Monday, October 5, 2009

How to give God a hard time

1. Ketsana

IN the immediate aftermath of the flash flood wrought by typhoon Ondoy (Ketsana), Metropolitan Manila Development Authority chairman Bayani Fernando had the media-perceived strategic gumption to pin the blame on everyone, including himself. His take was wisely leveled against himself primarily—for failing to convince developers and "informal settlers" (squatters) to get out of the waterways and relocate in what he deemed a necessary move for his department's flood control mission to work. Unwittingly, or so he made it appear, he had actually backhandedly leveled the primary blame on these very developers (who had acquired permits to build real estate subdivisions on wetlands from the government). Fernando also implied these projects' having in turn bred squatter zones at the subdivision's sides as parallel developments in their own right, with these squatter developments often starting as a few construction workers' shacks cropping up during the construction of the subdivisions. It was as if Fernando was saying, I know how to work this, but the government that I work for doesn't have the intelligence to address the problems and solutions that I see.

     The subdivisions and squatters Fernando was referring to were those placed right smack in the middle of erstwhile esteros or waterways (natural and man-made), incursions he says he had always known to prevent the unobstructed flow of such flashflood water as what poured from the mountains of Luzon's Sierra Madre on the night of September 26. To his credit, Fernando did mention in passing the logging in those mountains (which have also acquired permits, legal and not; the legal from the government and the illegal from the protection of corrupt government people that Fernando is either working for or with). In short, while Fernando is the kind of disciplinarian that believes there is no society that disciplines itself, this time he points his finger at our lack of self-discipline, as party to the blame, otherwise—by subtle implication—to the lack of intellectual discipline in the government that he works for or discipline among the corrupted government officials he works with.
     The populace, meanwhile, looked somewhere else. Many pointed to the dams of La Mesa, Angat and Ipo as the culprits in the flashfloods that visited Quezon City, Marikina City, Pateros, the Pasig River-side parts of Makati City and many towns of Bulacan province. And although Angat Dam was quick to deny having released water of such catastrophic volume, it released two meters of water a day after the flood to prevent "a similar occurrence" in case the anticipated new typhoon Pepeng (Parma)—expected landfall, October 3 or 4—brought in a similar mass of rain cloud cover.
     Then there were the government-controlled channels. National Broadcasting Network Channel 4, RPN 9 and IBC 13 kept on harping on typhoon Ondoy's rain cloud cover as a manifestation of nothing but climate change, the sole gist of their lip service being that everyone should be informed of these effects and—by implication—should henceforth participate in the fight to turn back the climate change momentum. Putting aside the absence of other factors that could have minimized the scale of the catastrophe, the message was noble. Except that this was being pushed even as the very same government the channels were paying lip service for have also been sparing no effort to advertise the nation's need to add more coal power plants to the national energy grid as well as to further the fossil fuel industry in Palawan, all this side by side nothing in the direction of a renewable energy program apart perhaps from a desire to resuscitate a nuclear power plant near a rising sea level.
     Now, all of the above dams do merit mention as real culprits. However, it eludes the imagination of Fernando—a presidential or vice-presidential aspirant for the 2010 elections—as it does the government channels' climate-change lip-service spinners to examine the root of the evils they so readily point their fingers at. Failing to do so brings us back to the habit of stoning criminals whose crimes may have been nurtured by the very systems we have for so long accepted as natural and defensible.

LET us start with climate change.
     It is now common wisdom that climate change was processed by two things: industry and consumption. But, putting aside the fact that the conservatives of the world are denying it ever exists or that industry and consumption have nothing to do with it, it's still a common belief that's been taken for granted. Here's looking at it again:
     The majority of economic planners agree that a good economy is propelled by consumption which in turn oils the machines of production. The vicious cycle is not declared vicious at all but is in fact regarded as the very stuff that makes the world go round, the absence of which could stop the planet or threaten the momentum of its orbit around the sun. Likened to nationalist-cum-protectionist economics that defies globalization, holistic economics of austerity teaching "buying only what's necessary," along with other like-minded Thoreau-esque libertarian economic utopias, are seen as either too Middle Ages-y or New Age-y, thus anti-industry, anti-trade, anti-production, and in the long run anti-consumer, too. As if anti-consumerism is equal to anti-consumer. Yet the economics of the vicious cycle is the very economics that churns out more private cars for space-poor roadways, more fossil fuel barrels, more styrofoam on the fastfood table, more plastic bags in kitchens and the garbage bins, and so on. It is this very economics that, while encouraging some governments to look for alternative energy, also cannot argue against overproduction's (surplus production's) imposing its philosophy on the advertising industry to promote further consumption, being itself a product of such a philosophy. And the machine wheels of consumption-driven economics have been turning faster and faster since the Industrial Revolution, a philosophy no different from the Catholic Church's mission to increase and multiply the population in its orphanages.
     But the economics that manufactured—is continuing to manufacture—climate change is not the sole social science at odds with its prayers for a better natural environment. There is also the long-standing (since the beginning of time) human proclivity to create population centers.

