Rainy Day Thoughts

It almost seems inevitable to us, the ‘climate change’ generation, that every year, a great storm blows through the country and pours itself all over the metro for a week, causing massive flooding, suspensions of classes and at the same time, triggering large-scale relief operations.

Since our grade school days, environmental awareness has been drilled into our collective consciousness. I’m sure most, if not all, in my generation remember or are very much aware of the following things: the 3 R’s (reduce, reuse, recycle), the segregation campaigns (green for ‘nabubulok’ and black for ‘hindi nabubulok’), the popularity of tree-planting activities and fun runs for environmental causes, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the popularized phrases of, “NaOndoy/InOndoy kami eh!”, the more recently imprinted memories of Sendong and Habagat 2012, Earth Hour and the relatively recent implementation of the plastic ban. The older ones in our generation are also probably aware of the recent move of the government to relocate informal settlers from their homes along esteros in order to prevent the clogging of waterways caused by the improper disposal of trash (presumably) by those who live nearby.

However, environmental issues and ideas do not just prod our consciousness in one-time big-time events such as these. Unconsciously, our generation is also attuned to our environment because of the sights, sounds and activities that we encounter everyday. Whenever we commute to and from school, we are aware of the blaring sounds emitted by the cars stuck on the highway. We see plastic bags, plastic wrappers and straws strewn all over the street. We cough and scrunch up our noses whenever garbage trucks pass by or whenever we walk past overflowing garbage cans. We wear mosquito repellents because of the dengue threat. We find it automatic to unplug our appliances at home and we make sure to switch off the lights whenever we leave the room. We use reusable containers in school cafeterias and refrain from using straws whenever we eat at restaurants. Personally, walking along Katipunan Avenue gives me headaches whenever I stay outside for too long. My body finds the smoke belched by the trucks, jeepneys, cars and tricycles that ply the road too unbearable. Clearly, our life is intertwined with our environment anywhere, anytime.

Thus, it probably boggles our generation why we still have not found a way to master the disasters that strike our country come August or September of each year. After all, we experience these quite often, and with the recent fanfare surrounding environmental issues, surely we should have undertaken significant steps to containing disasters by now. Certainly, incremental improvements have been made – rain gauges, Doppler radars and Project NOAH are now part of the rainy season vocabulary. But there is a lot more that we can improve on.

In my Science, Technology and Society (STS) class last summer, Prof. Mark Zarco of our university’s Institute of Civil Engineering emphasizes how the paradigm of policy makers and planners has shifted from a “disaster management” to “risk management.” That is, officials have recognized the prudence of minimizing risk so that disasters are not unpredictable, do not catch us off-guard and if possible, damages caused by disasters are avoided or minimized to some extent, given that they do occur regularly. This is in contrast to the disaster management paradigm that is more reactionary than proactive – in this paradigm, we wait for disasters to occur and then take action, repair and evacuate. I find the logic in this new paradigm quite simple and very convincing: if we know that a disaster is most probably going to happen, we should minimize the risk that damages will occur given what we know. We do not merely attempt to control the disaster itself, but the events and the circumstances surrounding it.

Given that this paradigm is logically more advantageous, how can we apply this to the experience that we are currently facing now? Hasn’t the government been managing the risk by installing rain gauges and disseminating hazard maps online as well as planning evacuation operations in advance of a storm? Yes, but it seems to me that the branches of the tree are mistaken for the roots. Ultimately, what causes all the flooding we have experienced is nature itself. And why? Because (and this seems so obvious that it’s frustrating to point it out) we haven’t been taking care of nature. That’s it, plain and simple.

Nature has devised an engineering marvel that keeps floods from wiping out populations of animals clean from the face of the earth. We refer to them as trees. Nature has prudently and efficiently planned out where the excess water would go if the trees and plants can’t absorb them anymore. We refer to them as watersheds, rivers, creeks, lakes and oceans. It has devised ingenious ways of breaking down waste so that they don’t accumulate, give off harmful smells and block drainages. And yet we have managed to produce tons of plastic garbage which is unnatural in the sense that natural systems have not developed ways to break them down quickly and safely.

