Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you is worth saving

Then you’d better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times, they are a-changin’.


7107 is a very important number to Filipinos. It represents the fragments of a whole – the bits that, when put together, form a country and a people. 7107 is the number that gives life and livelihood to 90 million Filipinos: it is the number of islands in the Philippine archipelago.

It’s a number that, thanks to rampant environmental abuse, may need to be revised in the not-so-distant future.

El Nido, Palawan

As an American who has known the same number of states his entire life, the prospect of losing one seems bizarre – even the states which I don’t like to publicly admit are actually such. (“Oh, Texas,” I tell Filipinos, “That’s still part of Mexico.”) But if one dropped off like a gangrenous toe, we Americans would still have plenty of space to dump the refugees. Filipinos have no such luxury.

Living on islands has made me realize the real urgency of the environmental crisis. I live in Iloilo, a low province. If ocean levels rise a meter or two from melting polar ice and warming-and-expanding seawater, I don’t know that my town, which is miles inland now, will still be above the waves. And the Philippines does not have room for expansion: they’ve got almost a third of the American population in an area the size of one of our bigger states (and not Alaska or Texas, either).

It’s popular to blame global warming on large industrialized nations – Russia, increasingly China, and especially the US. It’s a trend which is, depressingly, apropos of the recent past. The Philippines of course has its own environmental sins – and they are, relative to the nation’s diminutive size and global stature, fairly massive. Stewardship of the earth here is, to blatantly generalize, a joke.

Manila Bay

The sad fact is that the citizens of the Philippines, aided admittedly by centuries of exploitation by outsiders, are ruining their own home in many ways, and that sucks: a beautiful country is being drowned in garbage and choked in smog. But the US and Russia and China, among others, are ruining other people’s nations as well, and that’s downright un-neighborly.

“Green living” is becoming mainstream, and on an individual level that is a wonderful thing… but it will only go so far. The world needs institutional change now. It needs the powers that be to stop using an imagined, manufactured “uncertainty” about global warming as a hedge against endangering their own interests. It needs countries to act: to recognize that without sweeping changes, the future earth will not be the world we know. It will not necessarily be a good place for humans.

The situation is deadly serious. The excesses of a few nations worldwide are literally drowning their little cousins: the Philippines, the Maldives and other island chains are at risk of losing major amounts of land, in the best case, and disappearing altogether in the worst.

It’s difficult to imagine, because in our post-MAD world nations don’t disappear like a magician’s dove. What could possibly result in the complete loss – as in the outright destruction - of a country?

In 2005, I flew out to California for my sophomore year at Pepperdine only a day or two before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I stayed up late every night, anxiously reading any news I could find online about the hurricane. One thing spooked me more than anything else: an alert advising people to abandon ship at once, because in the aftermath of such a powerful storm – sans power, water, medical care, and everything else we generally consider necessary these days, like designer clothing and espresso-based specialty beverages – conditions would “make human suffering incredible by modern standards.”

Bay St. Louis, MS

That’s a bold pronouncement to make, especially by NOAA. But they made it. And Katrina didn’t turn out to be the end of New Orleans, but during those long hours while the levees fell and bodies swirled in the filthy eddies, I remember reading apocalyptic predictions that New Orleans would become the first major urban area in the United States to be destroyed – and utterly unrecoverable.

The New Orleans metropolitan area has fewer than two million people. When Katrina hit, there was fear, and hysteria, and outrage when people who could have been saved weren’t saved.

Where is the fear now, and the hysteria? Where, especially, is the outrage? In just a few days will begin the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, where a successor-treaty to the Kyoto Protocol will begin to be formulated. But who or what will speak there? Corporations and their politicians? The deep pockets stuffed with dollars, yuan, rupees and euros? What about the voices of the more than four billion people who don’t live in China or the US or Russia – or the hundreds of millions living in those three countries whose own voices are drowned out in the relentless cacophony of clattering machines and shouting traders, the high-pitched shriek of Progress at Any Cost?

Progress indeed: the progression of gases into the skies and metal and plastic into dying forests. And the progression of the sea to recover what it once owned fully. Since we obviously cannot take care of our land, the ocean will take it back.

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