Thursday, July 31, 2008

Saving our environment

Planet Earth has never been in a more precarious state than now. In the past, we can easily point the blame to natural causes for the changes in our climate. But in recent years, these changes have been due mainly to human activity rather than natural changes in the atmosphere.

While progress ushered in better and more convenient lifestyles, it has also enhanced the warming capability of the natural greenhouse effect, the natural system that regulates the temperature on the earth. Human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels, land use and agriculture have disrupted the balance of this system with the amount of greenhouses gases released to the atmosphere.

The international scientific consensus is, and it is almost unequivocal, that our world has been getting warmer and warmer over the past 150 years. Our planet has experienced an increase in temperature consisting of warming and cooling cycles at intervals of several decades. Global warming, however, is predicted to be the long-term trend, as we are already feeling the impact of widespread melting of snow and ice, rising sea levels, and shifting of climatic zones. Scientists have predicted changes that include acidification of the oceans, reduced snow cover and sea ice, more frequent heat waves and heavy precipitation, more intense tropical cyclones, and slower oceanic currents. This is like telling a patient he has cancer and the prognosis is bad.

Those in the developing or less developed countries are the most vulnerable to this climate change. They have less capacity to adapt and mitigate the impacts of global warming, and their livelihoods are often dependent on resources linked to climate. Water supply will also be threatened, especially when forests and watersheds are destroyed. Overall future impacts are expected to be negative.

The recent disasters that wrought havoc to the Philippines because of tropical cyclones, volcanic eruptions and mudflows speak eloquently about the human neglect of the environment. Although we live in a geographical location where tropical cyclones are formed and where the Pacific Ring of Fire and several earthquake fault lines are found, the wanton devastation of our verdant forests and haphazard and inadequate government response to mitigate air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions have both contributed to the catastrophic impact of natural disasters. We cannot continually rely on humanitarian and relief effort alone every time we try and salvage our country from disasters. In addition to building a national capacity to deal with natural calamities, we need to mainstream relief and rehabilitation efforts with the larger objective of environmental restoration and preservation.

Take Typhoon Frank, for example. Affecting more than 470,000 people across 20 provinces, the typhoon hit the Philippine province of Iloilo the most. It flooded nearly 225,000 hectares of farmland and damaged 16.8 metric tons of agricultural produce. Due to the typhoon’s high winds and heavy surf, it also capsized a ferry boat with 750 people on board, the majority of whom perished.

Although we should be thankful for all those who opened their hearts and wallets in helping Typhoon Frank’s victims, we should also condemn those who contributed to the degradation of Iloilo’s forests and watersheds such as profit-motivated loggers, government officials who ensured the protection of the logging business over and above the interest of saving the environment, and perhaps, ourselves for our apathy and complacency about the perils to our ecosystem. We cannot continue to live through a cycle of disasters that we can help prevent. We need to act now because the survival of our natural habitat is under serious threat.

Restoring our forests and protecting our watersheds will prevent flooding and ensure a steady supply of fresh water. Time is of the essence because our sources of water are becoming scarce. Deforestation also removes more than just trees, and clearance of our lush forests causes the whole extinction of species and engenders climate change. The line must be drawn: either we allow the market forces to determine our forests and all of nature as a capital asset that can be exploited, or we respect nature and its bounties as a non-renewable resource which must be protected at all costs.

We need to save our environment for future generations. Our children and their children depend on us in ensuring a liveable planet, where cars will be more fuel efficient, our industries will not be dependent on fossil fuels, our plants, refineries and factories are all equipped with efficient air-pollution equipment, and where the environmental protections enjoyed by our forests, rivers, wetlands, wildlife habitat and public lands have all been restored, and all these efforts integrated with the larger objectives of sustainable development for the benefit of humankind.

Today’s priority is to save our planet. We, humans, may soon become “the living dead,” the term biologists use to describe species whose habitats or gene pools are so diminished. Our extinction is only a matter of time if we do not stop the degradation of our environment.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Celebrating our culture

Music, particularly singing, seems a natural fit among us Filipinos. No celebration of Philippine culture, whether at home or abroad, will be complete without a showcase of talented singers, from children to teens to adults.

Teodoro Agoncillo, the eminent Filipino historian, observed that Filipinos are born musicians. When Villalobos went to Samar in 1543, he saw natives playing a stringed instrument called kudyapi. Pigafetta also observed that natives of Cebu played such musical instruments as the timbal, the drum, and other instruments made of wood and bamboo. It is no wonder that Filipinos up to this present day continue their love affair with music.