The plastic ban or more accurately, the plastic bag tax, I think, was a step in the right direction. Clearing the esteros was a job that should have been done ages ago. Tree planting is a given, seeing as our roads barely have any trees to siphon off the flood waters. Understanding the methods of nature by way of hazard maps, gauges and radars as well as timely and efficient information dissemination tools is definitely a big help. But it puzzles me how laying out more concrete for flood control projects can solve the problem of too much flood-causing concrete.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, once said:

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the world without technology, buildings and transportation systems would be perfect. Far from it. But I hope it is clear, especially to my environmentally-conscious generation, that we have added so many unnecessary things and have imposed ourselves upon nature too much, to the extent that it has decided to impose itself back upon us and decided to take some things away.

Call me a tree hugger, but in this sense, I think there is much to be taken away before perfection is achieved.

Stay dry, stay safe!

-Danilo Lorenzo S. Atanacio

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4 thoughts on “Rainy Day Thoughts

  1. This is quite true. We always tend to prepare for things that will happen after. We look so far into the future that we sometimes forget that the present is important as well. It’s like the idea that “Prevention is better than cure” was never grasped by any of us. And there are a lot of ways for us to achieve the right prevention. The risk management should really be the idea that all of us must adopt. I think that, also one of the reasons that we really aren’t making any action regarding this, is because we are so overly familiar with the concept of taking care of the environment. We understand the concept enough that we do not want to take action anymore. We feel that because we know about it, we seem to think it’s a bother to apply it anymore. I hope that we come to realize about this.

  2. It’s a good thing that you reiterated the difference between disaster management and risk management. Unfortunately there are some, maybe out of ignorance, that have mistakenly interchanged the two concepts. This is why information dissemination spearheaded by the government through Project NOAH is important in the effectiveness of the policy shift.

    In the latter parts of your blog post, I remembered my Econ 102 class discussion about externalities, particularly on pollution. Our professor told us that it is wrong to say that the optimal amount of pollution is zero. Instead it should be wherein the marginal cost of pollution abatement is equal to the marginal damage of an extra amount of pollution to the environment.

  3. @lheidnarg, I think that the different sectors of our society is suffering from an “inertia” that is brought about by decades of using the same inefficient and pollution-causing methods in production. What’s alarming is that different organizations (no less than the UN itself) has already reached a consensus stating that human activities have been the one of the main causes of our warmer climate. Clearly, those who are in power (in the production process and the political personalities) are doing everything they can to brainwash the public into thinking that we can go on with our old methods and habits.

    The ordinary citizens already know what the problem is, but there is inertia from the top. Maybe the challenge is to have those at the top see how it is PROFITABLE to reduce pollution. Maybe then, we can really see an all-around effort to save our environment.

  4. @Jeun, I also remember this discussion from Ma’am Winnie Monsod’s class in Econ 11 and from my class this semester with Ma’am Kraft (Econ 102). In fact, this is one of my most favorite lessons so far in economics. The problem with the current set-up is multi-faceted:

    1. There is no strict implementation or imposition of property rights. Thus, firms that pollute or citizens that dump their trash do not recognize other citizens’ rights to clean air, clean water and a healthy environment.
    2. Reducing pollution (on the producer’s part) requires them to use more efficient technologies and more costly processes. Thus, they have an incentive to NOT reduce pollution in order to maximize profits.
    3. Hence, the effects are not INTERNALIZED by the polluters. So they will tend to pollute more than the optimal level.

    One of the most promising results of this analysis for me is that if a market for pollution is created, the problem will resolve itself in an efficient way. In the future, I would like to see Philippine firms trading pollution permits to the point where their desired polluting level has reached low but profitable levels. I think that the power of the market can be effectively utilized SO LONG AS property rights are recognized. I hope to learn more about this kind of policy should I take environmental and resource economics in the future.

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