Sara Abraham

Pakistan’s weakened Left discourse over the last few decades has meant that numerous areas of social and ecological life, such as the life of women, or the natural environment, have fallen into the hands of well-heeled members of civil society.

When a couple of conservationists were recently asked for their perspective on environmental degradation in Pakistan, they were quite ecstatic with the current popularity of ecological ideas: from the conservation of species to the trending attention given to organic agriculture, the planting of trees, the quality of air, the saving of national parks such as Deosai, traditional foods, and so on. They felt that Pakistan was witnessing a renaissance of an ecological movement, and they cherished this change in mood having witnessed an impoverished discourse and sets of practices through their work in their field over the past decades.

What they failed to articulate, however, was an analysis of the continuing effect of the decades-long corporatization of agriculture, and the promotion of GM seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, extreme land inequalities, and widespread rural poverty. Nor did they comment on coal-fired thermal plants, industrial pollution, the rapid growth of motor vehicles at the expense of public transport, or the dependency of the state on handouts, consultants, and loans and other such structural ills, as more commonly listed by anti-capitalist observers when asked to explain what plagues the environment.        

But is it just a difference of perspective? Surely both approaches towards the natural environment can complement each other? This article attempts to discuss why this “conservationist or traditionalist approach” will not be able to withstand the much more powerful state discourse and practice of “green growth”, which is able to accommodate the interests of the conservationists while pushing a capitalist agenda for development. This agenda has proven time and time again to be deeply destructive to the natural environment. I characterize the green growth discourse as powerful, because erstwhile national institutions such as SDPI, PIDE and LEAD (flagship vehicles of research and policy making in the area of environment in Pakistan) are in complete concordance with a “green growth” market agenda. The current Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government, meanwhile, has staked its claim to a futuristic politics based on its green growth vision.

Sadly, even the more independent air pollution activists, who are willing to name coal-fired plants and industrial emissions as hotspots for the quality of air, do not go further than pushing for improved fuel quality and electric vehicles. These measures, even if fully embraced, fall squarely within the ambit of “green growth”.

What is “green growth” then, and why is it so insidious? Gareth Dale is one scholar who has tirelessly worked to unearth and expose the weak foundations of this discourse, and his work deserves exposure for a South Asian audience. He posits that the now very familiar idea of “sustainable development” was the ideological precursor to “green growth”. In its origins, the idea of sustainable development attempted to define an ecological limit to growth based on the overconsumption of resources, but by the end of its institutional usage about ten years ago, corporate and government bodies had completely emptied it of such necessary restraint. Dale wryly notes that by 2014, “Danish policy makers rationalized their latest Arctic land-and-sea grab in terms of their ability to ensure the region’s fossil-fuel reserves will be “developed sustainably.”

“Green growth has had more pernicious effects than the myth of sustainable development as it does not attempt to control capitalism, but rather tries to bring trading and the market right into the very heart of the economy.”

The term sustainable development was also twinned with neoliberal thinking and this morphed into a theory of green growth and the green economy. “Green growth” became the guiding theoretical framework for those who require that growth should not be curbed at all, and it also neatly fit with developing countries’ imperative to grow their economy to accommodate and feed their large populations. It has had more pernicious effects than the myth of sustainable development as it does not attempt to control capitalism, but rather tries to bring trading and the market right into the very heart of the economy.

The Economisation of “Green Growth”

The green growth framework concedes that “business is dependent on nature” and, as pronounced by the World Economic Forum, more than half the world’s total GDP has key, natural inputs. The OECD, in relation to the uses of green growth, deploys language reminiscent of the earlier mantra of bringing women into the workforce to gain maximum economic benefit  – “The focus of green growth strategies is ensuring that natural assets can deliver their full economic potential on a sustainable basis”. What does this all mean?

Gareth Dale explains that in the green economy discourse, three aspects stand out in comparison to its sustainable development predecessor. First, it stands for new methods of intervention in the environment, with nature reframed … as “a specific type of capital, which needs to be measured, conserved, produced, and even accumulated.” Nature as capital moves us beyond the language of “raw materials” or as passive inputs into production systems. It is indicative of how nature has been recast as “tradable ecosystem services” that are now abstracted away from natural ecosystems from where they originate. A classic example of this would be not just measuring the carbon footprint, but then, as in carbon trading schemes, being able to elevate these numbers into tradable goods. Dale insightfully compares this to how the slave trade not just commodified human beings, but abstracted labour power into a transferable entity. The violence and destruction fall away with these abstractions, which then turn into common sense understandings about such transactions.

