Navigating Pakistan’s Climate Crisis

Should Pakistan’s consumption-focused local environmentalism be seen as apolitical activism?

By Yasmeen R. Arif

A week after attending Lahore’s Climate March in September 2019, three students and I were sitting in an air-conditioned Gloria Jean’s Coffee shop in the city’s upmarket Defence neighborhood. The three eighteen-year-old girls all spoke passionately about the need to fight the climate crisis. One student, Mehwish, read aloud highlighted passages of This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, while another, Tahmina, jotted down points in her school notebook. A student named Ambaa showed us reusable glass straws she had bought from Instagram, and the three girls discussed the possibility of organizing a trash collection drive at their school. At the end of the meeting, the teenagers each departed in their family’s private car, while I called an Uber. In this way, a meeting about the environment ended with us leaving in four separate vehicles, all four of which were emitting pollution.

Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

The preceding paragraph is a fictionalized account of a real meeting, in which all names have been changed. It outlines some of the tensions within a particular kind of environmental activism in Pakistan, which is already considered the world’s fifth most-vulnerable country to climate crisis, despite only being responsible for 1% of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Environmentalism in Pakistan is not monolithic; it has taken many forms, including governmental directives on tree-plantingcitizen-led anti-pollution legal campaigns, and business commitments to environmentally-friendly production that are often assessed as ‘corporate greenwashing.’ During my research in Lahore, I frequently encountered consumption-based environmental activism. Its participants were mostly middle-class high school and university students, often young women. Unlike some groups, these young activists did not attempt to petition the government for structural change; rather, their environmental activism was enacted in small-scale and voluntary ways, such as collecting trash from busy roads or planting trees. These activists sought to mitigate their impact on the environment through altering their practices of consumption. They carried reusable metal straws and cotton tote bags to reduce their use of plastic, and shopped online for products marketed as “kind to the planet.” Many of these products – including cosmetics, period products and gaily-patterned tote bags – were clearly intended for feminized customers, echoing a perception of women being ‘natural’ custodians of the environment

It would be easy to dismiss these activists as uncritical consumers who have fallen victim to a false consciousness about the possibility of “solving” the climate crisis through individual action. Academics such as Michael Maniates argue that when we understand environmental harm as ‘the product of individual shortcomings… best countered by action that is staunchly individual and typically consumer-based,’ we achieve a sense of agency and accomplishment and a feeling that we are mitigating environmental damage by collecting trash or buying recyclable products. In reality, however, protecting the environment requires top-level action at the level of international governance – individualist action is simply not sufficient to deal with the scale of the climate crisis, Maniates says. In a recently-published book, Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor argues that effective climate activism puts pressure on governments and the largest polluters in the world to change, rather than trying to change individual behaviour: 

Buying, washing, collecting, and transporting one’s plastic bottles to a privately-contracted recycling bank are not citizenly acts. Instead, a citizenly act is demanding free, curbside recyclable waste collection for all, or pressing governments to pass laws against unnecessary and wasteful packaging thus reducing the need to recycle in the first place. 

Dr. Sherilyn MacGregor, The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory

Practices of ‘green consumerism,’ such as buying reusable glass straws, cotton bags and other ‘environmentally-friendly’ products, are also heavily criticized by scholars and activists arguing that there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. The environmental scholar Catriona Sandilands notes that “the point of a ‘green’ politics should be to show how consumerism is itself part of the problem.” Green consumerism, however, is seen as depoliticizing, helping to maintain the status quo of capitalist consumerism. The ideology of neoliberalism — ‘an economic system in which the “free” market is extended to every part of our public and personal worlds’ — is considered a key force in shaping individualistic, consumption-focused environmentalism. Critics of neoliberalism argue that the extension of market principles into all areas of life makes political struggle against systems of inequality difficult, because neoliberalism encourages people to see themselves as individuals with responsibilities rather than as part of communities with collective rights. Rather than bringing about the transformation of polluting industries, MacGregor argues that neoliberal discourses place “emphasis on the role of individuals as consumers to tackle climate change by conserving energy, recycling waste, growing food and foregoing flights.”

Photo by Khalid Mahmood.

When I first began to meet environmental activists in Lahore, these critiques were fresh in my mind. For example, during one study circle, a student named Ambaa pragmatically reflected that “Capitalism is really at the root of the climate crisis.” I began to consider the social and political environments in which critiques of individualist environmentalism arose. Many seemed to assume an unproblematic ability to make one’s voice heard safely in political spheres. However, as studies of radical care enacted by marginalized communities have long acknowledged, this assumption does not account for circumstances where direct political action is either ineffective or even unsafe to carry out.

While some of the young people I met were enthusiastic about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government’s intention of “greening” Pakistan, others dismissed it as performative and tourism-focused.

Indeed, activists in Lahore were often deeply cynical about the possibility of productively engaging with systems of authority. While some of the young people I met were enthusiastic about Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government’s intention of “greening” Pakistan, others dismissed it as performative and tourism-focused, while even the most ardent Khan supporters were skeptical about the transparency and accessibility of the government. Interactions with university and government bureaucracy were often negative, slow-moving and ponderous at best, and actively obstructive at worst. Students like Mehwish, Tahmina and Ambaa had all seen the banner carrying the image of the activist Baba Jan at the Climate March in 2019; they knew that, until his release in November, he was still a political prisoner of the Pakistani state for campaigns connected to climate change-induced disaster in Gilgit-Baltistan. On the other hand, activities such as tree planting comply with a key policy of the Pakistani government and imply a kind of acquiescent patriotism, generating a politics of respectability and legitimacy. 

