IT has taken the slow-moving wreck of monsoon rains to become a full-fledged tragedy for the mainstream to take notice, but many will still pass off numbers like almost 35 million people displaced and millions of acres of arable land inundated as just another ‘natural disaster’?
This is why it is essential for those of us whose commitment to the proverbial wretched of the earth and natural ecosystems extends beyond the episodic to once again articulate the man-made triggers of the current floods and how to build a meaningful long-term response.
Climate change is political: First, the term ‘climate change’ must be put into political-economic context; nature is not simply metamorphosing independently of human action. Earth’s temperature has warmed by 1.3 degrees Celsius since the inception of the modern industrial order under the Western capitalist powers. We were first losers of this system during the era of direct colonialism and today we are bearing environmental costs that high-carbon-emitting Western countries have externalised.
It is thus that many in Pakistan and elsewhere are again calling for climate reparations, decarbonisation and debt cancellation. The belated attention that the floods have garnered globally have forced the usual suspects in the ‘international community’ to mobilise some money for relief, and the state will gladly accept whatever it can get, following from the absurdly celebratory mood at the release of the IMF tranche of $1.3 billion.
It is important to come together to prioritise preventive action.
Debt is a major tool through which states like Pakistan are disciplined on the global stage; goodwill gestures on the part of ostensibly gracious donors mean nothing without a serious reckoning with the fundamental logic of the capitalist world-system.
The other side of this equation is Pakistan’s domestic political economy; the hegemony of regional and global powers and MNCs directly corresponds to the rapacious profiteering of our own landed, industrial, commercial and financial elites and complicit state institutions.
Why is it that millions of Seraikis, Sindhis, Baloch, Gilgit-Baltistanis etc, are again drowning only 12 years after the 2010 super floods described as a once-in-a-generation event? Because successive governments, military officials, civil bureaucrats, ‘expert’ engineers and the capitalist class have carried on with business as usual, pillaging natural resources, recklessly promoting real estate development and tourism, and building mega-development infrastructure.
Charity is not enough: Many Pakistanis at home and abroad have done much to support relief work on-ground. Many stories of financial contributions by working-class individuals and heroic acts of rescue abound. The spirit of giving that animates many in our society is one of the few collective traits we can acclaim.
But it is important to understand that the imperative of planetary survival demands more than charity. The longer-term ecological crises that Pakistan will face will be triggered by the lack of water; large parts of our semi-arid country are experiencing declining water tables while many of the plain areas of Balochistan, Sindh and the Seraiki Wasaib currently inundated may well be unlivable in a few decades due to rising temperatures. While it is laudable to donate what we can when times are bad, it is more important to come together to prioritise preventive action as charity will not prevent environmental collapse.
Progressives must unite: All of this is about politics. And things will only change when a mass political consciousness evolves to inform mass political struggle at home and abroad. It is worthwhile noting that much of the quickest response to the floods came from relatively marginal progressive organisations and individuals who came together to both raise awareness of the situation on the ground and mobilise relief goods and funds.
The question of ecology has brought together many progressives around the world, and it is arguably the one single concern that can force a meaningful political coalition to develop across Pakistan’s unevenly developed and divided society. After all, environmental linkages between all of Pakistan’s ethnic-nations are not elective — they simply exist and there is a direct link between so-called ‘development’ in any one region and its ecological fallouts in another.
Beyond photo-ops, both our military overlords and mainstream politicians in Pakistan are almost unconcerned with medium- and long-term matters like climate change. Yes, events like the current floods make clear that climate-change-related chaos is also an urgent concern in the short term, but progressives will only force this question into the mainstream by demonstrating the same urgency and unity of purpose in building a meaningful political alternative to the establishment-centric game of musical chairs as they have in mobilising relief.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2022