SINCE the beginning of time, the human propensity to centralize further and further all aspects of societal living has spiraled ever faster as well. Sucking everything center-wards like a whirlpool, as a matter of course, cities created the metropolis that created the cosmopolitan megalopolis, and around these the suburbs and "urban fringes" or "surrounding provinces" as their unofficial extensions that make up what is now known as the urban agglomeration. We know megalopolises as those composites having overly-populated towns and cities within its embrace and "on its outskirts."
     Apart from being the facilitator of cultural exchanges, our center-moving proclivity has proven itself to be healthy fodder for industries, the very reason why it has survived urban citizens' impatience with their daily urban struggles. As long as a citizen has for himself an industry, it makes no sense to remove himself from the more populated areas of the world where the bigger market is. And the industries that have blossomed out since the time of Eridu, Uruk and Ur have become so various and sophisticated.
     In our time, suburbs have proposed semi-private short-distance railway systems for the transportation industry. And, undoubtedly, the megalopolis has saved a lot of money for the manufacturing industry, an industry wont to gather around a port-of-call center, thereafter mapping a spider web of delivery routes for its trucks, ships, or air cargo expenses; the nearer a population is to the point of manufacture, the lower the shipping cost. And where's the biggest market? Almost always it's in the megalopolis, the point of manufacture.
     Industries also benefit from the population center's populace of strugglers in competition. Seeing these strugglers as denied of the comforts of provincial contentment, city industries can haggle with the cost of their labor.
     Other industries, such as government profit-making ones, have also invented projects that grew from metropolitan necessities. One of these products is … the dam. When there are millions and humongous industries to be fed water and provided electricity, there is the industry to be made in the supply of that water and the harnessing of electricity from the pressure in the dam structures. It is even possible for the control of dam sites to lead to another industry altogether—the control of the forests near a watershed or mountain lake can be managed to harness forest farming activities better known as "logging concessions."
     In short, the economics of agribusiness and manufacturing or creating domino effects of consumption has a lot in common with the sociology of spiraling inwards towards a population center. The two long-standing concepts have been feeding each other since the time of Alulim. The economist Paul Krugman has amply demonstrated this further in his theory on economies of scale which, combined with lower transport costs, create processes whereby "regions become divided into a high-technology urbanized core and a less developed 'periphery'." It was for these "discoveries" that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2008.
     Now, of course this partnership between the sociology of upward and inward mobility was seen as an ideal for Thackeray's London, and continue to be for a progressive European Union or an ever-expanding Metro Manila. But not anymore if we're to stop blabbering about geographic inequities (e.g. Manilacentrism), or—now—about turning back climate change to previous ideal levels and conditions. This dual mobility should be okay if we're not constantly gabbing about minimizing casualties from either "acts of God," man-made catastrophes (such as dam breakage and explosions or oil-depot-within-a-city accidents), or urban epidemics.

