What does the 21st century have in common with the age that saw the demise of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago? The answer is all around us, even in the most minute of details. Wherever we look, we are faced with downbeat assessments of the prospects for the global economy. Waves of biodiversity losses meet us in magnitudes that have never been seen before, and it is these losses that make the present mirror the cataclysm that ended the dinosaurs’ era. Beyond the immediate consequences, what does the crisis tell us?

The blunt riposte is most likely in the kind of business model that society has always followed. Perpetually dependent on growth, this model reveals a serious intrinsic flaw in the assumption that scarcity will always be a major limitation. We have come to understand then, that this meant requiring continuous investments and ever more resources. Today, that some two billion people barely survive on less than two dollars per day, for example, is to point out how this market model has hardly worked. One need not be a keen observer in order to realize that not only has this paradigm led to exploitative economies; it also paved the way for the continuing collapse of our natural environment. 

So where have we gone wrong? At least in principle, we can offer one answer, phrased lucidly by Achim Steiner in his article “The Challenge of Climate Change”, published in the first issue of the international quarterly United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) magazine Making It; ‘Our patterns of growth and development have always heavily relied on investment on financial capital without paying equal attention to investment in human and natural capital’. It would be specious to say that we can actually come up with an all-in-one solution, such as generating more employment. A reform that efficiently combines welfare and material use would be necessary. However, one such reform should also address the difficult question of values, more essentially the profound disquiet of humans towards their own situation and relative to others when confronted with issues that involve their means of survival. One need not look far in order to understand the effects of the detached capitalism implicated in the situation, for we certainly have it in the neighborhood level. Movement for Livable Cebu (MLC) OIC Teresa Ruelas cited an example during an interview.

“Just recently, I had been invited to attend a public hearing on whether or not to put up an incinerator in Inayawan. Very quickly [MLC] is studying it, because we have found that there are conflicting indicators as to whether [or not] it is appropriate for the environment [and] for the community that lives around Inayawan. You can just see that [the residents] have been there for a very long time, and they’ve actually created a livelihood for themselves among the garbage. Their lives have technically been built around the place. So you see the complexity of the issue, and all the different values about it.”

The Inayawan dumpsite is the largest sanitary landfill in Cebu City. Despite Mayor Michael Rama’s December 2011 release of an order to close the site in compliance with the Solid Waste Management Act (RA 9003), solid waste still continues to pile up beyond the area’s normal capacity. In fact, about 60 percent of the average 325 tons daily of collected solid waste by the city still end up in the landfill. A local newspaper recently reported that according to the facility’s operation manager, the remaining 40 percent is transferred to the private landfill in Consolacion town. That up to now there remains to be no closure plan and we still see the continued dumping of wastes in the Inayawan Sanitary Landfill Facility (SLF) notwithstanding RA 9003 may be owed to the fact that there is a pending proposal for the implementation of a ‘Waste-to-Energy project’.

“See? They’re even branding the whole thing. In this particular issue, we are all forced to rethink and evaluate our stand on the matter. What will ‘livable Cebu’ really mean in this case? Is it that we get to solve the waste problem by clearing it out of our drainage systems, for example? Exactly how do we do that? There are those who feel like, ‘Let’s just put the latest technology in there and that will solve the problem once and for all’. And then there are those who say, ‘No, let’s reinforce RA 9003.’ The [Republic Act] is one that includes the requirement of all barangays, all households to segregate their wastes; and that every barangay should have its own MRF, or Material Recovery Facility. And still there’s the city that says, ‘Let’s just burn it all.’ So we see how complex a problem can really be, because it enters the lifestyles and values of the community”, Ruelas continued.

So what happens now?