Voices of the Future, a musical extravaganza produced by Livvy Flores-Camacho, a friend from university, highlighted the afternoon event of the Mabuhay Festival in Toronto last July 19. The program featured promising children singers from ages 6 to 13, each one of them rendering Filipino compositions from the past to the present, songs that represented significant eras in the evolution of Filipino music. It was a refreshing exhibition of young voices, and judging from the strength of their vocal chords and tonal quality of their voices, all these budding young talents are really destined to reach for their stars in the future.

But singing is not the only talent Filipinos possess. They also have happy feet, whether in folk dances, interpretative ballet, or hip-hop dancing to the tune of rap or pop music. An organization of young men and women and children called Fiesta Filipina Dance Troupe of Canada stood out with their choreography of dances native to the islands from north to south of the country. It is not only the graceful and elegant folk dancing that reminds us of our colourful heritage, but the resplendent costumes representing the clothing and styles of our ancestral tribes and native musical instruments such as the guitar, kudyapi, kulintang and drums also bring out the joy and pride in our culture, our traditions, and our past.

We can go on and on and name any art genre and a Filipino artist will always be mentioned. The sad thing about our multifaceted artistry, however, is that not many outside of our own community appreciate how gifted Filipinos are, that we have a very vibrant and colourful culture. In hindsight, the organizers of the Mabuhay Festival could have thought of sharing our culture and talented artists beyond the Filipino community, instead of celebrating the festival just among us. The Mabuhay Festival was a grand fiesta in sheer magnitude with food stalls that feature our favourite national recipes, exhibits by Filipino businesses here and in the Philippines, information booths from various community centres and social justice organizations, and to top it all, a fully entertaining cavalcade of non-stop program of music, songs and dances.

Our culture—our ways of life as manifested in our music, art, manners of dressing, traditions, and social and family values—is not inferior to the culture of the West. All cultures are equal. The purity and mass appeal of our indigenous music, dance, and art that have survived through many centuries are comparable to the so-called sophisticated western culture. Despite Spanish and American influences through colonial rule, our traditional musical and dance forms have survived and maintained their native and popular appeal through acculturation. Yet, the heart and soul of Filipino culture is still intact, even if it has enriched itself with the music, dance, and other art forms of the West.

Take the case of chanteuse Lilac Cana. Trained as a vocalist in the western tradition of sopranos and operatic singing, Lilac reminds us of the ancestral richness of our own music whenever she sings a lyrical kundiman or a Filipino patriotic song. Or Je-an Salas, a classically trained ballet dancer and former mainstay of the National Ballet of Canada, as she interprets “palangga,” a lover’s dance that conjures a native dance interpreting the story of a man who danced around a woman to show his love for her. Or even the hip-hop boys and girls trotting on the stage to the music of Janet Jackson, but still evoking images of our past as in the festive Ati-atihan or balitaw or dandansoy.

Even Original Pinoy Music, more widely known as OPM, although popularized as pop songs, told stories of unrequited love, the parting of friends or family, or leaving home for another country, or longing for the presence of loved ones. Like traditional and indigenous music, OPM is also heavy with sentiment and mournful longing.

That magical afternoon, as I listened to Candace Santos, all of 14 years old, sing “Sa ugoy ng Duyan” by Lucio San Pedro, one of our illustrious national artists, I watched my wife’s eyes begin to swell with tears. Everyone in the audience, old and young alike, sat glued to their chairs; not even a rustle could be heard as if time stopped. When it was Jasmine Elaine Ragual’s turn to belt “No quiero Casarme,” everyone almost stood up from their seats in awe and triumphant applause to the powerful voice coming from a petite 11-year-old. Roy Tugbang, a promising 13-year-old baritone, capped this part of the musical program with a rendition of Nicanor Abelarde’s “Bituing Marikit,” bringing the house down.

There is nothing to be ashamed of our culture. Culture does not merely mean the opera, ballet or big art museums. The West does not have a monopoly of culture. Let’s keep reminding ourselves that China and India are far older and vaster civilizations.

A Vedic writer and believer of samskara once wrote that culture is the spine of any race or society. It is the foundation of the development and strength of a nation. The culture of a nation is its true wealth. If our island nation is still weighed down with huge debts, we owe it to our rich cultural heritage and innate capacity to survive for keeping us buoyant and in high spirits.