IS it possible to create a new millennium that would reverse the above human proclivity, towards real decentralization? In the age of the Internet and a "global community," in the age of Skype conferences and Facebook bulletins, is it possible?
     Let us consider examples from the present.
     A California ad agency operates an office center rarely visited by its employees, most of whom meet each other and clients everyday via the Internet. Another ad agency, based in Portland, Oregon proves that it is possible to be one of the country's leading creative shops without locating its offices in Manhattan. More recently, not a few companies all over the world have realized that it is possible to base its customer service call center in Manila or Bombay, its main factory in Shenzhen, and its main office somewhere in London's outskirts. So, why not a Makati office with departments scattered all over the Philippines? Why this supposedly-obsolete habit of creating more business centers, terrorist-friendly shopping centers, factory rows beside a river ditch, or flood-prone university belts? Why transport thousands of employees each day to the Makati financial district and Ortigas Center, with a lot of these workers waking up as early as 4:00 a.m. to be able to reach office (through traffic and the Metro Rail Transit's skin-to-sweating-skin horde) by nine, when work and efficiency can be achieved otherwise, without the obsolete bundy clock's standard of measure? If the aborted NBN-ZTE broadband project of Gloria Arroyo had to have a believable philosophy behind it that might have convinced all senators, it could have been this: that a company (private or government) need not operate its departments from around the esteros/arroyos/waterways of Pandacan alone.
     But what would be gained from such a scheme? What would be lost? Decongesting megalopolises to create a scattering of mini-cities—at best a scattering of mere towns—may have to do away with the necessity of building new metropolis-bound elevated roads, for instance, or the necessity of humongous dams. Or if giant dams have to remain, it would be easier to manage the towns below the dam's spillways considering that these would be mere small towns and not an unmanageable, irreversible mini-metropolis growth like eastern Bulacan. At present, should a 7.5 earthquake hit Angat Dam and crack it, the casualty toll within the province from the flashflood will be in the hundreds of thousands.
     What would be gained? For every loss is a corresponding gain, goes some common belief, and so with the loss of manufacturing centers and a corresponding dispersal of operations there shall be created a redistribution of employment opportunities. There shall result a de-saturation of land, nay, properties' liberation from the former distinction cutting between industrial hectares and agricultural ones; a farm can now be seen beside an LCD TV factory, and—besides—factories getting dispersed thus would be easier for the populace to monitor for abuses including lack of water treatment facilities and other pollution law offenses. It would also be hard for factories to recruit and import cheap non-unionized labor from the provinces since the concept of a "province" would already have been passé. The concept of urban and rural would have gone away, since everywhere would be urban as well as rural.
     As for the benefits of de-saturating the country's city areas, it must be noted here that not a few flood victims inhabiting unlivable areas of Metro Manila or its outskirts who got interviewed on TV in the aftermath of the typhoon Ondoy calamity had provincial twangs or accents. It was not hard to imagine or directly hear Tagalog viewers commenting like Nazis that very day: "go back to your provinces, don't squat in the city's idle lands and you’ll be spared from another typhoon Ondoy." This city-bred view, of course, would be coming from a lack of an understanding of the whole complex system that encourages such migrations (or, in some cases, such subtle importations) of cheap labor and, oh yes, electorate votes [my churchworker friend M- was quick to remind me—see his comment below]. The assumption of those voicings is that life in the provinces is so okay, that there's much idle or development or converted land by, say, a senator or pretty famous billionaire where the provincials could still plant sweet potato on for their daily meals. These Nazi-like critics should try, along with their professional practice, living in the provinces today.
     Sure, it is high time we create revolutions and reverse man's city-prone movement hand in hand with his reversing his habit of creating environmental decline. But it would not be as easy and simple as the government's present Balik-Probinsiya placebo program thinks it is. Such a program must guarantee relative non-returns to points of congestion. Therefore, the dispersal must happen naturally; that is to say, not through a Maoist conscription of individuals transported to new points for acculturation but by the sowing of investments that will lead the way out of Egypt, coupled with a comprehensive environmental management plan as well as a sound population control policy. I am not talking about federalism, but simply about giving everyone an elbow room and about discouraging everyone from congregating in special points of concentration. I'm talking about scattering the prey to scatter the predation.
     Nor am I talking about the annihilation of city culture, as the cities will simply be pushed outwards while the rural areas are being pushed inwards to meet the cities halfway. Nor should I be talking, as per my friend economist P-'s advise, about urbanizing all the squares in the archipelagic map to create another Los Angeles-like sprawl. I am talking about spreading the population in the archipelago while controlling the population so it wouldn't turn the new territories into metropolises themselves. I may even be talking about everyone being required to plant subsistence food if they can help it.
     Are these impossible dreams? Is it true that Marcos, too, dreamed of this? Or are these simple products of a present need to find long-lasting solutions? Simple-minded? Perhaps, but wary of status quo. If Fidel Castro was successful in instituting urban farming in Havana, is it possible that we could be, too?

WHAT would be gained? What would be lost?
     I leave these questions for social scientists and government planners to better mull over. All I can leave my reader with is an imagined utopia wherein during moments of catastrophe, be that catastrophe due to climate change (with its unpredictable thick raincloud cover resulting in dams' brimming to scatter their water load), estero/creek/waterway asphyxiation and lack of metropolitan drainage efficiency, some officials' or (who knows?) a senator's unguarded logging concessions uptown, viral epidemics, or whatever else or a combination of some or all of the above, casualties would be relatively minimal and/or manageable. And with such a distribution of the population's numbers, God's "wrath" (through typhoon Ondoys) would have to cover the entire country to effectively depopulate it.

Photo from

2. Parma (added October 20)

TYPHOON Pepeng's (Parma's) rainclouds wreak havoc: in Benguet with landslides, in Pangasinan with broad strokes of flashfloods reaching a depth of 14 feet in certain towns, and in various other provinces with more of the same. It is a state of calamity and disaster all over, and I don't mean in bureaucratic state terms, which take hours or days to declare.

     Some would say it was a different issue here. Sure, it was by the thick rainclouds of new typhoons by climate change, but—wait, who else is to blame? It wasn't a matter concerning squatters and subdivisions impeding the flow of water from the cities' over-exploited mountains overlooking the metropolitan sprawl. Sure, it may be by the relentless enthusiasm of unchecked logging, but—wait, who else to blame? It wasn't a matter to be solved by either looking for invisible loggers. Or sending squatters back to their provinces—after all, these were the provinces. Sure, the rains were a result of climate change, but climate change is just too academic for even mayors (who have been refusing any form of change for far too long) to comprehend.
     In Baguio, many say it was more a matter of the age-old physics concerning water mixing with soil and rocks, nothing more. In Pangasinan, many say it was more a matter of a dam. Nothing more.
     In fact, everything was a matter of more. And because of this more matter, more is to come. The more I think about it, the more I feel its certainty.

