At the height of typhoon Rosing’s fury, someone in my family expressed a thought that must have lurked at the back of every Filipino mind last Friday: “Is this a curse? Is our country being singled out for punishment by Nature?”
Except for those who regularly monitor the international news, we are often unaware of the equally devastating natural calamities that visit other countries with almost the same frequency. We think that these catastrophes are unequally distributed, their ruinous power particularly directed against peoples like us who happen to live on the wrong side of the globe.
This is totally without basis of course. We may get more typhoons than other countries, but most of them are not half as deadly as Rosing. We may indeed have more than our fair share of active volcanoes, but very few have been as destructive as Mt. Pinatubo. Compared to earthquakes in Japan, ours have been mild. And except for the Ormoc flood a few years ago, our floods are nothing compared to the great ones that recently occurred in the US, Europe and India.
Our country’s mild climate and gentle seasons are the envy of those who must contend with snow and foul weather in their countries a great part of the year. In many parts of Europe, where thick clouds permanently shroud the sky, the occasional appearance of the sun is a cause for celebration. The winters in Japan are often so severe that the trunks of young trees are meticulously covered to protect them from the cold. Their branches are regularly cut out to prevent them from breaking under the weight of snow. In such weather, vegetables have to be grown in artificially heated plastic tents, or they won’t grow at all.
We don’t hear of typhoons or lahar flows in Libya but sandstorms are an almost daily occurrence there as in many parts of North Africa. In such countries, clean water, which we take for granted, is nearly as precious as oil.
It is pumped out several thousand meters from the bowels of the earth at great expense just to sprinkle orchards and vegetable gardens.
Our alluvial soils, deposited and washed by our rivers, and made richer by our volcanoes, can never be matched by the synthetic soils of the Japanese or Korean farmer who must rely on massive infusion of chemical fertilizers to keep them productive. The natural fertility of our agricultural land is legendary. We have had to do very little intervention in agriculture to feed our people. Nature, in a sense, has been very generous to us. If there has been any rice scarcity in recent months, the fault cannot possibly lie in our soil but in ourselves that we are hungry.
Why am I saying all this in the wake of a storm? It is simply to remind us that Nature itself is morally indifferent. It is neither intrinsically good nor bad; it neither punishes nor rewards. It is either life-affirming or life-negating depending upon how we choose to live.
The same natural phenomenon that destroys also creates the basis for a sustainable life. I read somewhere that a typhoon may also be seen as Nature’s way of cleansing the atmosphere of pollution. Who knows, supertyphoon Rosing might have been Nature’s way of driving out the locusts from Central Luzon.
Or take lahar. While it is hardly any consolation to the people of Bacolor whose homes lie buried in lahar, there is nevertheless something truthful and affirmative in what Phivolcs Director Raymundo Punongbayan said recently: lahar flows are Nature’s way of raising the ground level in flood-prone areas. When the lahar threat is finally over, Pampanga’s elevated land will likely be the most expensive real estate in all of Central Luzon.
Nature’s ways are not necessarily destructive. Our vulnerability makes them destructive. Our recklessness, our lack of preparedness, our failure to learn the lessons it teaches, and our poverty make Nature destructive. Natural calamities appear especially cruel and apocalyptically punishing to those illequipped to deal with them or their aftermath.
Poverty highlights our vulnerability. Inequality and bad government multiply it. If the poor could help it, they would not put up their homes on river banks or hang them perilously on the beams of bridges as they do in Metro Manila.
They would not pitch their cardboard shanties on silted and dried up river beds as they did in Ormoc. They would not sleep in their kariton or on the city’s pavements, desperately seeking shelter inside churches and waiting sheds during stormy weather.
The fault is not in Nature that we are vulnerable. It is in the way we have organized ourselves into a human community. We have failed to develop that collective conscience that allows human beings to effectively negotiate with Nature a sustainable mode of existence. Our responses to recurrent problems such as those posed by natural phenomena have sadly been individualistic rather than communal, ad hoc rather than comprehensive, and passive rather than willful.
Until we recognize the minimum requirements of decent living within the human community, our efforts to understand and live prudently with Nature’s way will prove ineffectual.
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