The second aspect, Dale notes, is the common assertion that only market solutions and mechanisms can generate environmental sustainability. Economies and people understand markets, and it is important to be able to sell ideas, goods, and even the concept of sustainability, and in turn market signals will create efficiencies. That generating solar energy is now cheaper than oil is not just evidence of this claim but consolidates it. In this context,“going green” is an economic opportunity; its heroes are “sustainable entrepreneurs,” banks and corporations.” This is well-known from the other side of the debate as “green-washing” but what the accusation fails to note is that there is a set of economic arguments underlying the PR ploys, to which a whole of range of powerful actors subscribe.

“‘Going green’ is an economic opportunity; its heroes are ‘sustainable entrepreneurs’, banks and corporations”

Dale’s argument goes on to discuss semantics and symbols, but is no less powerful a glue for the “green growth” movement. As Dale explains, “growth” is global in scope and sounds solid. Green growth directly taps the accumulated symbolic capital of environmental movements, and being measurable in dollars, it resonates with an environmental discourse that has become increasingly “economised” in the neoliberal age. These three aspects of green growth help explain the rapid rise of this set of neoliberal ideas.

The adoption of the “green growth” framework by national governments of developing countries came on the heels of the co-optation of global environmental groups by their corporate sponsors, as has been described by Naomi Klein and others. Governments have been similarly co-opted. In 2005, at the Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in South Korea, 52 countries agreed to adopt green growth as their developmental framework.

South Korea itself led the way under its President, a former CEO of Hyundai Corporation. He rolled out a clean energy transport system and promised “green cities” as a model for the rest of the developing world. New Songdo City in South Korea became the ground zero for UN and other initiatives in the proliferation of Green projects worldwide, including the Green Climate Fund. I encourage readers to themselves turn to Gareth Dale’s vivid prose as he describes Korea’s intense push to put its money where its mouth was, and launch a Green New Deal, years before this became a slogan of the U.S. national elections. Let me here just reveal one of his punchlines: the Green New Deal in South Korea increased the use of “clean” nuclear energy to power it, and many of its projects ran into the ground.

Green Growth in Pakistan

“Green growth”, meanwhile, attached itself like a virus to the grids of other national governments, including Pakistan. In the Pakistani context, its key figure is Malik Amin Aslam Khan. He is the current Adviser to the Prime Minister on Climate Change and is also Vice President of the important global body, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Under Amin’s tutelage, before the elections in 2013, the PTI unveiled a unique Green Growth Vision. Amin himself chaired a Green Growth Initiative and the highly popular Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation Project in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The project was multi-faceted and aimed that, by 2018, KPK would expand its energy base by adding an additional 3000 to 4000 MW. According to the proposal, at least 80% of the province’s power generation would be based on clean renewable energy or hydro and solar energy so as to allow the province to reach “carbon neutrality.” No matter that it is 2020, millions of pounds continue to pour into KPK and the country from financiers who are concerned with the greening of Pakistan to keep the promise.

Yet, it appears that the rest of the country is not going to be so green and clean. The Sahiwal Coal plant in Punjab operates with coal imported from Indonesia and South Africa, and low-grade coal continues to be openly mined by the private sector in Sindh and in Balochistan. Journalists and researchers have written again and again about the destruction of the local ecosystem, the neglect of the constitutional rights, the life and livelihood of rural communities and workers in these mines, as well as the damaged water table. Meanwhile, waste treatment plants are continuously stymied, even in major cities, and chronic industrial pollution of air and water remains unchecked.

Coal mine collapse led to the death of 45 miners in Quetta in 2011. Despite its well known environmental hazards and dismal labour conditions, coal mining is still seen as a favourable source of energy in Pakistan, especially as the country looks for cheaper alternatives to imported fuel oil. Source: The Atlantic

The Green Growth Vision is also apparently fully compatible with the huge financial and trade commitments that subjugate vast areas of the Pakistani economy to China under CPEC. Many CPEC’s projects are energy-related, most of which are coal-based (including Sahiwal and Thar). Meanwhile, air pollution activists have come around to support the import or local production (it does not seem to matter which) of electric vehicles as one part of a two-pronged goal (the other being clean fuel). This is the case even when it is known that lithium, nickel, cobalt and copper mining in other parts of the world lead to egregious violations of communities’ lives and livelihoods. More importantly, electric vehicles never amount to substantially changing the major existing forms of transport in the country. Though many began to appreciate the need for public health infrastructure post-COVID, air pollution activists have still failed to document the need for a public transport infrastructure. The government, in that sense at least, is still ahead of the urban intelligentsia.

