The intersection of environment and class


How the environment impacts the lower-income strata

A healthy environment is a basic right of a society’s inhabitants, a right affirmed by the Rio Declaration (UN, 1992). Yet environmental risks are unevenly distributed within and between societies, and these risks affect different populations in unique ways. Inequities in risk exposure, risk reduction and risk compensation are crucial elements in contemporary management issues. While our governments and institutionalised authorities often dismiss environmental issues as secondary problems in the face of growing terrorism, rising poverty and a massive energy crisis, the environment affects us more broadly than we give it credit for. Environmentalism is not just about protecting trees, having greener spaces and wildlife conservation, rather an unhealthy environment is intrinsically linked to class structure, poverty and economic development. In recent years, proponents of environmental justice have highlighted that low income communities and communities that are traditionally marginalised bear a disproportionate burden of the nation’s pollution problems.

The currently living generations have inherited and are sustaining a very unbalanced distribution of benefits and burdens in the local ecosystem as a result of deliberate human policy choices. Those policy choices have shaped our institutions and systematically affect the way we treat the Earth and the ecosystem we belong to. Powerful systems of industrial energy generation, industrial textile and food production and mass transportation cumulatively poison natural systems and threaten environmental justice. For example, mechanised agriculture and lack of proper waste management facilities significantly contribute to the toxicity of our freshwater supplies, injecting them with toxic chemicals and additives and causing soil erosion, salinity of soils and greenhouse gas inventories. Beyond the environmental footprint and trajectory of food production, the people who work in this industry face the greatest burden of exposure to toxins including the cumulative effects of long term, multiple exposures of workers and their families both in the factories and the fields. Furthermore, nearby communities are also at a risk, especially as they depend on natural produce as a food source and there is a severe lack of basic facilities such as proper sewage in such areas.

While the agriculturalists and industry owners shift their opportunity cost onto others and relish in luxury, it is the poor who bear the brunt of the hazardous by-products of their industries. Living in a less developed country with a low GDP and which is facing problems such as unemployment and labour exploitation, the lower income class has a marginally lower immunity to environmental hazards as compared to the rich. For example, take the water supply system that is rigged with pollution; the majority of people do not have the resources to access mineral water or filters, hence they put themselves at risk in their quest to survive as the authorities and careless industrialists leave them with no option. The government freely hands permits to factories in areas that are traditionally occupied by low-income families and by extension plays a role in their lowered standard of living. The socially marginalised groups such as stay-at-home mothers and children suffer the most as they receive none of the benefits yet face all the opportunity costs.

Pakistan dedicates a substantial amount of its Gross Domestic Product to healthcare without realising that a number of health problems can be curbed by addressing its environmental issues and ensuring proper waste management. As with many other things in our country, there is no dearth of environmental laws — the implantation bit is where we lag behind. To the privileged class, a dirty canal is just that, an unpleasant sight; however, a number of children from low-income families, struggling to find recreation, use these canals as swimming pools, making themselves vulnerable to a variety of diseases, some even fatal. Is it right for us to reprimand them? Certainly not. It is the responsibility of the respective ministry and the local governments to ensure that public areas are kept clean and environmentally friendly. In the long run, a number of health problems can be avoided just through better waste management.

The road ahead will not be easy with the globalisation of industrial solidarity and capitalism, and new conservative political climate giving corporate polluters the upper hand. In this process, we must keep in mind that the common-sense knowledge about environmental equity, conflict resolution, fair-share allocation, negotiated settlement, and the other blandishments of the reform effort tend to support the status quo, where officially sanctioned knowledge in a class-stratified society serves vested interests. Our goal then is to document and support an alternative base of knowledge among the lived experience of oppressed people residing and working among the toxic contamination of industrial society. If we settle for liberal procedural and distributional equity, relying upon negotiation, mitigation, and fair-share allocation to address some sort of “disproportional” impact, we merely perpetuate the current production system that by its very structure is discriminatory and non-sustainable.

The writer is a staff member of Pakistan Today and holds a degree from Mount Holyoke College.


  1. there should also be a number of solutions regarding all the above mentioned environment problems. Merely diagnosing the problems is one part but correctly and proposing solutions is another. the later part is substantially missing.

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