When Western corporations outsource the brunt of their production to the global South, they are a part of an international system deepening environmental racism. This manifests through the placing of hazardous factories, power plants and other forms of unwelcome urban decay near marginalized communities — all of which contribute to the contamination of local air and water supplies. Intricate supply chains reinforce this Western colonization of the atmosphere, with transnational corporations deploying the strain of industrial agriculture to global South nations like Pakistan. There, workers endure hazardous environmental conditions and unfairly low wages while only making the richest Western corporations richer.
“This has been happening for a very long time,” says environmental activist Ayisha Siddiqa, 21. Ayisha is the co-founder of Polluters Out, a global coalition unifying youth leaders, environmental activists and scientists to call for a divestment from polluting enterprises. As we greet each other for the first time, Ayisha recounts her family history, beginning with her grandmother, who grew up in an especially impoverished region in Pakistan. Ayisha’s grandmother developed polio and gradually lost control over her limbs due to her lack of access to clean water.
“Environmental racism isn’t just this abstract concept to me,” says Ayisha. “It is tied directly to the destruction of people who look like us, who perhaps speak the same language as us and have the same religion as us… For me, it is beyond just ecology and the trees and animals dying. It is about white supremacy slowly killing humanity.”
While environmental racism comes in many forms, we see the adverse effects of textile production specifically in Pakistan. Pakistan produces a significant amount of the world’s cotton, synthetic fiber, filament yarn, art silk, wool and more. As the 7th largest exporter of the world’s textiles, its textiles are high in trade demand. This seemingly innocuous fact details a darker narrative of environmental racism that disproportionately fuels air, water, land and noise pollution within the country.
The air pollution comes in the form of dense spinning facilities littered with flies, dust and unfiltered particles, often in hot factories with poor ventilation. Frequent exposure to cotton dust has been linked to increased health defects for the local workers, causing shortness of breath and more permanent lung obstruction — but it doesn’t end there.
As cotton absorbs hazardous — often carcinogenic — pesticides during its cultivation, the chemicals trickle back into the land, depleting the soil and contaminating nearby water supply. Textile production contributes to one-fifth of the world’s industrial water pollution. In addition to utilizing unsafe chemicals that detrimentally affect local water supply, the high use of water in textile production further accelerates water scarcity within the country. This means less clean water for future use. It also means increased dehydration and sickness.
Pakistan’s increasing health crisis reveals that environmental justice is a socioeconomic issue just as much as it is an environmental one. The close dependence of Pakistan’s poor on agricultural labor makes them especially susceptible to the detrimental health impacts of pollution. The Western exploitation of the nation’s land for large scale textile production outsources the burden of environmental degradation to its soil, accelerating crises within the country.
At the same time, torrential rain, cloud bursts, flash floods and sea intrusion are displacing thousands in Pakistan’s Indus Delta.
“Almost 40% of our people are expected to face drought or another form of natural disaster,” Ayisha adds. “In just the last two years alone, there have been hundreds of thousands of refugees due to the climate crisis. And my family lives next to the Chenab River in Punjab, where our water source and our access to rivers has either been polluted or limited […] If you eliminate all of the biodiversity and allocate all of the land to fulfill the consumption needs of the West — and the United States in pertinent — then there comes a time when the land becomes unable to produce nutrients. You have difficulty growing crops. We have crop shortages all over the country.”
This is the greater catastrophe, already unfolding in Pakistan. It is a catastrophe that must be subverted with collective action, for we do not need the sun to devour our planet whole to see that we are at the risk of a potential extinction.
“I don’t think as a collective we’ve really come to understand what the extinction of mankind means,” Ayisha says. “It is the extinction of everything since the dawn of humanity. Every little poem that somebody has written to a painting that somebody drew to the things that are in museums to the monuments that we built. It’s going to come to an end because there will be nobody to observe them, there will be nobody to talk about them…there will be nobody to love them. And when you grasp that, it’s more than a huge loss. It’s more than just a deliberate genocide.”
So immersed in our lived experiences, the possibility of this self-inflicted genocide may elude us. We understand extinction only as an intellectual concept, failing to consider the true implications of our nonbeing. Even at the face of an imminent climate catastrophe, we have not yet grasped that it isn’t just our own lives, but our entire species that may cease to be. The urgency of the climate crisis is that this may very well be our reality. Unless we rapidly transform ourselves, what awaits us is continued disintegration until nothing remains but the invisible legacy of beings foolishly convinced of their invincibility.
Is this the legacy we wish to leave behind — the legacy of ignorance and desecration? It is time to reconsider. It is time to construct economies of care. It is time to cultivate a relationship with the natural world that isn’t embedded in exploitation. The alternative is extinction.