‘People’ are not the problem | Pakistan Today

‘People’ are not the problem

  • The onus is on the system, and the way it influences the individual

There are larger forces that we must address.

Consider any environmental protection campaign you’ve seen in the last couple of decades. Every one of the posters is aimed at the average man or woman, advising one – or even shaming one – into saving water, not wasting food, or doing anything else on a personal scale that might harm the environment.

It would be sinful not to bring up ‘Captain Planet’, one of our favourite superheroes; one that we sometimes wish would make a comeback in today’s age of mainstreamed geek culture. The evolution of Captain Planet and his five “Planeteers”, and their eventual disappearance, says much about the strategic shift taken by the world in terms of environmental protection. A typical episode would feature Gaya – the Earth Spirit – calling the Planeteers’ attention towards an environmental catastrophe being planned by one greedy corporation or another. In the cartoons, Captain Planet was never summoned to beat up some bloke who did not finish his plate of food and threw most of it away in the trash can; nor was he ever called to bicker with a housewife who left the kitchen faucet running. Captain Planet and his five Planeteers lived to resist environmental destruction being carried out on an industrial scale. At best, the message of minimising domestic use of water and electricity came as an afterthought – a short clip at the end of the episode about what you, the viewer, can do to help save the planet.

In the planet after the disappearance of ‘Captain Planet’, that afterthought has become the heart of environmental protection campaigning. Gone, is all mention of greedy corporations whose factories blacken the skies and tankers spill oil into our oceans. Now it’s all about you – a human individual. What’s standing between you and environmental apocalypse isn’t industrial or agricultural regulation, but the kind of car you drive. And if you’re feeling pressured, don’t be. Capitalism will help you save the planet by selling you all the tools you need in this honorable endeavor. Perhaps you need a special showerhead for $49.99 that changes color to let you know the amount of water you’re using; or maybe an electric car which uses the same electricity produced mostly in power plants that burn fossil fuels, but at least makes you feel less guilty.

While domestic waste is certainly worth addressing, it must never be allowed to take oxygen away from discussion on industrial de-regulation and the mass-destruction of environment that has followed. While residents of a planned Pindi suburb are being placed under a microscope to prevent littering or burning of trash, a nearby poultry farm dumps tons of animal waste into a canal, covering the neighbourhood in a dense, nearly unbearable stench of rotting innards. But nevermind that, Mrs Rashid, you just focus on recycling those three milk cartons you bought this week.

It’s not unreasonable to channel our moral outrage at a neighbuor who burns his trash and casually pollutes the air we breathe. It is, however, ludicrous to become so focused on petty, personal failures

When we speak of neoliberalism and its cancerous effects on our lives, we speak of a society’s slow but deliberate disintegration into ‘special’ individuals. We are taught, against all evidence to the contrary, that we are the masters of our own fate; when in fact, our lives are very much in control of our employers, our corporations, and our military or civilian oligarchs. Your ‘freedom’ to make minor personal decisions like which restaurant to order food from, or which color of lipstick to wear, does not make you the master of your own fate. A lot depends on economic, social, and political conditions over which you exercise little to no control.

In spite of this fact, blame is constantly being passed on to the individual for not doing enough in his or her ultra-limited capacity. You are encouraged to judge your neighbour for over-watering her lawn, and your neighbour is encouraged to despise you for driving a four-wheeler. We are tiny people being made to hate ourselves for our tiny sins, while the powerful continue to cause destruction at levels that our tiny individual brains cannot fathom.

There is much cynicism in mass media about humans irreparably damaging the environment. Which humans? Are we speaking of villagers who don’t own washing machines and have never used a plastic cup in their lives? Or are we speaking of supermarket-owning humans, who poison tons of unsold food with detergents, so the hungry homeless don’t scrounge through their garbage? Why do we speak of ‘humans’ as a homogenous mass, as if we have each inflicted the same amount of punishment to our planet?

It’s not unreasonable to channel our moral outrage at a neighbuor who burns his trash and casually pollutes the air we breathe. It is, however, ludicrous to become so focused on petty, personal failures that we have no breath left to condemn wanton environmental destruction by corporate and state giants.

Yes, we must act together to save the environment. That ‘act’ involves organising into politically active groups that not only distribute pamphlets on power-saving tips to their townsfolk, but demand industrial and commercial regulations to save the environment.

An individual did not push this planet on the precipice of environmental catastrophe, and an individual is not going to pull it back by buying a hybrid car. The onus is on the system, and the way it influences the individual.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat is a medical doctor from Rawalpindi and an ardent traveller who writes frequently about science, social politics and international relations.