the formation of planet earth. Place is not a static element, and is constantly changing owing to natural disasters or human intervention. However, this evolution may not always be positive. A Volcanic eruption in the middle of the ocean may create a new island; however, in a town it would destroy the place.

Experiences and interaction with places and people play a crucial role in personality development. All the physical and temporal experiences shape the attitudes and belief system giving a sense of attachment towards that place, which buell categorizes as fourth dimension os place.

 The fifth-dimension questions the tangibility of place saying that absence may strengthen loyalty to place and sense of entitlement. He also argues that one’s sense of self is always reinforced by the society in the form of culture, images and narratives. Buell quotes Alexander Wilson who asserted that ‘our experience of the natural world is always mediated’ and shaped by the cultural, religious and political institutions of the society.

The place in “Sharing Air” is marred barren, shattered ecosystem filled with toxic air. The toxic penetration has left only few areas suitable for habitation. Surviving humans live,

All concentrated in rest of few areas where the atmosphere is thick enough that the stars don’t show through in day light (81)

The apocalypse has completely annihilated all forms of life including plants and animals. The idea of a place is marked by its widespread destruction and is reduced to virtual environments. Humans lack a sense of physical space and survive aided by virtual environments. The idea of sharing spaces is alien to its inhabitants. They also lacked the sense of a physical interaction. The narrator and some of her friends find the idea of sharing air, water and physical reproduction unacceptable. Everything that belonged to pre-apocalyptic times, which is referred to as the twentieth century, is perceived as unacceptable and unhygienic.

They breathed one another’s air for goodness sakes! Recycling all their air-borne germs, their waste products, their cast-off bronchial cells, every kind of organic junk. Water was delivered via miles of unsterilized piping from distant sources, sometimes even up from the polluted earth itself! And as for energy, they took whatever they could get. No wonder their gadgets were so crude and lifeless—they had only the most brutish, unrefined forms of electricity to run on. (64)

The sense of space undergoes a complete metamorphosis in the post-human world, in which humans inhabit virtual spaces. The family system is replaced by thought groups and kinship is carried forward through virtual children.

The concept of sharing place and space is perceived by the narrator as toxic and unbearable. The conception of place for her is in the form of dimensions, which are inhabited by virtual children and thought group. The family system is replaced by thought groups which gives her a sense of belonging and refuge. She perceives freedom as the right to choose.

I Looked at the label on my Five-cities atmo-cylinder: Mexico City, New Delhi, Bombay, Bangkok and Cairo. The Picture on the label was a simple hologram showing a trillion people in multi-D and today we have less than two million. But I don’t care. I have my pick of fragrant airs. I own a brood of virtual children who I share with other members of my thought group. Through the mirror processor I can travel to any dimension of my choice. (80)

The tangibility of place is replaced by dimensions and travel by virtual explorations. The fact that multi-D had 1 trillion people and now the number has reduced to one million reveals the danger of imminent extinction of humanity. Surviving life is supported by filtered customized air for breathing, micro phones for communication and capsules replacing food.

The character of X is mediating the idea of pre-apocalyptic place. X and his group of toxies also have never seen the animals or plants inhabiting the natural ecosystem but they inherited these knowledges from their ancestors in the form of oral and visual narratives. The pre-apocalypse times are presented to the members of in the form of glorified narratives and documentaries. This sparks the debate on freedom among the toxies. The narrator and few others consider life without devices as worst form of anarchy dismissing conservation of nature as self-hate.


In her exploration of a dystopian eco-apocalyptic scenario, Manjula Padmanabhan critiques cornucopian ecocentrism, which seeks technological solutions for environmental degradation. The post-apocalyptic universe she presents lacks meaningful human connections in an era dominated by vital supplies and electronic communication. Within this world of surviving cyborgs, the author juxtaposes two different perspectives towards environment. As the imminent danger of nuclear disaster looms over humanity and major cities are already struggling from rising pollution, the author questions the necessity of technological advancement at the cost of natural ecosystem. She offers a critique of capitalist societies, where governments prioritize profits over conservation of nature. When the previous government decisions of using nuclear energy has led to annihilation of ecosystems, how far can surviving humans rely on the present government that promotes technology aided survival. The ecological space theory by Lawrence Buell further aids the analysis of metamorphosized places in the post-apocalypse scenario. The conception of place is reduced to a non-tangible phenomenon. Though the sense of pre-apocalypse place is mediated by a group of toxies, the cyborgs dismiss it as archaic. However, the conclusion of story with the protagonist wondering about how plants looked like proves that mediation of place profoundly influences the human psyche.

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