Distrust in the ability of authority systems to address climate change prompted young people to take action into their own hands. I often heard statements like “It’s up to us to make the change we want to see,” and “We cannot wait for the government to save us; we have to take responsibility.” While these statements could be understood in terms of the ‘responsibilization’ of individuals under neoliberalism, this portrayal ignores the fact that expressions of responsibility and destiny are not solely derived from Western ideologies and economic principles.

In Pakistan, anthropologist Naveeda Khan argues that a desire to “strive” is an intrinsic part of the national discourse, expressed in the poetry and writings of Muhammad Iqbal and rooted in the unique circumstances around Pakistan’s inception, which was experienced by ordinary people as an opportunity to create a truly ideal society that had never existed before. Projects of self-making that draw on “green consumerism” and voluntary activism could be seen as part of this intellectual genealogy of ‘striving,’ as opposed to an uncritical acceptance of Western neoliberal thought.

“I have lived in Lahore my whole life and I have heard it called the ‘City of Gardens.’ But that means nothing to me. I have no memory of it as ‘a city of gardens.’ All I know is my eyes stinging and my throat being sore all through the winter.”

– A young climate activist interviewed in Lahore

Moreover, rather than dismissing events like trash collection and tree plantation as apolitical props to neoliberalism, we can also understand them as pragmatic responses to visceral experiences of pollution and environmental harm. Last year marked the fifth winter in which Lahore was assaulted by a toxic smog that turned the sky an unnatural gray. The smog irritated the eyes, caused harsh coughs and exacerbated respiratory difficulties, prompting the activists I met to talk about pollution in embodied ways. “We can feel it getting hotter every year,” said Jamal, a volunteer at a tree planting event in Lahore. “When we used to go for a walk we could see trees, but now those trees have been cut down.” Another young activist I will call Ayesha reflected: “I have lived in Lahore my whole life and I have heard it called the ‘City of Gardens.’ But that means nothing to me. I have no memory of it as ‘a city of gardens.’ All I know is my eyes stinging and my throat being sore all through the winter.” Lived experiences of pollution drove a desire to directly intervene in the landscape through what I termed a deeply “emplaced environmentalism,” a relationship of care to an inhabited landscape that is rooted in a specific history.

Thus, tree plantation drives were seen both as a way to reclaim Lahore’s heritage as a “City of Gardens,” and as a pragmatic way to mitigate particulate matter and lower the temperature of urban heat islands. Although activists recognized the validity of tree plantation critiques as addressing pollution’s symptom rather than its cause, they also felt that planting trees at least allowed them to do something rather than nothing, given their limited power to address the causes of air pollution. Indeed, the localized nature of direct interventions into the landscape might be understood through MacGregor’s concept of “interstitial politics” or struggles which are ‘interventionist and strategic’ in nature and draw upon a ‘politics of the mundane.’ Finally, what scholars in Western contexts may fail to recognize in Lahore’s young activist interstitial politics is the political nature of intervention in public space in an increasingly securitized and privatized society, with fewer places of sociality not predicated on consumption.

Young women’s access to public space has often been contested, and participating in activities like collecting trash or planting trees often required significant mental and physical labor to organize and enact. 

It is also important to acknowledge that, although many relished the experience of spending time with friends for a cause they cared about, young women’s experience of public space was not unequivocally celebratory or liberatory. Many of the young women that I spoke to found it tiresome to negotiate their participation in activities like tree-planting.

Young women’s experience of public space was not unequivocally celebratory or liberatory.

Ayesha, who attended a tree-planting event that I went to, had to bring her younger brother with her as a safeguard against harassment, and found it so frustrating dealing with his complaints that she rarely attended the events she wanted to. Some young women felt uncomfortable in public areas, conscious of being ogled and worried about the possibility of sexual harassment. Students Mehwish and Tahmina also told me about an alarming encounter they had had when volunteering in trash-collection drives:

“The last time we were collecting trash, a man came up to use and said, ‘You should clean your hearts first, attend to your namaz (prayers) in the home rather than walking on the streets. If you clean your hearts, then the streets will become clean,’” Mehwish told me. “We were scared that if we tried to explain what we were doing, he would accuse us of blasphemy.”

“Some boys from our school were with us and they came over and said, ‘Don’t talk to that man, these are dangerous men,’” Tahmina added. “We were very uncomfortable because we felt they were trying to dominate us, and they were speaking of that man like he was evil, just because he was poor. We didn’t want them to protect us.” 

Although Mehwish and Tahmina were passionate about the environment, the constant negotiations they underwent exhausted them. “To be honest, I prefer to do my activism from home. It is so uncomfortable to be outside,” Mehwish said. Since their visceral sense of the climate crisis meant that apathy was not an option, the practices of green consumption offered a way to enact their desire to live in minimally damaging ways to the environment, managing their own practices of consumption as much as they could, and spending money on products that supported their desire to be ‘green.’ 

Young activists like Mehwish and Tahmina know that the climate crisis is real, and that it is here. They also know that that any meaningful solution requires governmental action at an international level and the radical restructure of the global economic system. Nonetheless, they go on collecting trash, planting trees and trying to mitigate their individual impact on the planet. Their determination to make whatever change they can, even while they know their impact is small, shows how practices of environmental activism that might be termed apolitical and neoliberal can also be understood as contingent and pragmatic, emerging in situations where more overt, state-engaging forms of activism might fail. Student activists in Lahore are well aware of the environmental crisis – after all, they breathe in some of the most toxic air in the world. But they are also aware of the political and social climate surrounding them, and they carefully navigate these multiple challenges as they dream, cautiously, of a cleaner city. 

Yasmeen R. Arif is a doctoral student at Oxford University researching gender, environmentalism, and urban space in Pakistan. Follow her on Twitter @Arif_Yasmeen.