Most recently, the PTI government proudly launched a public works project to provide work in tree nurseries to tens of thousands of the COVID freshly unemployed. This is being called a “green stimulus” and is just the first step in a number of other laudable goals. But a couple of comparisons show that this does not entirely hold up to be a “green stimulus”. Let us look at the meaning of a green stimulus in the United States (from where this language is borrowed). It is about “mobilizing massive public funds – say, $2tn to start – in specific green investments to create high-quality jobs and improve the quality of life, especially in low-income communities, communities of color, and indigenous communities, which have suffered the most disinvestment and pollution in recent decades”. Equity and justice are built into the plan, and jobs are distinguished on being high and low quality. Let us also distinguish the MGNREGA “rural employment” Act which was passed in India under the UPA government  in 2005. This law, which was formulated by activists, guaranteed a legal entitlement of at least a 100 days of employment for each rural household in a year.  About 12 billion people benefited from it and it was widely hailed as a success, even as its scope was increasingly limited as its budget was cut over the years and shelved altogether by the current BJP-led government.

According to the Pakistani government, the PTI’s green stimulus package has created up to 84,000 jobs. However many critics see this project as unsustainable, and unable to provide meaningful full time employment to those it claims to assist. Source: Al Jazeera

The Pakistani Green Stimulus proposal has little interest in equity or high quality jobs. It has no interest to raise workers beyond their part-time, temporary, precarious and vulnerable status. Access to land for grazers was already sharply diminished with the claiming of land for Billion tree plantations. The idea of a strong, well-renumerated labour force to underwrite an economic revival is completely absent in this program.

“The Pakistani Green Stimulus proposal has little interest in equity or high quality jobs”

I do not want to be eternally pessimistic. I felt at the time that the conservationists had tapped into a deep hunger for an ethical and environmentally strong future. However, their vision was careful and selective. It did not address core causes of failure, and it seemed to profit from the new attention to green growth. Similarly, the idea of providing employment in the PTI stimulus proposal is indeed sound. At the same time, the devil will always be in the details. Is this a redirection of the budget or will it incur more loans? Will its budget be maintained as a permanent guarantee of employment (and across different political tenures)? Are these good jobs? Are the jobs distributed across caste and clan lines? And, why is it all directed towards forest production? Is it because powerful conservation interest groups agreed to “buy” Pakistan’s debt in exchange for greening the country? We simply don’t know, for we are not told. The local community has historically been the loser in these opaque deals, as Naomi Klein has noted.

Meanwhile, in terms of research, intellectual property rights, green patents, and other mechanisms of promoting a protected market economy are pushed as integral to advancing the green growth agenda. So, overall we have a repetition of the same patterns: of labour exploitation and community marginalization, commodification and marketization, loans, profit, and deals, but this time all under the banner of “green growth”.

The COVID-19 shutdown has revealed the extreme dependency of countries like Pakistan on global value chains of labour and raw materials which underpin its economy, and which, when dislodged, catapult tens of millions of people into hunger and destitution. The nation’s leadership itself is keenly aware of how the national debt to international finance companies has hamstrung the possibility of Pakistan charting an independent course of development for decades now.

But with its own very mixed track record and its base in extraction, corporate partners, market-based theory and global value chains, is “green growth” really an answer to all this? Isn’t green growth compatible only with a limited environmentalism, which is willfully blind to the human cost of relying on the market, privately accrued profit and climate change? Does it not gloss over Pakistan’s reliance on loans and imports, and is it not indifferent to the privatization of key public welfare institutions like public health and education?

“We need to fully break from an ideology that is premised on the extraction and commodification of the natural world and its inhabitants”

In response to these questions, I would say, very simply, that we need to fully break from an ideology that is premised on the extraction and commodification of the natural world and its inhabitants, and we need to re-centre the world in its natural rhythms. While the widespread use of renewable energy is a necessary step in this transition, as the debate on Michael Moore’s film Planet of the Humans made very clear, its implementation must limit its exacerbation of inequalities and violence. And if we need to rethink the commitment to “growth” in this process, so be it.  

Sara Abraham is a lawyer and researcher based in Lahore, Pakistan.
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