The intricacy of the issue indicates that there is a need to look past the perceptible aspects of sanitation and pollution control, sustained livelihood, and the fulfillment of basic needs such as settlement for the Inayawan residents in order for an apposite solution to be devised. A lot of the people whose lives are caught up in the situation are struggling to keep their homes, feed their families, and provide health care for their children. The predicament with Inayawan SLF is therefore an example of how local, environmental, and economic problems are fundamentally connected to each other. We then go back to the notion that all these years, we had been following a flawed business model, and realize that these common issues stem from a kind of economy that rewards profits above everything else. Yet again, Steiner nails down the idea in his 2009 Making It magazine editorial where he wrote, verbatim: The continual neglect of investment in conserving and regenerating natural capital is increasingly undermining the basis of livelihoods and wealth creation. This particularly affects the poor and most vulnerable segments of society. The imbalance in patterns of investment in economic, human, and natural capital represents a challenge for long-term sustainable environment, and must be given due attention in the global effort to rebuild economies.

Obviously, there is no one organization that can make the necessary changes alone. Carrying out our solution concepts may practically mean an all-embracing overhaul of the way we live our daily lives as ordinary citizens and of the way Cebu does everyday business. Primarily, we must understand that we can only transform societal structures and inspire others to partake in the change to the extent that we transform ourselves and embody the revolution we want to see in society.

“Society is made up of three institutions that are supposed to come together. First, there’s polity or governance. Second there’s economy or business, or that part which brings in income. And then third there is culture, or the civil society, whose ultimate role is to uphold the character, the spirit, the essence of our community. What kind of city do we want Cebu City to be? Do we want it to be, for example, a Singapore where everything is glass and concrete? Do we want it to be like the West, the United States? Is that us? It is civil society’s role to protect, defend, and nurture what is truly our own. Our own culture. Our own heritage. Our own style. The things that we can claim to be uniquely us”, Miss Ruelas said.

Society’s three institutions must therefore shift the focus from insatiable capitalism to the recognition and preservation of the innate values of our community in order to not only protect our own culture and identity, but in the process preserve the natural ecosystems around us, too. Respect for humanity should mean respect for the rest of creation. From where we stand today, we must know what needs to be changed, but it must be understood that we can never change things by fighting what’s already there. For us to understand where we should go from here, a leap of faith and a leap in conventions must come to pass. Buckminster Fuller put it this way: To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Certainly, we must mean business this time. The world has had enough of trial-and-errors. Let’s reassess. After almost two decades since the Kyoto Declaration, where are we today in terms of addressing our problems on environmental degradation and climate change? Moreover, nearly three years after the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly known as the Copenhagen Summit, where has the framework on climate change mitigation beyond 2012 gone? Lastly, we still seem to feel the resonating effect of the Great Depression on present enterprises. How much have we improved since our experience during the world’s deepest and most wounding economic setback in the 1930s?

As a final point, Idea Number 1 in the article The Ten Ideas That Will Change the World – For the Better, published by Time Magazine on March 28, 2011, is entitled “Sweet Bird of Youth! The Case for Optimism”. Written by Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a Schwartz fellow at the New America Foundation, the article puts forward the idea that the growing youth population just might be the key to winging our way towards global economic growth.

The point is best set forth by Robert F. Kennedy in his speech “The Day of Affirmation”, (the title should be familiar, as this piece recently caught public attention due to, however harrowing this may sound, its being allegedly plagiarized by one of our senators). Kennedy said, literally, “This world demands the qualities of youth: not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease…”

So I guess this is where the author and fellow members of this mobile-tapping, politically supine generation come in. In the face of the forces that challenge humanity, we just might be what it takes to drive the public towards being more involved in the furtherance of comprehensive economic development, ecological preservation, and the continuance of society-driven governance and democracy. Take what happened in Yemen in 2011. Young Arab protesters actually felled the dictatorship of a famously inflexible ruler into promising not to run for re-election. Their methods? Amplified protests through rap, Facebook, and mobile phones. Evidently, gone are the days when burgeoning youth populations the world over would simply be dismissed as a problem of the society. Amid crises, we just might have found the right place and precise moment to say, ‘It’s our game this time’.

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