MORE. In her essay "In Paradigm Shift 1: A Long Look Back," the columnist Sylvia Mayuga wrote about the history of local government corruption and the national government's leaning towards the time-proven (read: old) solutions to 20th-century problems. In "Diary of Revolution V: Another Strange Column," she wrote about government's dismissal of NGO pleas to keep Mt. Banahaw out of South Luzon Expressway's tentacles. Also, in "Paradigm Shift 2: New Vision in Government," about government's ignoring then-DENR secretary Fulgencio Factoran's Ancestral Domain Law bill in favor of the Congress-favored IES bill mandating popular consent to such projects as the coal-powered Hopewell power plant in Pagbilao, Quezon. And today in the Philippine Star, columnist Jarius Bondoc's essay "Corruption: Direct Cause of Storm Ruin" chalked up more corruption data that led to the catastrophe ("The purchase of seven brand-new radars took so long because an admin congressman had tried to block it when he was eased out as secret supplier").
     More. Alexander Martin Remollino of—an online magazine—in "Dam Nation: A Bloody History of Struggle Against Dams" waxed nostalgic and defiant towards the struggles of such martyrs as Macliing Dulag and the Dumagats in the futile fight against the construction of the World Bank-funded Chico River Dam, implying the enormity of such revolts, since one is running against such respected institutions including the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Asian Development Bank.
     And all this history comes back to us now, in the present hunger of the citizenry not just for somebody to hang (the dam engineer who made supposed misjudgments, for one) but for solutions to prevent a similar occurrence, or otherwise to prevent similar results in case the return of the same occurrence cannot be mitigated.
     And so we rejoice as when, on October 9, 2009, an American cinema actor and philanthropist named Brad Pitt is reported about on the Net to have unveiled in New Orleans his flood-surviving float house for the Make It Right Foundation. We happily rejoice at the criticisms and proposals of the Filipino architect and urban planner Felino Palafox, who is no sooner on our TV screens, interviewed left and right for free TV's explanation-hungry angry citizenry.

     I, too, posted Pitt's house's picture on Facebook.
     To which posting my friend copywriter A- made a not-so-satisfied comment, providing ample ideas in his wake, to wit: "The idea of working on designs for the real world I like, but those two designs for floating houses are downright ugly. Ugh. Our squatters have more design aesthetics than those architects who couldn't even show some modicum of respect for the people they envision living in those ugly houses. In my opinion, a houseboat on a barge has more charm and design aesthetics. And that's a floating property, not just a house. The barge the house is on is one's land area. And the house of course is the floor area. And if everyone in ... say, a small community had the same idea, they could moor their 'land areas', their barges, together; and when the floods come, they all rise (of course they have to be anchored to land with a slack of 15 feet), and when the flood waters recede, they're landlocked again. Nasa lupa lang at kalsada ang kalat, wala sa mga bahay-bahay.
     "Hey Jo," he added, "why don't we look for a student architect to partner with and build one? For energy we'll use solar. For food, they can go hydro for veggies and raise doves and bantam chix for meat. There's rain water, but that will have to go through some filtration because of what might be in the atmosphere."
     To which great ideas I replied, thusly: "This is adaptation. This is Darwinian adaptation. Hereon in, typhoons will be bringing in tremendous cloud cover the likes of which we have never seen before. It happened in Bombay in 2005 that got featured on Discovery Channel and still the oil industry-backed Right is saying climate change is a myth, even as Bombay reacted with dikes and better drainage. The same thing with the conservative Republican-American TV network Fox News: in early 2008, where one female anchor even expressed something like, if Arizona is to have ice and snow the whole year she'd welcome it, and if North Dakota is to have melting ice, fine, great. Then her co-anchors went on about the virtues of an extensive US offshore oil drilling, echoing John McCain's going against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton's championing the need to tap sustainable and renewable energy.
     "In our country, with the typhoon's evolution, dams filled to the brim should begin to see their obsolescence, except in the possible drought of summers. Each barangay has to shift to mini-dams and barangay waterworks systems of this kind both for drinking and irrigation. But I was also talking to my Bulacan neighbors in the flood of August 2007 about Badjao houses and how we should adapt with houses on concrete or iron stilts, and everyone just smiled at me, a crazy Waray, saying, 'hindi iyan uso rito.' And yes, even floating houses, with moorings to fight the current; I was talking about these like a crazy drunk at a streetcorner birthday party. Or, people looked at me like I was a crazy drunk.
     "And Pitt's prototype for New Orleans—not exactly a houseboat like the ones we see on HGTV's show on strange houses and great vacation homes and hideaways—may be a tad better than the houseboats of Hong Kong, but henceforth the floating house must be a new genre in 21st-century architecture. We must launch design contests for floating houses.
     "If we fail to adapt and we die," I aimed for a closing, "good riddance! Let's make room for a better species."
     Great exchange, it was. But, like this essay's Part One's pleas with an unknown readership, is this to be read as just another literary banter with the ghosts of reform? After all, who—among businessmen with resources, or leaders with clout—would even initiate such adaptations that dare go against the old contractor's specifications?

