By Jonah Fisher || Staff Writer
On Tuesday night last week, students gathered in the Stohr Auditorium in Stager to hear from three professors. Coming from wildly different perspectives (anthropology, geology, and economics), Professors Adeem Suhail, Zeshan Ismat, and Danish Khan attempted to tackle the severity of the crisis in Pakistan (still going on right now, even as our eyes turn towards Ukraine or Iran) and how the climate crisis will affect us all. In the hour and a half that I was in that auditorium, I believe I listened to one of the most powerful and catalyzing talks in my entire life.
At 7pm, Professor Suhail, an anthropology professor here, began with one of the most difficult tasks: finding a way for us at an American institution to conceptualize the sheer devastation occurring in Pakistan. As you may have heard before, 1/3 of the country is underwater (roughly the size of New England), 35 million people have been displaced, and 1500 people have died (with 1/3 of deaths amongst children). For even more perspective, the displacement of 35 million people would be as if the whole of New York City and Los Angeles were forced to move… 3 times over. Even then, that is still undershooting 35 million by about 2 million people.
Professor Suhail went on to discuss the devastation he saw on the ground. Yes, that is right, he was in Pakistan at the beginning of this wet season. Professor Suhail shared with us how he and his family, for the first time in his life, were building ditches around their property to improve water capacity and hopefully avoid flooding. He shared with us visions of cities flooding and the Pakistani government having to justify keeping helicopters on standby for rescues because the international community viewed saving human lives as an unnecessary expense. That leaving people to drown was economical. The most resounding quote from Professor Suhail, though, was during his discussion of what he saw. In trying to explain to students, especially US students who benefit from systemic and long-term climate injustice, the severity of the situation, Professor Suhail said “I have seen what the end of the world looks like.” I wish there was a way to truly capture that moment in words, especially in a way that could explain the ensuing sad silence that followed to students who did not attend the talk.
Professor Suhail finished his portion of the talk by discussing the term neocide, defined as “the intentional or ignorant killing of young people and future generations.” Under our current systems, demonstrated by the weighing of money and human lives, governments and those in power around the world make the conscious everyday decision to continue operating under consumption-based systems that endanger the lives of 7,750,000,000 billion people on Earth. For these reasons, Professor Suhail closed on the idea of changing our systems to radical humanism, the idea that each person in and of themselves are worth more than any resource we could ever generate.
Professor Ismat, the environmental studies professor at the talk, continued after these rousing ideas by seeking context to the current situation. The students here were incredibly lucky to have such a diversity of fields represented in a group of Pakistani professors, giving the talk all the more weight. Professor Ismat discussed the geography and geological circumstances that made this wet season so brutal, and how this is likely not a one-time scenario.
If you did not know, Pakistan is situated along the Indus Valley, what many people may know as the cradle of civilization. Historically, the Indus Valley and its civilizations rely on annual river flooding to support agriculture, making it one of the best areas in the world to grow. The Himalayas to the north bring rain water down the valley, and its glaciers (the largest concentration outside of the poles is in Pakistan) feed the massive river systems in Pakistan and surrounding countries.
All of these factors turned against Pakistan, though, when this season began. Before the rains even began, Pakistan faced massive heat waves, reaching wet bulb temperatures fatal to humans (wet bulb is a scenario where there is 100% humidity, fatalities begin at 95℉ as sweating no longer works to cool a person down). These heat waves made the entire region and its land dry out, making the rocks and desert less porous and leaving them unable to absorb water like normal. Then, thanks to La Niña, a cooling Pacific Ocean effect that has become more dramatic thanks to climate change, the air in Pakistan dramatically cooled at the beginning of the wet season. The water capacity of air is determined by the temperature of the air itself and, as it cools, capacity decreases, forcing the leftover water out the sky via rain. Putting it all together, this crisis in Pakistan can be explained through environmental factors exacerbated solely by the climate crisis. This crisis will lead to further drought and migration, forcing already displaced Pakistani people into regions and places which may be xenophobic to them. Climate change may seem like an environmental crisis, but it is a political and social one as well.
Professor Khan, the economist in the room, demonstrated this further when he took over the last part of the talk. Throughout his time, the Professor asked and answered two questions: How did we get here? And where can we go from here? As a professor of economics, his talk revolved around the ideas of industrialization, capitalism, inter-state competition, and reliance on fossil fuels.
He began in the 19th century where, for the first time in history, humanity began to switch from a “produce-for-consumption” system to a “produce-for-profit” system. It’s what we consider capitalism in the modern age. As other states adopted this ideology (one that crushed states that didn’t follow this idea) the West created a world steeped in competition where the winner takes all. But, in the fight for our very existence, there is no winner take all scenario. As we begin to feel the effects of the climate crisis, Professor Khan asked us to consider how these are also effects of the very systems upon which we rely. In a world focused on the infinite accumulation of capital, how can we move forward?
Professor Khan discussed two main barriers to our progress: inter-state competition and reliance on fossil fuels. If the entire world runs on the idea that having the most capital makes you the most powerful, the idea of competition cannot die until all systems replace this goal. But who would ever replace that goal when there are yet other countries that hold on to it? It’s the age-old conundrum that spells disaster for my generation and those that may yet come after us. And, even if we could start to replace this idea, our reliance on fossil fuels spells disaster once again. We need energy to make energy, and we cannot have a green future without the use of current systems. Yet, these systems hold on with all they have, exemplified best by the fossil fuel lobby here in the United States. Time and time again, the US and its companies have been warned of the coming crisis. You need only look up “Exxon Knew” to see what I’m talking about. There has been public testimony to Congress since 1988, and continued and consistent action for most of my life. Yet nothing is done.
Professor Khan ended by echoing the need to switch to a system that centers itself on radical humanism if we as a species and as a society wish to survive. None of us can make it by exploiting one another, and this world is all of ours. As many people have said before me, we only have one world. That is it. Our one chance. Can we afford to ignore the signs that become ever-more present in our news and our lived experiences?
If this made you depressed, worried about the future, or any adjacent emotion, I ask you to reach out to these professors or Professor Tim Bechtel in the ENE department. As he told us in class, he is looking to start an organization for students to meet and discuss what we might do going forward. You might be surprised by the impact you can make, and that impact is only amplified when you take action together with others.
Jonah Fisher is a freshman and a staff writer for The College Reporter. His email is: firstname.lastname@example.org.