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We are running out of time

One of the most important advances in academic work in recent years has been the focus on ecology as a social, economic and political category. Society is no longer viewed as a set of complementary and conflictual relations between human beings. Social theory now acknowledges the material basis provided by nature as central to all human labour.

Nature is no longer regarded as a serene background to be appreciated or intervened upon. Its entanglement with social production means that it is inextricably linked to the formation of society, and ultimately, to the production of life itself.

This new ‘ecological consciousness’ has emerged as a result of the direct assault on the ecosystem by human activity, threatening to obliterate many species, including ourselves. Scientists are calling this a new geological age, “the Anthropocene”, in which human activity is transforming the very coordinates of life on the planet. It has deprived almost a billion people from access to safe drinking water globally, whereas air pollution and smog are becoming central features of modern urban life.

If the contamination of the basic ingredients of human life were not enough to force a rethinking of our relationship to nature, then climate change – with its capacity to end society as we know it – should induce a thorough, collective introspection on where we are headed.

Our planet is warming due to the emission of greenhouses gases like CO2 and methane gas into the atmosphere – primarily through industrial activities and agriculture – as well as dirty energy production. The warming temperatures have a number of deadly consequences, in particular rising sea-levels and changing rain patterns – which could result in unprecedented floods and the destruction of agriculture systems, respectively. What is bizarre is that our fossil fuel-driven global economy, with its insatiable desire for energy, is at the root of the ecological crisis. Why would we simply not transition to a green economy, instead of heading towards collective suicide?

John Bellamy Foster, one of the pivotal figures in political ecology today, argues against blaming the general category of ‘human activity’ for climate change and instead posits capitalism, with its particular organisation of social labour and resources, as the key to understanding the ecological crisis.

Foster explains how the basis of capitalist production is a drive for profit, rather than one to meet basic human needs. The system presupposes endless growth as the only viable option for the economy, regardless of its consequences for society. For example, the growing homelessness in the major cities of the developed world has gone hand in hand with an exponential rise in empty apartments. For someone from another planet, this would appear as the most irrational and inefficient use of resources, if not outright cruelty. Yet, from the perspective of the capitalist system, allocation of resources to those in need is subordinated to the efficient procurement of profits, even if it means abandoning millions to homelessness – and in the case of famines – to starvation.

This also implies that to remain part of the system, producers need to constantly secure markets for their products, even if the products are neither essential nor desired by the populace. The marketing industry worth trillions of dollars is today geared less towards informing the public of the choices available in the marketplace, and more towards manufacturing desire for certain products. The fusion of neurosciences and psychoanalysis with the marketing industry since the 1950s, with its attempts to occupy the deepest recesses of the human mind, is perhaps one of the most understudied and sinister aspects of this unending thirst for profits.

Foster depicts the capitalist system as a “treadmill of production”, where competitors must keep on running, even accelerating, to maintain a place on the treadmill. The result is that “negative externalities” remain a marginal problem, since the very logic of the system does not allow a focused debate on reorienting the relations of production if it creates obstacles in the pursuit of profit. For this reason, the fossil fuel industry, which has trillions of dollars at stake in the current energy regime, is able to lobby governments around the world to prevent the rapid transition to renewable sources needed to reduce GHG emissions.

The result is that leaders of Western governments continue to shed crocodile tears for the expected victims of climate change while continuing to provide tax breaks and new infrastructure to the fossil fuel industry.

We must remember that these are not ‘first world’ problems, as so many apologists of the energy lobby in Pakistan claim. In fact, the crises related to ecology have an uneven impact across the geographical space, with developing countries like ours most vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation. For example, 84 percent of Pakistan’s water is now contaminated, resulting in an astonishingly high number of Pakistanis (40 percent) dying of water-borne diseases. The economic costs of the water crisis (as well as air pollution) are alarming also because all projections of Pakistan’s economic potential are based on the presence of a healthy workforce, something that is becoming increasingly unsustainable due to the degrading living conditions of a majority of the populace and a crumbling healthcare infrastructure.

Furthermore, Pakistan is the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change – according to the Global Climate Change Index – and is predicted to lose $3.8 billion in the long-term. Apart from the destruction caused to our agriculture with its implications for food security in the midst of a rapidly growing population, the rising sea-levels pose an existential threat to the country’s financial backbone, Karachi. The threat to Karachi, which is predicted to be under water by 2060, and its consequences for the entire region’s geopolitics are so severe that in 2016 Foreign Policy magazine declared climate change as a much bigger threat to Pakistan’s security than even terrorism.

Yet, the country’s leadership and intelligentsia pretend that it is business-as-usual, while ignoring this elephant in the room. How else can one explain the billions being spent to build “world class” infrastructure in Lahore by diverting resources from the social sectors, including water sanitation, from the rest of Punjab? Or the construction of a train line that almost all experts agree will be an environmental catastrophe, substantially increasing the health costs in the city? Even more infuriating is the mad rush for coal in Pakistan, at a moment when the world is transitioning away from its use, and when it is a major contributor to climate change as well as source of pollution for our air and water.

The latest example is of the coal mining in Thar, which is currently destroying the livelihoods and water resources of the region – not to mention contributing to climate change. Local activists have termed the Thar Coal Project as the beginning of “coal cruelty” in Sindh –especially since Almas, a Sindhi poet, has been sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for campaigning against the construction of pipelines in the region. The entanglement of mass destruction of livelihoods and authoritarianism is a dystopian future we all hoped would remain confined to popular cinema. It might now be turning into a reality within our present.

Karl Marx explained how capitalism alienates humans from the labour they undertake. Today, we are not only alienated from work and from each other, but from the very conditions of life on the planet, helplessly witnessing the spectacle of our demise. By articulating a common vision of humanity and a new model of development, in which production and distribution takes place for meeting human needs rather than unbridled profit, we must demonstrate that the human adventure is not as yet exhausted. But we are running out of time.

The writer is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at the Government College University, Lahore.

Email: ammarjan86@gmail.com

Ammar Ali Jan, "We are running out of time," The News. 2017-04-25.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Foreign policy , Political category , Economy , Ecology , Terrorism , Politics , Karl Marx , Pakistan , Sindh , GHG