THE main headline in today's (October 20's) Philippine Daily Inquirer front page reads: Mayors damn the dam. The headline news item references a PHIVOLCS report saying the dam in question rests near a fault line, which fact alone would truly bring back visions of Noah's flood into the Pangasinense landscape. The mayors are crying for a decommissioning of the dam. But.
     Knowing government, that will never happen.
     Oh, me, a cynic? No. More. A student of history. To appropriate Mayuga's essay, I dare attach the reading that almost all governments around the world today have leaderships sponsored—directly or indirectly—by corporate interests, by big business, by local and international banking systems. Governments will always side with big business, and if we are to follow the philosophy of the 2009 Nobel Economics laureate Oliver Williamson, big business can in fact resolve a conflict by dealing with another big business, and if I may add, even topple the other big business' interests. So, to bastardize or bawdlerize Williamson by a converse reading of his thesis, only big business can successfully sponsor opposition to the interests of the other big business, and thus instigate change. That seems to be the only possible fight in times present, then—windmill and solar energy corporations sponsoring a new government to topple the centuries-old oil and coal and hydroelectric power plant parties.
     Sure, there have been triumphs of civil society against big corporations, but those have always proven to be short-lived or temporary. The monster manages to come back everytime. Thus the Williamson thesis' significance.
     For even if such entities as mayors or even mayors' leagues are to clamor for change, such clamor will—corruptibility aside—often be devoid of alternatives. For instance, who among the mayors of Pangasinan would now promise to do away with the benefits of big hydroelectric power plants in favor of small barangay-level hydroelectric plants, micro-windmills, solar power cooperatives?
     Who would want to arm themselves with the argument that solar power is only expensive today because it has a lot in common with twenty political posters from a printing press that could decidedly be costed way, way lower if produced in bulk by the twenty-thousands? None, I suppose.
     My friend the UN consultant Lila Shahani talks about solar energy in Cuba. My friend the church worker M- talks about village impoundments. "I’m still an advocate of small-scale water impoundment projects," he writes on a Facebook thread. "If every community in the nation had its own small lake or pond (size depending on population), a certain amount of land would be lost, but the benefits, in the reduction of soil erosion, improved groundwater levels for deep wells and even small scale power generation, would more than make up for the loss. It’s no substitute for forests as a mitigator of runoff, but in cases where the forest is already gone, it can be a helpful alternative. But no one even talks about it." In his Oct. 6 comment to Part One of this essay (see below), M- mentions the hydro plant of Villa Escudero Plantations resort farm, and the little power plants of the Sierras in California.
     But who among the mayors of Pangasinan is ready to counter the giant San Roque Dam hydroelectric power plant's argument that closing the dam now might mean selling un-irrigated farms to land developers? None, I suppose.
     In short, we are all like my Bulacan neighbors. We will continue to lean on the tried-and-tested convenient slogan, "hindi iyan uso rito e."

AND so, I promise you: a year from now we will not see a President Noynoy Aquino or Gibo Teodoro or born-again Erap Estrada or Manny Villar (estate development stalwart) or a Vice President Loren Legarda (claiming to be a proponent of environmentalism) making any difference in the area of doing away with the dams in favor of micro-electrification and micro-water systems and micro-irrigation systems that have been proposed by many a genius from Africa to England to Texas to Luzon on the moving pages of CNN and ABS-CBN and GMA Network, geniuses we've refused to listen to because of big business' charm.
     Is it hard for us to imagine such refusal among our leaders, us being faithful followers of certain candidates' supposed competence? Well, such refusal is present in our very selves. How many of us would want to give up our cars in favor of public transport, for instance? None. Who among us would be willing to boycott McDonald's pancakes served in styrofoam? None. Who among us would be willing to give up beef and rice for chicken and sweet potato so as not to contribute to the atmosphere's warming with the methane coming from cows' farts and shit and from the rice paddies' evaporting water? None.
     Tilt the camera up. Now, imagine yourselves as those leaders up there. Who among those politicians would work hard and work fast at improving public transport systems so even CEOs would want to ride on trains? Who among them might work hard at pushing for (or at least encouraging) alternative sustainable energy sources that may render fossil fuel use obsolete in, say, ten years? Work hard and fast to spread the population, control population growth, even render giant dams for urban areas and farm zones obsolete? Equally none.
     Meanwhile, the planet's atmosphere is working twenty-four hours a day at melting the polar ice to produce warmer oceans that produce more efficient typhoons for a disposable humanity that refuses to evolve (many still even refusing to believe in the "theory" of evolving) after Darwin and the dams' increasing damnations.

