Winter has finally arrived in Lahore, and we have dragged out our coats and proceeded to wear them indoors because whatever gas we had is now completely gone. We have also dusted off the nebulizer, the humidifier and the sachets of anti-allergy powders and potions that are now becoming an increasingly familiar sight in our households. Once nebulization was the thing only the severely asthmatic used to have to do when it was wheezing season; now nearly everyone has a handy little Panasonic number tucked away in the medicine cabinet. The most depressing thing is that most of the medication is for children.

It’s no coincidence that the quality of our air has been deteriorating steadily over the past few years. Even six or seven years ago it wasn’t half as bad—but that was because there were more trees in this city. It’s a very simple correlation, and to our detriment it is constantly brushed aside as another example of tree-hugging liberal nonsense. This is the third world, we’re told. You should see what it’s like in other provinces! Why are a few trees such a big deal when there are people without homes and medical care? That argument would of course be valid if the environment were being neglected by a government that was otherwise one hundred percent on top of housing and healthcare. I would even be able to say all right, chop down a tree if it means that all the children in my neighbourhood will be vaccinated for diphtheria. But it doesn’t. Trees are still going down, with dodgy promises to replant them or replace them with foolish ornamental shrubs or even more ridiculous palm trees, and in the meantime toddlers are coughing themselves sick.

It’s not just the trees either. As a community we are all utterly clueless about how to protect the environment or improve it, and neither do we give a toss. Completely lacking civic sense is bad enough on its own, but we are nearing the point of no return as far as the air we breathe is concerned, and that is a grievously dangerous situation. The levels of smog—fog mixed with dust, smoke and other pollutants—in Lahore continue to rise and nobody is taking any notice. Where are the regulations on factory emissions? What measures are being taken to reduce carbon emissions from vehicles? Does anyone who is in a position to effect any change even know what emissions are? I seriously doubt it, because if they did, then something would be happening to prevent Lahore turning into Delhi, where the air is, quite literally, toxic.

So here we are, with nary a recycling plant in sight, plastic shopping bags choking our gutters, sea, birds and marine life. The ground water in Kasur is so filthy from the toxins dumped into water channels from the leather tanneries that cancer has become practically endemic to the area. Let’s not even begin to think about the pesticides being used on our crops, the genetically modified seeds being used to grow our food, the quality of the water that comes out of our taps every morning when we brush our teeth. We’re all like Nero, fiddling while Rome burned, only this time we’re taking our car out to go down the road to a neighbour’s house. We’re asking for double shoppers at grocery stores instead of taking out own cloth bag, or plastic basket like our grandmothers used to take to the Itwar Bazaar. We feel so happy and modern as we drive down our super-wide streets, admiring the date palms and doing chee-chee at the ‘mess’ normal trees like a neem or gulmohar make. It’s just like Paris now!

Sure, Paris. Only any self-respecting Parisian would jump into the Seine before the provincial government decided to start making underpasses down the Champs-Elysées . There’s a reason why the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference, or the COP21, summit was held in Paris, not Lahore. But no. Only hippies make a big fuss about trees and stuffing all their groceries into two canvas bags so that they don’t need to use a plastic one. Only silly, over-educated hysterical people take baths from a bucket instead of a shower, or don’t ignore the leaky faucet outside the kitchen. Air and water are the basic, most fundamental elements needed for life on this earth. Once they’re gone, they will be gone forever. It might not happen in our lifetime but it could happen in our children’s. Are we really so blind and selfish that we don’t care what kind of life we are condemning them to? Are we really so foolish that we think we can afford to not know, to not find out more, to not take responsibility? That ignoring it means it will magically go away? This is an emergency, and the time to act is now. The government can spend billions of dollars on an amusement park, but all the kids will be at home because going out is making them sick. Children are being told not to play outside by doctors because that means they will breathe in too much polluted air and then spend all evening coughing. Think of your childhood, and compare. How great does a five lane expressway sound now?