Perhaps, we all need to learn to be Pinoy again. As Gilda Cordero-Fernando, a well-known Filipino writer, admonishes us in one of her columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, we “have to protect it [our being Pinoy] and fight for it against other Filipinos who think everything is wrong with our culture and find the need to apologize for it constantly.” We’re not baduy or average, she said, just because we have the bahay kubo, the aswang, sinamay, sinigang, the kundiman, the moro-moro, as artefacts of our culture.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Statistics about life and death, numbers that matter

Depending on one’s religious belief, a person’s viewpoint on the matter of life and death may very well shape his or her purpose in life. Death will always be as much a part of life as life itself. All of us will pass on like all living organisms. A plant withers away and dies. Insects and all members of the animal kingdom die at one point. So do humans. But as all living things perish, all forms of life come back through reproduction, so the cycle continues; no one has yet discovered how to break the gap.

As of July 2008, the world’s population would have ballooned to 6,677.563,921. Population continues to explode from 1 billion in 1820, to 2 billion in 1930, and 6 billion in 2000. This growth occurred despite two devastating world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s, the end of vast colonial empires, and rapid advances in science and technology. Fertility, however, has started to decline during the 20th century, which coincided with the rise in living standards in North America, Europe and Japan, improvements in health and medicine, access to family planning, economic development, and urbanization.

Balancing between hopes brought about by advances in medicine on one hand, and fears caused by the development of more lethal weapons of war, on the other hand, birth rates continue to go up, although at a much slower pace starting the 20th century. It is estimated that there are 20 births per 1,000 of the population as compared to 8 deaths per 1,000/population. Life expectancy, on the average, has also risen to 67 years worldwide, with women outliving men.

Estimates prepared by the United Nations put the number of refugees worldwide close to 10 million. Most of these refugees are fleeing civil or tribal wars, famine, or despotic regimes. About 1.5 million refugees from Iraq are displaced throughout the Middle East. If nothing is effectively done to help and resettle these refugees, it is almost likely we are already dedicating our present stock of refugee camps as graveyards for these 10 million people. Nothing could be worse than feeling the jaws of death when you’re still alive like the millions of Jews cramped in Nazi gas chambers during Hitler’s evil regime.

Death, when it does not happen as a natural process, is tragic and meaningless. Most religions which believe in the afterlife place an important meaning to death, as they assign an equal value to life itself. Whether one sees life and death through a continuum or an unbreakable cycle, life and death are always connected from beginning to end. To the mystics, death is a door that opens one aspect of life to another: at birth, the soul enters into the body, and at death, the soul departs.

Dying from hunger or from war, either as a combatant or a civilian, or death on the electric chair or through lethal injection as punishment for crime devalues not only the meaning of life, but also the significance of death. Death that is avoidable renders life useless and devoid of any meaning. When an innocent person is unjustly convicted and sentenced to death, another crime is committed in the process, a crime against humanity. The same can be said of casualties of war, famine or disease: they are also victims of crimes perpetuated against humanity.

Every society has a way of caring for the dead. We all mourn the passing of a member of the family, or of a friend, or a soldier killed in action. We remember them in our prayers. Sometimes, we commemorate their deaths in elaborate ceremonies. In Mexico, for instance, they celebrate the Day of the Dead with rituals that affirm the lives and contributions made by all who have lived before them. But for those who died in the killing fields or in famine-infested regions like Darfur, we can only imagine corpses left rotting to the ground as carrion for vultures or flies, or if lucky, as unidentified bodies dumped into unknown mass graves. Similarly, the desapericidos who were thrown overboard the Atlantic Ocean by the Argentine army will forever stay unknown and the mothers and grandmothers who lost their sons and daughters would only be left with names to remember them.

According to the United Nations, about 200,000 of Rwanda’s 9 million inhabitants are afflicted with HIV/AIDS, the deadly virus which was transmitted as part of the genocide’s legacy of the Hutu militia in 1994. Rape and assault were common during that year’s mass killings. A memorial now stands inside the former Nyamata Church to remember those slaughtered by Hutu extremists in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

As of July 2008, the total number of Iraqis slaughtered since the United States invaded Iraq is 1,236,604. The number of U.S. military personnel sacrificed in the Iraq war is 4,125. These numbers mean a staggering loss of lives, a loss that could have been avoided, yet would continue so long as the United States keeps its military presence in Iraq. Imagine how much the total ongoing cost of the war and occupation of Iraq at $540 billion could help in alleviating the lives of poor families and children in marginal communities in America, the suffering of famished children in Darfur, and victims of the dreaded HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Life’s total cost sometimes reflects the cost of dying. Assigning life and death equal value, however, is not a zero-sum game. What diminishes another person diminishes us too as members of the human family. Who allows others to live and who should die is a huge dilemma that’s been with us for ages. Our moral choices define us as human beings. What we make of those choices reflect deeply embedded values which separate us from the rest of the animal world. The tragedy of our current dilemma is we’ve not gone beyond our primeval instinct for self-preservation. And, at what cost?

