Darkness descends

January 11, 2019


The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

THERE is perhaps no bigger indicator of the existential threat facing humankind — and Pakistanis in particular — than the thick smog that has enveloped Lahore in recent weeks. Over the past few winters, air pollution in the Punjabi metropolis, considered by many to be this country’s most influential seat of power, has reached toxic levels, and is this year bad enough to be considered a public health emergency.

According to a report in this newspaper earlier this week, air quality measurements regularly show that Lahore’s pollution is five times the legal limit, and the resultant and already significant health effects suffered by its residents will in the medium to long run surely prove to be of epidemic proportions.

The causes of worsening pollution include vehicular emissions, burning waste, slash and burn agriculture, and brick kilns. As is the case with environmental crises the world over, in this country too the political will necessary for redressal is conspicuous by its absence. Insofar as there is a political consensus about anything in Pakistan, it is in favour of ‘development’ — which, by all accounts, is the very cause of the planet’s rapidly failing ecosystem.

The fallout is now increasingly centred in countries like ours.

The evidence is clear; the unprecedented mobilisation of fossil fuels, building of vast tracts of infrastructure, production and use of mass transport vehicles, heating and cooling facilities, and an immense production of waste — all of which are associated with the Industrial Age that can be traced back approximately 200 years — has given rise to the global ecological crisis. Over time, the initial industrialisers of the West have largely outsourced the problem to the non-West (neocolonialism, anyone!), with emerging superpowers like China also now dedicating great effort to cutting coal production and outsourcing other economic practices that have drowned their urban centres in toxic air.

This means that the fallout is now increasingly centred in countries such as Pakistan. Elites here, hell-bent on ‘development’ via the unregulated influx of multinational capital, have yet to concern themselves with ecological questions. Working people are simply concerned with their own survival, either unaware or unconcerned with the fact that their future generations will have to bear the consequences of environmentally destructive practices.

Lahore is a case in point. By all accounts Pakistan’s most prosperous city, Lahore’s physical landscape is dotted with elite ghettos amidst a sprawl associated with a typical third world metropolis. A public health emergency is unfolding before the elite’s very eyes, to which it has not responded in any meaningful way. Instead, the standard head-in-the-sand approach has been adopted; either leave the city or shut oneself off into an elite ghetto and purchase any and all remedial instruments available on the market to breathe purified air within the ghetto’s four walls.

Is this sustainable? Of course not, and neither can Lahore’s elite — and indeed elites across the postcolonial world — outsource environmental destruction as rich countries have done and continue to do. The truth about the planetary crisis is that, ultimately, no geographical zone will be able to insulate itself from the catastrophic eventualities sure to become more common as climate change intensifies.

So it is eminently probable that, in the future, elites will venture outside their homes with custom-made masks and an oxygen cylinder in tow — needless to say this option will not be available to those without the financial means to purchase the said instruments on the ‘free market’. If this sounds outlandish, then just think about bottled ‘mineral’ water; a couple of decades ago it would have sounded outlandish that purified water would be available for purchase to elites wanting to avoid the contaminated water that is the plight of the plebian hordes that know no better (read: cannot afford clean water).

Could there be a bigger indictment of the globalised political-economic system we call capitalism than the fact that ‘solutions’ to the ecological crisis are so flagrantly exclusionary? By definition, capitalist development has created an interdependent world characterised by great unevenness — the wealth and prosperity of some regions and people are directly connected to the poverty and squalor of others. It is now also clear that the fallouts of capitalist development are also distributed unevenly — the poor and disenfranchised having to bear the outsourced over-consumption of the rich.

The elite’s head-in-the-sand approach will not succeed in warding off the crisis for too much longer. Humanity’s salvation lies in a political response that brings together the wretched of the earth and those conscious elements that recognise the imperative of a genuine and sustainable alternative. Thinking through how this response can be fomented is the challenge of our times.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2019