Pakistan is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to human-induced environmental change and ecological degradation. It is an enormous national issue, a severe threat to our long-term future, in fact, and yet, we Pakistanis don’t give the matter enough attention. Our level of concern is dangerously low. Instead, issues in politics, the economy, international relations, etc., are the subject of daily discourse. Environmental issues lurk in the shadow of other pressing matters, matters essentially pertaining more directly to human affairs, which our country’s people, media, and leaders find worthy of attention.
The reality, though, is that human beings, societies, and all related issues exist in the shadow of the natural world. Nature is the basis of our existence. It provides us everything and holds us firmly in its grasp. People and all that they have created are utterly diminutive compared to nature and its dynamic processes, which you can plainly see by how large the Earth is. Humanity has come to where we are now, to this point where we are such powerful agents on Earth, only because nature enabled us to. The thing is, we are now changing nature, altering the very face of the planet. That does not mean that we have power over the natural world now. Because nature has the final say in the end, the consequences of our actions for us will be severe.
What are those consequences for this corner of the world known as Pakistan? Our people are already suffering in many ways from environmental problems caused by human activities both within and outside of the nation. Our main concern lies in where we are heading. We aren’t exactly sure yet what the future holds in store but, by both studying the science and looking at present trends, we have a good enough indication to be hugely alarmed. Environmental degradation is progressively getting worse and worse with no end in sight, bringing graver disaster risks and a general decline in the quality of life. It could ultimately be catastrophic for the world.
One critical area of concern is water. Pakistan is a water-stressed country. Its water supplies are deteriorating. Pakistan is highly vulnerable to any changes therein because it is heavily dependent on its natural resources and is essentially a desert supplied with water from concentrated sources like the Indus and the monsoon. There is a lot of water but it is not coming into the nation evenly. Our country is slated to face a severe water crisis caused by pollution and disruptions to the water supply from overuse and environmental changes. As time inexorably proceeds, the crisis will likely just get worse and worse and the people of Pakistan will suffer intensely. In fact, a sort of indefinitely prolonged drought seems to be on the horizon.
Much of the problem is due to overpopulation. Like most developing countries, Pakistan’s population growth is skyrocketing with no end in sight and the extra people have to use up natural resources to survive. The average Pakistani family produces lots of children and it is not because there are abundant resources for them. Instead, it seems that people are having many children to compensate for their lack of prosperity. That must be the explanation for the current global situation in which the rich have few children and the poor many. Pakistan’s population growth cannot be sustained forever and if it continues, the nation’s resource base will be depleted with catastrophic results for its burgeoning populace.
Global climate change adds to our woes. It is caused by many basic human activities worldwide, especially the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and it is unlikely the world will stop such activities until fossil fuels are used up. This will completely alter the face of the planet and turn our world into a hotter one and we are just beginning to feel the effects. Energy from the Sun is the driver behind most of what is happening on Earth and the balance between the energy entering and leaving the planet plays a central role in determining the state of our world. All the carbon stored inside Earth in organic form over eons of time is being released by us within the timescale of a few centuries, which will radically change that balance. It will be disastrous for life on Earth and humanity won’t be easily able to adapt.
But there is much more than what we are directly doing to watch out for. It turns out that if we disturb the Earth, we may just prompt it into adopting a new behavior of its own and it could all just go down from there. There is a possibility, scientists say, of a runaway greenhouse effect in the future caused by anthropogenic global warming. The situation basically is that by warming the Earth, we are making nature do the same. The main way is that when the climate warms, greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide are released from melting permafrost, from warming oceans, and from boreal soil where warmer temperatures allow microbes to decompose the organic matter stored underground over hundreds of years. These gases, which could potentially be of a quantity comparable to those released from fossil fuels, will themselves contribute to the warming of the climate, resulting in the release of more gases, warming the climate more, and on and on.
So if global warming continues, the process could eventually reach “runaway” point in which the warming is self-sustaining, without human influence, and proceeds unstoppably. That will definitely not be a good situation for the world. We have no idea, under this scenario, how much the world will warm before it stops and when it will happen but it is a fair chance that runaway global warming will ultimately lead to global cataclysm which, if not wiping out the human race, will wipe out civilization and billions of people.
