World on fire

DURING the peak summer months, when temperatures in Sindh and Balochistan sometimes cross the 50-degree Celsius mark, Pakistan is high up on the list of the hottest places on the planet. This year, this list has expanded to include countries like Canada, which for most of recorded history, has been amongst the coldest countries.

The fact that western Canada has experienced an extended heatwave with temperatures in excess of 45°C will soon be lost in the breaking news cycle, just like the high temperatures around the Arctic Sea earlier this year were quickly forgotten. But the trends are clear; extreme weather is increasingly common, and the climate science at our disposal has confirmed that global warming and other manifestations of climate change are getting worse.

Pakistan is amongst a handful of countries between northeast and southwest Asia most vulnerable to climate change. It is projected that by the end of this century, large parts of the Indus Basin will be uninhabitable due to extreme heat. Long before that, we will literally be thirsting for water, not to mention see already depleted ecosystems and various forms of wildlife disappear forever.

This is the reality that both contemporary and future generations in this country and beyond face. Those inhabiting relatively privileged urban environments can pretend that this is not ‘our’ problem, but large numbers of people are already under the cosh. Take, for example, the fishing and pastoral communities on the coastline of Sindh and Balochistan; locals dealing with melting glaciers and landslides up in the highlands of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kashmir; and numerous agricultural communities in plain areas from northern Balochistan through Punjab and up to KP suffering from rapidly declining water tables.

We will literally be thirsting for water.

History bears witness that the western heartlands of the capitalist world system are still benefiting from the suffering of peoples and ecosystems in this and other climate change-vulnerable countries of Asia and Africa. Western leaders’ on-again, off-again pronouncements about the seriousness of reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change betray their unwillingness to redress structural inequities in the global economy, as well as their intellectual monopolies over science and technology.

Sadly, non-Western postcolonial countries do not possess the leadership necessary to secure a meaningful future for nature or humanity. The bar is so low in Pakistan that we neither tolerate critical interrogation of ‘development’ nor adopt climate-friendly policies beyond choreographed tree-planting exercises.

The world over, conscious peoples challenging myopic and unaccountable establishments are rallying around demands for climate ‘justice’. In this worldview, ecological crisis is directly connected to a rapacious growth-at-all-costs economic model in which nature is always ripe to be exploited. This is directly connected to an atomised conception of upward mobility that approximates a ruthless, survival-of-the-fittest mentality. And this is both cause and consequence of a hollowed-out political mainstream in which empty signifiers like ‘corruption’ and ‘national interest’ are regurgitated while inequality, repression and ecological degradation intensify.

In this political mainstream, we do not hear of Baba Jan, the native of Hunza who spent almost a decade in jail because he demanded justice for thousands of local people whose villages were submerged by mass landslides. We do not hear of Seengar Noonari from the small town of Nasirabad near Larkana who became yet another missing person two weeks ago for organising against land grabs and the ecologically unsustainable gated housing community model fronted by Bahria Town.

If there is to be a future for the planet that has sustained our species along with millions more, it will be because of progressives struggling against the excesses of class and state power and all of its gendered and racialised productions. Our problem is not a lack of awareness, but a lack of action; most of us will only sit up and take notice of what is otherwise a crisis long in the making when we are directly affected. The ecological crisis is misleading insofar as it feels like we need not bother with it for now because there are far more urgent matters on the table.

But let it be clear: the many forms of dysfunction that we obsess about on a daily basis, including grotesque forms of organised and random violence against the poor, ethnic peripheries and women, are all manifestations of a world on fire. Even if this fire is not engulfing us directly right now, it will reach our doorsteps. We can either react to each little fire as it comes, running around like headless chickens, or put in our lot with a meaningful political and intellectual alternative for the long haul that helps us contain the forces that keep lighting fires all over the globe.

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

Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2021

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