Today marks the 50th year of the commemoration of Earth Day. Environmental activists vow that it will not just be a day but a movement. But in as much as we would want to manifest this human solidarity in a rally and mass gathering, we cannot – we are on our sixth week of a rather militaristic lockdown due to a pandemic.
50 years – a lot has changed in those years, the most significant of which is how people have come to pay tribute to Mother Earth.
I myself remember my own environmental awakening – it was bittersweet. At first there was this desire to commune with nature, which I soon realized to be in a critically degraded state. I shed off that romanticism and embraced the harsh reality that we have to do something about our planet.
The other week while on lockdown, our batch at Ayala Mountaineers (named after the avenue, the concrete jungle) created an FB group to reconnect. In a matter of days, we’ve been photo-dumping old memories of our climbs, of breathtaking ridges, rock walls, rampaging falls, crisscrossing rivers, and crowded summits.
Yes, crowded summits and campsites! You see, we are Batch ’92 – right on the year of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro when there was an upsurge in environmentalism.
Mountaineering club memberships have dwindled since then, not because the mountains and the great outdoors have stopped beckoning lovers, but because even our mountaineering has been put in a proper perspective.
I have learned a lot from activists. They raised the level of the discussion to sustainable development in Rio, forwarded the critique on the manner things were being governed, and vowed to reclaim our common future. Today, the general public have a far more profound appreciation of our planet, which has been expressed in vibrant struggles and social movements.
Profits over planet
Yet, undeniably, we are confronted with the worst ecological crisis. It took Rio another 20 years for governments and stakeholders to talk about more focused political reforms for sustainable development, and another three years to formulate such goals. Yet again, it has been five years since the sustainable development goals or SDGs, we are faced with what can be the worst pandemic, which undeniably has ecological roots.
Are we really this ignorant, ill-informed and lacking in science and technology to reach this precipice? No, it is the profit-motivated economic activities of few corporations and individuals that have vested interest in resisting the reforms that we want to be introduced.
And in the last 40 years, profit-seeking has been facilitated by neoliberalism. We have seen the unbridled utilization of ecosystems in the name of the market, in the name of profits. The systematic onslaught of neoliberal policies that liberalize foreign trade and investment has unfortunately occurred simultaneously with our so-called sustainable development discourse.
Neoliberalism has devastated our environment and impoverished our people, leading to our vulnerabilities to natural hazards and pandemics.
Scientists point to several environmental changes that have categorically caused the outbreaks of pandemics. For instance, forest clearing for other economic uses has disturbed the habitat of various species and unleashed various pathogens. The loss of ecological integrity reduces our chances for healthy living and capacities to cope with diseases, aside from having itself created new diseases and mutations.
The Philippines is a hotspot of all of these. Deforestation, land-use changes and coastal reclamation are being done to give way to real estate and infrastructure development, industrial plantations and corporate agriculture. Economic activities that undermine ecological integrity such as foreign large-scale mining and the use of coal for energy are being promoted and liberalized. The kind of urbanization the country has is more associated with poverty rather than human development, as displaced and poor rural folk flock to the cities for survival. The Philippines is also among the top five countries that are most vulnerable to climate risks and disasters.
The Philippine environment is critical, because government policies remain to be hopelessly neoliberal. The Duterte administration for instance is centered on the promotion of real estate, construction, infrastructure development, natural resource extraction, and privatization of the commons, to name a few of its unrepentant neoliberal policies.
COVID-19 is a health crisis as well as an environmental crisis – both only showing a crisis of the system that we have not yet resolved. This is why when we commemorate this day, we vow that indeed it is a movement. No matter how we put emphasis on the climb, the summit remains the most rewarding part. But as they say in mountaineering, there can always be several approaches to the summit – a gradual meandering ascent or a direct assault. Whichever we choose, as we commemorate this day, we definitely commit that it is going to be a view of a better future.