SO, what am I proposing? Equally none. Because I know that nothing will be done, nothing much will be created or demolished to service the fight against climate change, dam threats, uncontrolled logging.
     More. We will continue to build foreign bank-funded corporate dams, which are actually fourth floors of all our houses serving as water storage tanks. If you think that's bad architecture, don't say a word. Even if you say "no, I don't think that's good at all," still we all latently approve of it. Nobody would want to give up the benefits that the dam brings, because no one would want to be bothered with the adjustments that micro-electrification and micro-water systems and micro-irrigation demand. We are all reliant on big business to do our water-fetching for us, along with our farming, our gardening, our cooking, and so on and so forth. Everybody latently thinks a fourth floor serving as water storage tank is good architecture, in the final analysis.
     What am I proposing? None. If I am to propose anything at all, it would be to say, let's teach our kids how to ride it out. Make them learn how to swim. Let's not bother making it hard for God to depopulate the planet of human dinosaurs. None of Williamson's firms are going to do anything about it for us.
     And besides, at the back of our minds we knew this was coming. More now—we know it's what we'll continue to get. [END]

Acknowledgment: Sylvia Mayuga featured this blog essay as a "guest column" in her Philippine Star Online column Only One World of October 25, 2009. It was a tremendous honor, Sylv.


  1. Jojo,

    By and large I am in agreement with the dynamic thrust of “How to Give God a Hard Time,” but I’m also curious about your take on some of the factors from slightly different angles.

    First, did you know that LBJ lost the first time he ran for the US Senate? It happened like this: he had as good as won the election and declared his victory around 11pm on the night of the election. As a result, his opponent, who was not as well informed (and far too confident of victory) made an “11th hour” foray into the over-crowded Latino sections of San Antonio and herded hundreds of Mexican-American voters to their polling places and saved the election. (This, by the way, forever changed LBJ’s campaign tactics.)

    The moral to this story is that squatter areas provide politicians a valuable resource. I fear the “political will” to do anything about squatter populations will be lacking. This brings us to the question: “What are all those people doing there?”

    Well, you got that (and much else) right: they’re seeking what they can’t expect to find “back home,” decent (more or less) work and an interesting, challenging, environment. I’ve known guys from Negros who would (will?) starve to death in Manila rather than go back to the cane fields. Hey, I can relate to that! I was born and raised in Texas, in a place where frankly, there was nothing much going on. I don’t doubt that I could have stayed there and become (by local standards) rich. The only difference would have been that I would have become crazy, in a bad way (unlike now, when I’m crazy in a good way). But the fact is that coconuts and bananas, rice and sugar cane, just aren't going to make it for some people—and I see that as a good thing.

    If I understand this aspect of what you’re saying correctly, while you know that there is no hope of doing away with cities, there is the hope of constructing the kind of world where not everybody in their right mind wants to flock to them. Until they actually surpass the edge of catastrophe, large cities are always going to grow. Once they stop growing, it’s a pretty sure sign that they’re on their way to becoming a “howling wilderness.”

    Smaller towns that provide the sort of environment that makes people want to stay there instead of hying off to the bright lights, are indeed what this country should be planning for and producing. But you don’t really address how that’s to be done. Industry next to the rice field is a nice image but it has a couple of drawbacks. For one thing, the industrial plant, the roads and parking and, yes, the water treatment plant, are almost certainly going to be on land that was also once a rice field. And as this industry draws workers and managers, they are going to need a place to live. Good-bye to more former rice fields. This is just as true, from the time of Pharaoh Teyew’s city growth model: housing development usually takes place right on top prime agricultural land. (We exempt here housing for the very rich, which seems to tend toward earthquake faults, landslide-prone mountains, erosion-threatened seaside cliffs and such like; dramatic settings for the palaces of the self-believed immortals.)

    As you say, there are costs and benefits. One of the great benefits is smaller scale water impoundment. But this is a strategy that could be implemented even without waiting to develop smaller, more widespread industrial centers. In fact, such a program could even lead to a great increase in hydroelectric power generation. (Though nothing is free—I lived in California where there is exactly one “wild” river in the entire state.) Cheaper water and electricity can even lead to small-scale industrial development. Look at Villa Escudero, with its own hydro plant. In the Sierras of California, above the notorious Owens Valley of Chinatown fame, every mountain stream is broken up stair-step fashion, into small lakes, each running its own little power plant. But cost and benefit still holds—the once rich Owens Valley is now a near desert: all the impounded water goes straight to LA.

  2. Where is all this getting us? Not to some unified field theory of social change, that’s for sure. Question: can Filipinos, who traditionally have a river-based culture, ever be expected to simply move out of the flood plains, esteros, lakesides and other flood-prone areas? My answer, based on observation of life here since 1968 is: not for very long! Time after time I’ve seen situations where homes were destroyed and lives were lost beside the rivers. The government steps in and forces everybody to move, but a few years later they (or others like them who have not experienced the same suffering—or benefited by relocation) move right back in. And is that a matter of the size of the community? Look at the squatter area at the end of the runway in Bacolod. (End of the runway! Bacolod! Ever fly there? After a good landing, the plane is still going 40 or 50 mph when it has to turn at the end.) The place empties out after each tragic crash, but fills up again after a while.

    I wish that in all this typing I could provide a little wisdom. But that’s not the case. Stop stupid and illegal logging? By all means. Roust people out of those places that, with global warming, are going to be increasingly under water? Great if you can make it stick. Institute a small-scale water impoundment program wherever practical (with hydroelectric facilities where they can be cost-efficient)? A good idea, but unlikely, because nobody’s interested in pushing for it (and where they have tried—like the foreign-funded effort that brought Villa Escudero’s mini-turbine into the country—officials find it easier and more profitable just to keep the money and forget about the program). Widespread industrial development in provincial areas? A real plus, but one that comes with many unexpected (and a few quite predictable) consequences.