Friday, July 18, 2008

The fallacy of race

Although racism is a reality, race in itself is a fiction.

Race has no genetic or biological basis. When Linnaeus introduced the first classification of humans, he used the same criteria from his botanical classifications. Using the outward appearance of people gave rise to a simple way of classifying human beings as caucasoid, negroid or mongoloid. In present-day terms, people are classified on the basis of skin colour as white, black, brown, or yellow. But Linnaeus knew that the idea of race is a fiction.

Even Adolph Hitler, considered as the most infamous racist of modern times, understood that in a scientific sense there was no such thing as a race. But he stuck with the concept of race only because it served him well in pushing forward the Nazi agenda and, in particular, the annihilation of Jews in Europe.

Like it or not, racism still exists today. It’s no longer accompanied by an overt display of dislike or hatred, but oftentimes expressed in indirect or more subtle ways. A study conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance in the United States, for instance, revealed that real estate agents steered whites from segregated neighbourhoods while pulling blacks toward predominantly black neighbourhoods.

Getting a job interview may also prove difficult for someone with a foreign-sounding name such as Hussein or Magtanggol or Chen. Racial bias may even determine whether one can flag a cab.

Racism continues to rear its ugly head in the justice system. Ethnic minorities, especially blacks, usually get stricter sentences than white offenders. Blacks, Latinos and Asians will probably be roughed up when apprehended by police, or on some occasions, even shot and killed by overzealous cops who could escape criminal liability under the guise of acting on duty.

Ethnic minorities and people of different cultures may also be blamed during times of economic crisis. Increased immigration or allowing more refugees to come into a country has always been used as a scapegoat by the majority when the economy turns sour. This is happening now in several countries in Europe. Asylum seekers are, by and large, demonized to justify the ways of globalism. Such demonization is often justified by xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Thus, those who try to escape authoritarian regimes may find it more and more difficult to get into countries known for their democratic values and culture. Unless one belongs to the skilled pool or those highly-skilled and educated workers who are creamed off from the economic lifeblood of poorer and less developed nations.

Tackling the evils of modern-day racism is far more problematic than in the past when racial discrimination and exploitation were more obvious and self-evident. Racism today is conditioned by economic imperatives; however, the acceptance of the equality of different cultures and tolerance of diversity will not be enough to reduce the problem of economic inequality. Economic globalization, which heavily favours the industrialized nations, increases the demand for more skilled workers, especially in North America and Europe. These nations will see no need to increase their education spending because of the attractiveness of the alternative of simply poaching the poorer economies of their very best and bringing them to their shores. In return, skilled immigrants will face daunting challenges in their new host countries where cultural differences are so great that if they stayed with their own kind, they will end up being criticized for not integrating with the mainstream.

To move beyond racism, we need to advance beyond race. We all came from the same ancestors, and the physical diversity of the world population has only come about because of sheer geographical accidents of climate and the isolation of wandering bands. Thus, the distinctions that have been drawn between peoples are purely arbitrary and superficial.

When we start to see others as fellow human beings with the same needs, aspirations and desires as each one of us, then we'll know that we've broken the barrier that divides us as members of humankind. By then, racism would have become part of our collective past.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Have gun will live

Americans who can afford to buy a handgun to defend them can now sleep tightly after the U.S. Supreme Court recently affirmed the right of every American citizen to own a handgun for self-defence under the Second Amendment. The high court’s decision is a big blow to gun control advocates, but hardly sends a feeble message to criminals that their days are numbered.

Without a doubt, banning handguns makes the right to self-defence a practical nullity. It makes sense, for how can you protect yourself from an armed criminal who is about to hurt you or rob your home if you don’t have a gun to defend yourself? Having a gun at home also makes you feel more secure, another luxury that buying a gun provides.

The only trouble with this argument is that it is a great myth perpetuated by the gun industry. Gun ownership to deter crime is stranger than fiction. There are many unintended consequences that can happen when people buy guns for self-defence.

