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Passion For Reason

Responsible to future generations, and the present, too

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Recent debates on mining allow us to go beyond the usual skirmishes over minutiae and draw us into the war over bigger ideas. It’s about time, the better to confront the tyranny of political correctness and expose our underlying attitudes and philosophies.

It used to be that man’s dominion over the earth was seen as a license to exploit nature with abandon. Today the environmentalists have made their point: We are merely temporary stewards of the earth that we will bequeath to those who will come after us. They call it the principle of intergenerational equity. They are correct.

What is wrong is when they think it’s a one-way street. I’ve got news for you, guys. Intergenerational equity actually works the other way, too. You can’t call it equity, and expect only one group to pay the price and the other to reap the benefits. Equity means that costs and benefits are allocated fairly among the different stakeholders. “Intergenerational” only adds one very important stakeholder to the formula: the next generation. It doesn’t discard the formula altogether. It doesn’t relieve them of any share in the costs, especially if they would share in the benefits.

This current generation must decide how much it is willing to sacrifice for the next, how many children today will go unsheltered, uneducated and unclothed, so that the children of tomorrow will be sheltered, educated and clothed. If we call for delayed gratification, let’s discuss how long we should delay whose gratification. Some say, Let’s wait until science invents more nature-friendly technologies of extraction. But that’s like foregoing the Model T in the hope that the Prius will be invented one century later.

It’s easy for others to say that what we face is not an “either-or” question, not a zero-sum dilemma, and that it’s possible for us to enjoy just enough today and leave well enough for the morrow. Maybe so, especially with sound economic planning and good governance. But exactly how to calibrate today’s sacrifices in exchange for tomorrow’s gains—that is a choice that today’s parents are called upon to decide. It is not as if they must sacrifice everything just so the next generation can live better. Their own kids deserve the good life today, right here, right now.

A few years ago, I brought the family to go white-water rafting on Chico River. During quiet moments, my wife and I would tell the kids the noble story of Macli-ing Dulag and the Kalinga struggle against the Chico River Dam project. (Parents lecturing politics on a boat ride? A real bummer of a way to soak in nature’s grandeur.)

Something happened along the way. I saw smoke coming from up the hillsides, and learned from the boatmen that small villages lived in tiny pockets of upland settlements. I asked: Do the kids have schools? No, they don’t. Are there any roads leading to their settlements? No, their homes are accessible only by boat. If they get seriously sick during the rainy season, is there a way to get medical care? No, they just die.

And then the clincher: Someone mentioned a possible mining project upriver and that, just maybe, they can have more support—a school perhaps, a functioning hospital, or roads—when that happens.

It was a stunned but reflective silence the rest of the way, mercifully alleviated by the surf hitting our faces later as we careened downstream.

Frankly, I don’t know if that mining project has pushed through. I don’t know if, even without the mining corporation, the local governments have since providentially built what their constituents needed. One thing I’m sure of, though. Given the odds, those schools, hospitals and roads would have been built better and faster by the miners rather than by the government. Bizarre as it may sound, the miners need to win the hearts and minds of the locals, while the government needs only their votes.

When it comes to the environment, we must discard the stereotypes. There is a leading case in constitutional law where our Bureau of Forestry granted a logging permit to a Filipino to cut down the forest reserves at the US Naval Base in Subic. The American base commander refused to honor the permit, saying that the base perimeter was within his military jurisdiction. The Philippine Supreme Court, in a lovely case of political incorrectness, upheld him. I delight in telling my students that had the nationalists prevailed, today the tree-huggers will have no trees to hug in Subic. Thank god the imperialists won in this particular case, and the paper tigers loved the forests and cut no trees.

Let’s face it: Economic development always bears a carbon footprint. Today people love the convenient catchwords “responsible mining.” Why? Because antimining activists can merely fix environmental standards that are commercially nonviable and that amount to a de facto ban on mining.

Rather, it must mean responsibly pro-environment, so that if the world needs our mineral deposits to build new technologies, then they must be judged by world-class standards for mineral extraction. It must mean responsibly pro-IP, so that the indigenous peoples burdened and displaced by mining are consulted and benefited. It must mean responsibly pro-Filipino, so that the nation is given its due share in the bounties of its natural patrimony. It must mean responsibly pro-poor, so that those bounties are enjoyed not just by the elite but by the plebeian folk as well.

Responsible mining, you say? Responsible to whom, I ask. And I answer, responsible not just to the future but likewise to the present generation, who is equally entitled to live life in all its fullness.

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