    Political change is difficult. Cultural change is even harder. It’s always easier to join a culture than to build one. You know, Jojo, I don’t really care about specifics—I’d just love to see things get better, no matter how.

    I've rambled on, without getting much of anywhere. I tend to have thousand word ideas and find it hard to think in smaller units. I like your blog a lot—keep up the good work (if you consider it work). Keep putting those ideas of yours out there so guys like me can have more disorganized thoughts like what I've written here. Some day, some of it (no, not “the whole thing,” but some of it) may come together.

    God bless,


    I messaged you on Facebook last week because I (and some other people I palaver with there) was worried because you vanished off the screen. I was glad to see you back with such a well thought out and well written piece. (I got your answering message after I finished this. Over 5 feet! Wow, for years I lived in areas that flooded, though I’m now safe—I live in the same compound as a powerful politician—but like I say, for years it was flooding, cleaning out silt, trying to save this and that from the water &c. Lots of work. I hope you didn’t lose anything too important and that all will be well in the future.)

  3. Jojo, I hope the tone of your Part 2 in this blog upsets a few readers enough to merit their making responses. Otherwise, it will mean that either nobody’s reading (which I refuse to believe) or that they’re convinced that you’re such a cynic that they needn’t bother.

    When the last living thing
    has died on account of us,
    how poetical it would be
    if Earth could say,
    in a voice floating up
    from the floor
    of the Grand Canyon,
    “It is done.”
    People did not like it here.

    These are the last lines of a Kurt Vonnegut poem called “Requiem.”

    He’s dead now—we’re alive.

    You have a totally cogent point about adapting. For many people it will indeed be adapt or die. And what makes it particularly sad is not the demise of those you rightfully point out as refusing to adapt. No, the real tragedy will be the death and suffering of the unempowered willing. There’s a saying in the US, “I’m so poor I can’t pay attention.” It’s a truth backed by a lot of evil. Education, 20 or 30 years ago could probably have altered things, but nothing was done—just as today nothing is being done. (At the sari sari store, where I buy the same two items almost every day, usually presenting the same amount of money for the purchase, the tiendera, again, every day, carefully uses a pocket calculator to figure my change. She’s a high school graduate! I was an expert at making change in the third grade. And, if nothing else, at least the habits of scholarship should be enough to enable one to remember the cost and the proper change—her mother doesn’t have any problem.)

    I digress. Poorly educated people are sure to make poor decisions. Are we doing anything to improve this? I haven’t seen it. (Unless the answer is to get rich enough to make sure your child never goes near a public school.) Ok, I’ll leave that hobby horse behind.

    Overcoming moneyed interests with equally powerful moneyed interests: now you’re talking! That’s an idea with real merit—and not totally farfetched. There is a real possibility that we may come to a day when “political will” won’t matter. When did political will ever manage to keep a rich corporation from doing all it could to get richer? I’m not an essayist or a journalist—I’m a lorist. I deal in lore, the wisdom imbued in the stories we tell one another. According to the lore, we should expect to see climate change develop into one of the biggest industries of the 21st century! Last century, giant dams were a very big money maker. But that was yesterday. “Save the planet & get rich” is, I believe, the coming thing. Look at American health care if you don’t believe people will spend ridiculous amounts of money, no matter how flawed a system is, just to stay alive a little longer.

    So, ok, how are we going to get people & governments to part with all that cash? The answer is—we don’t have to. Advertizing! Once Moneybags Inc. gets the idea of cashing in on save-the-planet brand, they’ll sell it to us, whether we want to be saved or not! This is lore. Not science, not economics, not logic or reason—lore.

    What we’re going to need here is “project police.” There’s a vote-winner! A political platform for the future. So a candidate’s corrupt—so what? Let him/her stand before the voters and promise one thing: “I’ll make sure, while all this money flows around here, that enough of it gets spent on actual projects that you, the voter, will get to go on living!”

    This may all sound a little silly. Well, it is. But only in a way. Can you imagine big multinationals bidding on contracts to get rid of the dams they built a decade or two before? Something about that has a vague ring of truth.

    None of this fantasy is intended to distract us from the very real and concrete things that need to be done—that need to have already been done—but there is one thing I think we can be sure of, well, two really: First, things are going to get worse—nothing we can do about that; the time for those actions has come & gone. Second, we have no idea what’s going to happen.

  4. Politics, economics, sociology, ecology and half a dozen more ologies, once blended together, are no more predictable than the typhoon we’ve all been watching and watching and watching as it wandered around out there in the Pacific refusing to do anything. Like weather systems, nations and lands and ecologies are just too unpredictable to effectively forecast.