Studies by public health professionals have repeatedly shown that having guns around for any reason increases the likelihood that a family member, as opposed to the criminal, will be injured or killed by a gun. According to a 1997 study published by the American Journal of Public Health, family members who have a history of buying a handgun were twice as likely to die in a suicide or homicide as were persons who had no such family history of buying guns.

The New England Journal found that having a gun in the home made it nearly three times more likely that someone in the family will be killed. This risk is particularly high for women, who are more likely to be killed by a spouse, an intimate acquaintance or a close relative. According to the Archives of Internal Medicine, with one or more guns in the home, the risk of suicide among women increased nearly five times and the risk of homicide increased more than three times.

It reminded me of a TV special I watched a few nights ago about “The Model and the Millionaire,” a documentary on the killing of Rose Keller by her soon-to-be ex-husband, Fred Keller, and seriously injuring her brother Wolfgang. Fred was a multimillionaire real estate businessman from Florida; Rose, his young wife, was a former model from Germany. After seven years into their marriage, Rose decided to divorce Fred and demanded half of his wealth estimated to be more than $50 million. Fred was adamant not to give even a cent to his wife and boasted that he would never lose in the divorce suit. A day after the divorce judgment was handed down in favour of Rose, they met in his office, along with Rose’s brother Wolfgang to discuss the turnover of half of Fred’s business to Rose. Wolfgang’s cell phone rang and as he was pulling it out from his pocket, Fred thought he saw a gun and immediately drew his pistol from the drawer of his table and started shooting. After the first trial ended in a hung jury, Fred was finally convicted of murder in the second trial.

A frequently asked question is, how about people using guns successfully to protect themselves from criminal acts? Most studies have found that guns play a relatively minor role in preventing crime but a major role in facilitating it. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that on the average, between 1987 and 1992, only one per cent of actual or attempted victims of violent crimes, or about 60 people, attempted to defend them with a firearm. On the other hand, criminals armed with handguns committed a record 93,000 violent crimes in 1992.

FBI data on crime in the United States also reveal that in 1998, every time a civilian used a handgun to kill in self-defence, 50 people lost their lives in handgun homicides alone.

Perhaps, the five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who affirmed the right to possess a handgun for self-defence need a serious reality check. A legal right, enshrined in the Second Amendment, is useless if the weight of social evidence says it does not result in preventing crimes or it is not an effective tool for protection against a criminal act. What this right merely accomplishes is that it gives the gun industry a big boost to continue production of weapons of destruction. It also delivers the wrong message that in order for a person to live, one must be able to defend oneself against a criminal act, and buying a handgun is the best way to achieve it. And when does the right to live hang on to the ability to buy a handgun?

The right to have a handgun for self-defence is also inherently discriminatory against the poor who have no means to buy a gun, let alone the ability to feed a family or save enough for their monthly rent. A semi-automatic revolving pistol, the handgun of choice or even a derringer or a Taser gun for women, is beyond the means of a poor person. So, what is left to a poor man to defend him but perhaps, sticks or knives or spears or axes? If these are the only tools available to him, does he have the right to possess them for the purpose of self-defence? Is this right equally protected by the Second Amendment?

One of the most basic responsibilities of the state is to ensure the safety of its citizens. To let civilians shoulder even a part of this responsibility will lead to a proliferation of guns; by all means, a recipe for lawlessness. There is validity in the argument that when a state has failed to restrict self-defence through gun control or restrictions, the state violates the human right to life to the extent that it allows the defensive use of a firearm, unless the action was necessary to save a life or lives. Firearms can be used defensively only in the most extreme circumstances, such as when the right to life is already threatened or unjustifiably infringed. Even law enforcement officers should be judged upon this standard when using force in line of duty.

In 2006, the United Nations Human Rights Council endorsed a report prepared by its Special Rapporteur Barbara Frey, a professor of law of the University of Minnesota, which would require national governments under international human rights law to implement various gun restrictions and, in essence, provides the minimum gun control standards that governments must meet. It will unlikely be ratified by the United States’ Senate, especially now that the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken in favour of unrestricted possession of handguns. A scholarly and valuable paper prepared for the benefit of mankind will most likely rot away in the unread stacks of the United Nations library.

Every gun owner in America should be thankful not to the Second Amendment nor to the five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court but to Samuel Colt, the man behind the world’s first mass-produced revolving handgun, for he alone with his bullet-firing machine, “made all men equal.”