Earth Day. What does it mean? To the rest of the world, it is a celebration of the Earth’s biodiversity and its resources, and the urgent need to protect it. To an average Pakistani, however, it is just another day to etch out survival. But more on environment-antagonistic survival later, other things must come first.
First, let’s travel all the way back to 1970, to when the Earth Day was first celebrated. When the date April 22nd was set for the first celebrations of the day, it coincidentally fell on the same date as Vladimir Lenin’s 100th birth anniversary. Ever since, capitalist fundamentals have looked upon the day as a perverse way of making the world celebrate Lenin’s birthday.
Across the ocean in the land of opportunity, Nebraskans already argue the importance of the Earth Day when they already have their very own local Arbor Day. Across a broader horizon, through the rest of the world, the Earth Day is viewed as a one-off day of pretended social responsibility by big corporations eager to put a green spin to their wanton rape of the environment, all while putting a good show for the world to see. The idea that this might just be a token gesture to assuage the guilt that comes with rape does not even enter public consideration. For this section of society, the Earth Day is just another holiday celebrated in the same vain vein as the Valentine’s Day.
With the theme for this year’s Earth Day being ‘Mobilize the Earth’, we already find the world divided into groups and factions over a celebration meant to be as innocent as celebrating the Earth. And these divisions don’t just comprise of the conspiracy theorists, pessimists or those disparaging the Earth Day in favour of well-meant patriotism. These divisions also comprise those who don’t know any better, and also those who cannot afford celebrating the day – because their survival depends on it.
This is where Pakistan’s story comes out of obscurity and into view.
For the average Pakistani living in the slums of its capital or any other national metropolis, and also for those living on higher altitudes, there are no basic amenities of life or utilities like electricity or gas. What they do have, however, is firewood. And they are not going to let their children go hungry by not stripping the land of its wood for one day in celebration of a day they have never heard of.
The taxi drivers, too, driving their 40 year old cabs across the country’s cities without international carbon emission compliance have no knowledge of what it is. However, what they do know is that they too are unwilling to let their children go hungry by not pulling their cabs out of the garage for a day in celebration of an event that they will hear about only in the 9 O’ Clock news.
The subsistence farmers, who need to grow enough each year to feed not only their own families but also enough to sell and earn a year’s keep with one crop’s worth, also have no other option but to keep forcing chemical fertilisers and pesticides down their land year after year without letting it lie fallow. The fact that this chemical build up eventually finds exit only as effluent in drinking water is a different matter entirely, and need not be discussed here.
It isn’t a matter of choice here; they do what they do because they have to. Not celebrating the Earth Day isn’t choice for these people – this, while reminding that the Earth Day derives its pedigree from the “grassroots level”. Yet, the only people who can afford celebrating the day are the rich in the country. The irony of analogy shouldn’t be lost: Only the rich countries can afford to ‘truly’ celebrate the Earth Day in spirit. The poorer countries, like ours, cannot.
Where cynics in the first world countries dismiss the Earth Day as just another commercial holiday, even genuine believers in the third world are forced dismiss it as just another ‘make-believe’ day like the Women’s or World Water Day. I.e. a day full of rhetoric with no substance coming out of it, meant to be celebrated only by the affluent: A fine first rate failure of globalization if there ever was, and an even finer example of segregation between the rich and the poor, both at the global and the personal level.
Though, this isn’t to say that it absolves those of us living in less privileged parts of the world of responsibility towards the environment, and, following from that, towards the Earth Day. It just means that those of us living here have become desensitized towards our environment simply by virtue of necessity. This is something that history has seen happen time and again, with the first settlers in the United States, Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and then their War Efforts.
So while we repeat the misfortunes committed by those in the past who are supposed to set an example for us today, we still need reparation on our own fronts. Pakistan needs policies framed urgently, addressing its waste disposal system, its water storage system, and to sort out the increasing ground salinity – a serious economic concern. The government also needs comprehensive frameworks addressing the increasing deforestation, and to conserve our environment. And what we also need is to understand the consequences of our own actions, and to make due corrections after this realisation hits home. But it won’t happen overnight, it might not even happen in the next several decades, by when it will have been too late. Meaning simply that responsibility is important, but only when you can afford it, and afford survival – together.