These sound like some rather hefty doom and gloom scenarios. But we just need to have a healthy respect for how the natural world is a dynamical and complicated structure of its own and comprehend how it works. We must also be aware of how big human civilization has become, how much it is consuming and how much it is filling the Earth, a planet which, despite its immensity, is also finite. Finally, we must recognize that civilization is growing rapidly and the world is changing immensely in our modern era and it is all accelerating steeply. We are far from certain where the world will be going from here. But we are certain that the future is bleak in many ways and we live under the reasonable chance of catastrophic changes. If bad things might happen, we have to act as though they will. Isn’t what disaster risk management is all about? What is beyond a doubt is that the planet is being changed by people and as a result, its hospitability will be compromised.
In short, the very survival of Pakistan and its people, not to mention the world, is in jeopardy. Yet, what is it that we Pakistanis care about? All we talk about on a daily basis are things like Nawaz Sharif’s court cases, some new Islamist leader rising to the spotlight, new infrastructure projects with China, fear of resurgent Western imperialism, how the stock market is doing, and such. Environmental issues do not weigh much on the minds of even the educated among us. Small things like arrests of party leaders and political scandals trigger more consternation among the masses than the possibility of an apocalyptic future for their grandchildren.
Is it because we take the planet for granted? We are not used to what we are facing now. For most of human history, until very recently, people had little influence on the natural environment. It changed little and when it did, we usually had nothing to do with it, so we had nothing to do about it except adapt. Also, environmental degradation is neither very visible nor discernible to us. We cannot easily observe for ourselves the processes that go on in nature and the mechanisms by which we are affecting it. Lastly, our apathy is because we are living for now. We have a tendency to base our actions at present on what benefits us at present. Every action of ours that is harmful to the environment brings immediate satiation to us, while most environmental problems manifest in the long term and threats like total desertification and spiraling climate warming are in the dim future. It is well-documented that the more immediate a concern is, the more responsive people are to it.
That is not entirely the case. One societal issue that is of long-term relevance and is accorded high level of importance is education. Educating children leads to a bright future. But it is materially a burden while it is happening, which is why so many poor Pakistanis keep their children out of school and in child labor. The livelihood comes in quick. There is a massive drive in Pakistan to overcome such obstacles and provide sufficient education to all children. Education is society’s exercise in focusing on the future.
It is also the key to making the masses focus on their environmental future, to make them responsive to the issues concerning the planet.
Society shapes its people in their formative stage of life through schooling. It is the best medium for dissemination of ideas and knowledge to all. While older people may be more irresponsive to environmental issues, children and youth are ready to learn new things and adapt to the changing world they will live in. We can easily inculcate concern for the environment in students. Bringing environmental consciousness into the classroom will be enormously helpful because the future of our planet largely depends on future generations.
We also have to reach out to current generations, as they, too, play a big part. The future is heavily determined by what people do now, so awareness must be spread among the masses. At the very least, they will be motivated to provide education for their children in order to make them environmentally aware. Most people will readily have the motivation inside them to save the environment. They just need to be woken up.
Academic focus on the environment will inculcate professionals and leaders in environmental protection, but much more is needed. Educating all people is crucial for protecting the environment because the changes being made to it come from the activities of the human population as a whole, each and every person. When they become aware of it, they can get to change their behavior and do what is needed for a healthy planet. As we enlighten the people of Pakistan, focus must remain on those growing up, for in order to ensure a better planet for our children, we must leave behind better children for the planet. Environmental education is Earth’s best hope.
So as it strives to make its citizens learn, Pakistan must emphasize environmental studies in its curricula, as well as in its mass media, including libraries, and awareness-raising campaigns. This is the only way ordinary people can become aware. They cannot see the future and what it brings. They cannot personally observe underlying processes occurring in the natural environment. Even when they feel the impact of environmental harm, it is usually not apparent to them where it is coming from.
We therefore see poor Pakistanis respond to problems like water shortages by protesting against the authorities. They can only think thus far. If they are comprehensively informed of the environmental changes affecting them, they will understand their own situation and their long-term prospects and will be better able to decide on the right course of action. They have to expand their horizon to beyond what they observe up close in their lives, a vital trait in today’s world. This is why education is so important. Education enables people to know the meaning behind what they see, to know what they do not see, and to know what they should expect to see.
Every nation must always keep its future in mind. To ensure Pakistan’s survival, environmental literacy must be made an integral part of its mass education sector. The first step is alerting people to the fact that the issues exist. The phase after that is for them to learn all about the issues. That will be no small undertaking. As we will learn in my next article, when it comes to the environment, to the interactions between people and nature, there is an enormous amount to learn. It is perhaps another obstacle to our gaining awareness of this most crucial subject of our times but, nonetheless, an obstacle we will overcome.