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September 14, 2017

Climate and inequality


September 14, 2017

Reports on climate change show that Pakistan is ranked at the 135th position in terms of its carbon emissions. However, in terms of the risk that the country faces due to climate change, it is ranked at the seventh position, according to the Global Climate Risk Index report of 2016. How can we explain this discrepancy?

This article identifies the reductionism of modernity into a utilitarianism-based, capitalism-driven economy – which benefits a small elite at the expense of a vast majority of the world population and resources – as the root cause and the lens through which global environmental change can be understood. The same explanation can be applied to Pakistan’s position in the world as well as intra-country inequalities. 

To argue how and why climate change is happening, we must first understand when and how it started. Long before humans existed, five mass extinctions had occurred due to climate change. However, the sixth mass extinction is occurring during the existence of humans and it is humans who are directly to blame for this. It all started with humans gaining control over natural resources. Scholars refer to this as the Anthropocene period. The very first instance of humans taking control over nature was when we learned how to control fire. 

However, it was after attempts were made to control fossil fuels in the 18th century – the time of the Industrial Revolution in Britain – that the influence of human activity over natural resources started to peak and reflect on the planet’s environment. Statistics show that from the mid-18th century onwards, the rate of extinction of several species speeded up drastically. Before the Industrial Revolution, the extinction of these species could have taken more than 10,000 years. But now, it has barely taken two centuries. Therefore, the rise of the modern mode of production – capitalism – has become a direct cause or factor that influences the accelerated and life-threatening change in climate.

Therefore, the question is to understand the modern or capitalist mode of production. What it is? How did it begin? Why is it harmful to our environment? The capitalist mode of production is a reduced form of modernity. Modernity, as explained by Descartes, Kant and others, involved taking a rational approach to life rather than blindly submitting to the Church’s mysticism. At the heart of modernity was the notion of taking responsibility and ownership of life and working for its betterment.

Capitalism is not a direct outcome of modernity in the literal sense. Instead, it is an outcome of modernity when it is put in the hands of the exploitative business class – the bourgeoisie. Capitalism has utilitarianism at its heart. Jeremy Bentham introduced utilitarianism as “greatest goods for the greatest number of people”. In other words, it has an ends-based approach that results in the idea that the ends justify the means.

The ends under materialist, modern capitalistic thinking are profits and utility maximisation. Therefore, at the hands of bourgeoisie, modernity and its rational materialist approach have been reduced to mere profits and wealth accumulation. This is an idea that often lack ethical rationality and control and therefore makes it a reduced form of modernity rather than total modernity.

It can be said that the reduction of modernity into utilitarian capitalism has been the primary cause of the crises of climate change. The most unfortunate part is that although those responsible for climate change and those facing its curse are both human, the ones who are responsible and the ones who are facing the consequences are not the same people. First, due to inter-generational consequences, the actions of existing generations harm the next generation’s life more than it harms their own. Second, intra-generational inequalities matter as well.

In the critique of the Anthropocene narrative, Malm and Hornborg argue that a small elite, rather than all humans, are in control of the world resources and are dominating and exploiting the rest. It is this elite that are responsible for the significant portion of the carbon emissions while the dominated classes are the ones who carry the burden of the consequences of climate change. Global statistics show that seven percent of the world’s rich are responsible for 50 percent of carbon emissions.

This is what explains why Pakistan stands at the 135th position in its carbon emissions but is at the seventh position on the global climate risk index. Even within Pakistan, if one looks at the floods of 2010 or earthquake of 2005, it was not the big industrialists who suffered. Instead, it was the poor working class who faced the music.

The water crisis in Pakistan also carries the same notion. Affluent classes can buy clean bottled water – which comes from the country’s groundwater for which the companies have paid negligible costs but are making billions in revenues. However, the poor continue to lack access to clean drinking water. As long as reductionist modernity in the form of utilitarianism-driven capitalism continues to prevail, the curse of climate change cannot be broken and the lower class majority of the world as well as Pakistan will continue to suffer.


The writer is pursuing an MPhil in development studies at Lahore School of Economics and works as a research associate at LUMS.

Email: [email protected]

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