Just when you thought things could not get worse, they do. It was not enough for the people of Pakistan to have to put up with incompetent leaders, venal politicians, poor governance, widespread poverty, increasing inequality, contempt for the rule of law, the absence of remotely adequate public infrastructure, declining standards of health and education, and rampant violence. No, on top of all of this, it is now the case that even the air in Pakistan cannot be breathed by tens of millions of its citizens. For the past two weeks Lahore, a city of almost 15 million people, has been enveloped by a thick shroud of smog containing levels of toxic particulate matter that far exceed global safety standards. The smog is not just limited to Lahore; it has spread out over much of Punjab, as well as a significant chunk of north-western India (including, most notably, Delhi), and currently shows no signs of abating at present.

There has been much debate over the causes of the smog and the measures that urgently need to be taken to mitigate its consequences at present and prevent its re-emergence in the future. Put simply, it appears to be the case that crop burning in Pakistani and Indian Punjab, coupled with a tremendous increase in vehicular traffic, the proliferation of power plants and factories burning fossil fuels, and the cutting down of trees amidst unbridled and unplanned urban expansion and ‘development’ is largely to blame for the crisis, which has evidently been brewing for some time. The solution to the problem requires addressing the myriad factors that have contributed to the development of the smog, and will require time, investment, and political commitment to the tasks of reducing fossil fuel consumption, engaging in more eco-friendly agricultural practices, and processes of urban development and economic growth that are more environmentally sensitive.

Of course, the prospects of this actually happening are predictably low. For its part, the government of Pakistan has demonstrated its usual insouciance towards the crisis, vacillating between either not addressing the problem at all in any meaningful way (as if ignoring it will simply make it go away) or, just as problematically, pulling out all the stops in blaming India for being solely responsible for contributing to the factors (particularly crop burning) that have created the smog (thereby absolving itself of any responsibility for dealing with it). Just as predictably, the people of Pakistan have been left with little choice but to fend for themselves, turning to prayer and the use of their own resources to somehow lessen the impact of the smog on their lives.

Independently of the more technical aspects of dealing with smog, there are two issues of concern that need to be addressed which also help to understand some of the more troubling contradictions at the heart of the Pakistani state and its relationship with its citizens. The first of these has to do with the inevitable contradictions that are generated by a market-led model of economic growth and development that is presided over by small economic elite. Over the past decade, the PML-N government in Punjab has made much of its vaunted commitment to infrastructural development, particularly in terms of investing heavily in the construction and maintenance of the province’s roads. This has been accompanied by the launch of several flagship public transport projects, such as the Metro buses in Lahore in Islamabad, and the yet to be completed Orange Line Train in Lahore. Yet, as many have pointed out over the years, the projects have long been driven by electoral, rather than public welfare, concerns; as visible and flashy symbols of ‘progress’, they arguably yield large electoral dividends. However, this has come at the cost of both the environment (particularly in terms of trees, which have been relentlessly cut down in the name of ‘progress’) as well as a deeper commitment to investing in more substantive forms of public transport which, if nothing else, could greatly reduce the amount of vehicular traffic on the roads of Punjab’s cities.

This point – a lack of interest in developing public transport – is arguably tied to the pursuit of a model of development that privileges elite consumption – symbolized here by the use of cars – over other considerations. After all, despite their proliferation over the past decade, cars remain a luxury in Pakistan, used by a relatively small percentage of the population, and yet the obsession with developing roads, without corresponding investments in public transport that could feasibly replace private vehicles, ultimately ends up promoting the interests of the few over the many. A similar phenomenon is at work with regards to the overall narrative surrounding development in Pakistan, which welcomes unbridled elite consumption – evinced by the mushrooming of malls and the rising popularity of, for example, bottled drinking water – as a maker of progress regardless of the waste and environmental degradation associated with such practices. What is required, not just in Pakistan but around the world, is a broader recognition of how perpetual ‘growth’ and consumption are simply unsustainable, and that there needs to be an emphasis on moving towards lifestyles less consumed by the pursuit, possession, and use of unnecessary things.

The second issue that merits consideration is the way in which citizens, by attempting to alleviate the effects of smog on their own, continue to demonstrate how the logic of governance in Pakistan is one that is increasingly shifting towards a model that promotes the privatization of everything. In a context where the incompetence and inefficiency of the state are well known, it is increasingly the case that fewer and fewer citizens look to it to discharge its responsibilities, resigned instead to dealing with questions of public policy and welfare through private means. Just as has been the case with the power crisis, which citizens who could afford it dealt with through the use of generators and UPS devices, the problem of smog is currently being addressed by the purchase of expensive masks and even more expensive air purifiers. Those who can afford these measures go ahead and do so, while the vast majority continue to suffer in silence. All the while, the state maintains its indifference, secure in the knowledge that demands for better governance will remain muted from those whose own wealth and power insulates them from the effects of its absence, and from a silent majority that remains politically fragmented and disorganized. ‘Let them breathe cake’ appears to be the attitude adopted by the powers-that-be. It remains to be seen if there will be the kind of urgently needed revolutionary upheaval that could change the status quo.