  5. Jo,

    As usual, some of your ideas are both brilliant and profound. What is striking, however, is the contrast in tone between Part 1 and Part 2: if Part 1 was idealistic to the point where I doubted whether or not its basic premise was even realistic (i.e. that people would be willing to relocate to the peripheries in the interests of decentralization), Part 2 sadly concludes with the notion that only big business can replace big business (which is regrettably true, in many ways). More, there really isn't a whole lot anyone can do about it anyway, which is of course the part that made me balk.

    What is clear is the toll that two such onslaughts can wreck on the human spirit, as the progression of your blog conveys all too viscerally. Give Filipinos yet another typhoon and they'll be ready to throw in the towel altogether. I completely understand and respect where that type of reaction might be springing from since we are after all human-all-too-human.

    But I think it's easy to become almost nihilistic if one doesn't leave the Philippines or if one stays for a very long time, as u and Mac have done. I certainly felt that way when I was home. But my being abroad has given me a somewhat different perspective, I suppose. I think of Taiwan in the 50s or even countries like Malaysia and Korea during that period; for that matter, India, China and Brazil have become big players only in this decade. Obviously they r much bigger countries with far more natural resources, etc, but the only point I'm making is that countries DO progress and recover, if one takes the LONG VIEW. Remember where they were before and where they r now. So the historical continuum and the geographical context r both critical.

    Among the Asian countries alone, I find in my research that we are the LEAST genocidal and xenophobic; we also have the best record in terms of how we treat women. Historically, there also been some important improvements: until fairly recently, rape was a crime against chastity, meaning that u couldn't prosecute someone for rape if the victim was not a virgin. That has changed, thank goodness. But, of course, we're still al long way away from getting our enforcement record to match our impressive legislations. But the only point I'm making is that one should not -- cannot! -- ever discount the possibility of progress. Because without hope the battle for civil rights would not have been fought and won, at least in some parts of the world.

    Two thoughts: as Peter and I were discussing tonite, here in the US, the Dept of Energy subsidizes alternative energy. It's a way of hedging the competition, since the latter are going to produce what they want to anyway. So why not get in on the action and keep all your options open, as it were? Why not have a hand in every pie, in mainstream and alternative energy (as a businessman like Danding would do)?

    So: if one were to succeed in setting up one or two pilot projects in specific communities at home using, say, solar energy, one could hypothetically suggest to Napocor/Meralco that this is now the way of the future, and they might as well invest in it so they're not rendered obsolete altogether. THAT might actually work, given political leadership that supports it.

    Add to that funding from UNEP and foreign corporations/foundations/countries and there might even be a possibility that the state could actually subsidize clean energy altogether, like Cuba.

    We will progress, but it will always be in increments. If u look at the historical sweep, u might even be encouraged.

    Great job, my friend --


  6. I love what pessimism produces. I love what Samuel Beckett's darkness grows in people's temples after reading his books or watching his plays. I love telling people they're gonna die. My friends rebel and tell me, no! :)

    But I did not display pessimism in Part 2 of this essay to produce that reaction. Nor did I think I was being pessimistic and dark while writing the closing part, only realistic and stark. Hyperbolic? I doubt it. Yes, such realist portraiture of a people might derive from a daily exposure to their lack of either resources for initiatives or their subservience to the corporate goons in this republic of goons employed by so-called business geniuses.

    In fact, I would describe my tone as nothing more than disgust for the usual. A simple recognition, then, that the Romans are in Israel, and these Romans are our fellows who do not want to think themselves our fellow Israelites, but our lords. And our fellow Israelites, believing these lords are our brothers, continue to be duped as Caiaphas' dogs.

    In which case we are left with two choices. Adapt to the physical harassment on our advertising and initiatives (and families) with either pushing for an Allende-like Christ from our ranks to beat the flies or to follow a self-sacrificing Christ hoping for a Father's miracle. Many choose the latter. The former die in the hands of harassment.

    Until such an Allende is shaped by the apathy and contentment of my educationally underprivileged neighbors, then, I will continue to raise that mirror to my readers---a mirror certain others, like you Mac and you Lil, will refuse to believe is a reflection of our collective persona, if only because you both understand the reality that you have not given up.

    Ironically, the majority who have given up ("hindi yan uso rito, e") but yet continue to complain are not reading this. Therefore, I cannot write for and to them. I was dedicating my piece to the corporations, if only to hope that they will remember me when we are all in heaven, together watching the mud and hubris we've left in our wake as the polar ice drops its last drop.

    I hope they'll remember me as one of those who've spoken their names and will speak their names again in the heavens. Maybe then---on my people's behalf---I can safely point my pen as though it was a finger.

  7. Okay, fair enough. You're entitled to use whatever tone u like after all. But please also grapple with some of the more constructive suggestions Mac and I bring up, if not here than in the next blog, ok?

  8. In point of fact, I did have those suggestions in a folder, just in case I get the resources to make some of them reality myself. Part of the pessimism is from a frustration with not being able to do something about anything myself from my end except compost biodegradable stuff in our garbage, skip beef, buy local, and so on. :)

    Thank you, guys.