The Philippines and the Anthropocene - Blueboard by Miguel Paolo P. Rivera

September 25, 2018

Is there a way for us to radically reframe we think about how human beings relate to our environment that allows us to properly respond to the challenges of today’s rapidly changing geopolitical and ecological landscape? While the concept is not necessarily novel, nor the term formally recognized, the Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that marks the point in Earth’s history when the actions of humans had permanently and radically impacted the functioning of the Earth’s geological and ecological systems. A group of scientists including American chemist Will Steffen and Nobel Prize for Chemistry winner Paul Crutzen, describe the Anthropocene as the epoch when “the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.
 
Formally, the International Stratigraphic Chart situates us in the Holocene, which started around 11,500 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch (more popularly known as “The Ice Age”). A growing number of scientists and academics now argue that human beings must be considered as a major geological force and should be “calendared” apart from the Holocene. Evidence of the Anthropocene period include human impacts on the earth’s systems, namely those involving water, nitrogen, phosphate, and carbon, as well as our impact on the biosphere (e.g. biodiversity, pollination, carbon capture, water quantity and quality, etc.). Aside from these trends in Earth systems, various other socio-economic trends such as our rapid advancements in energy mobilization, population growth, urbanization, transportation, telecommunications, and construction (including the rate by which we produce and consume the geological materials necessary for these) are considered as evidence of a distinct, measurable, and permanent man-made impact on the Earth.
 
Our country is certainly at the center of the Anthropocene. For example, the Philippines is still considered to be a biodiversity hotspot. According to the Biodiversity Management Bureau of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the country “hosts more than 52,177 described species of which more than half is found nowhere else in the world”. This biodiversity, however, is “threatened by continuous overexploitation, deforestation, land degradation, climate change and pollution (including biological pollution), among others”. To cite other examples, Metro Manila is one of the most densely-populated cities on Earth according to the latest UN Habitat and UN Demographic Data (where the City of Manila is listed as the most densely populated city on Earth). The Pasig River, without even mentioning its current state of pollution, is one of the world’s most polluting rivers. According to the 2017 study “River plastic emissions to the world’s oceans” by Laurent Lebreton, et. al., plastic waste from the Pasig going into the world’s oceans is estimated to be at a low of about 32,000 metric tonnes to a high of 63,000 metric tonnes per year, making it the 8th most polluting river on Earth as of 2017. The country is hit regularly by tropical storms and hurricanes, some of which are the strongest in recorded human history, endangering our populace and bringing about loss of life and destruction of property.
 
Rapid changes and growth in socio-economic sectors also present new challenges to the current world order. For example, according to a 2009 report by the UN Population Division, the number of people living in urban areas (3.42 billion) only started to surpass the number of those living in rural areas (3.41 billion) in 2009. According to the same report, the number of people living in urban areas is expected to grow rapidly to about 84% by the year 2050. This necessitates a change in our way of thinking about our society, politics, and our relationship with materiality and the Earth. For example, we are in an epoch where the time horizons of development of the Earth itself are dissonant with the short-term concerns of the time horizons of social development. Most still look at economic planning as a yearly, or decades-long affair, without regard to its permanent impact on the Earth’s biochemical and geological systems, which function according to cycles that go on for thousands, if not millions of years. Our technological, agricultural, and urban advancements are rarely harmonized with ecological concerns, if at all. Said in another way, we still plan and develop our cities and daily lives as if our ecology is entirely separate from our actions, leading to the further degradation of our environment.
 
While there is growing concern amongst the populace on our environmental, the current ideological constitution of our political society still frames “the environment” as a static, predictable, and (in some circles) merely socially-constructed externality. Models of development proposed by dominant forces in the political spectrum still operate on developmental models that assume a separation between human beings and the Earth and that linear, inexorable progress is the only way to go.
 
On a more practical level, the amount of knowledge and concern that our policymakers and leaders have on the issues that face the environment, and the current state of human progress should make us weary. The Earth is a complex and fragile system marked by non-linear and ultimately highly unpredictable events and cycles. Our horizons of thought, institutions of government and policy-making are still stuck in the materialist assumptions developed during the Industrial Revolution, a time when our understanding of our relationship with the Earth was still based on human supremacy and mastery over its resources. As a matter of response on a more concrete level, citizens capacitated to effectuate changes in the disaster risk reduction, management, and response programs of local governments and communities should incorporate insights from this emergent discourse on the Anthropocene. Students may also want to consider careers (such as in Urban Planning, among others) that will directly set the course on how we build the cities of the future. Philippine leaders, formators, and citizens must embrace new modes of thought and conceive of new solutions that will inspire a new generation of leaders who will emancipate us from those who say that our human imaginaries and progress are separate from that of our planetary home.
 
 
Miguel Paolo P. Rivera is a faculty member of the Political Science Department of the Ateneo de Manila University.