The politics in the air we breathe
SOMEWHERE IN THE SIERRA MADRE — It’s cold and raining outside, but here, inside my tent, I am dry and warm. Long hours of sleep await me, or a leisurely read of any of the e-books I’ve made sure to bring along. Together with my friends and our Bugkalot guides, I’ve set up camp on a mountaintop near the tripartite border of Aurora, Quirino and Nueva Vizcaya. It’s been a long day—of crossing rivers, trekking through the mossy forest, dodging rattan thorns — but we can take comfort in the fact that tonight we are safe and sound.
I have done this countless times, but I still learn something new with every hike. Else, I am reminded of something old yet still relevant. On this mountain, known to the locals as Mt. Pamazam-pazam, my realization is how different the air is, how fragrant, how refreshing to inhale — to a point that breathing becomes a pleasure. After a recent round of cough and colds, it’s as if — despite the arduous climb and the chilly weather — my lungs have been renewed, my body rejuvenated.
Corollary to this, I realize that air quality is something we who dwell in cities often take for granted: We want clean bodies, clean clothes, clean water, clean food, and yet care very little for clean air. Only when we are denied an astronomic spectacle do we notice the pollution that envelops the city — but even then we see it in aesthetic, not medical or existential, terms. Only when we find ourselves walking in Taft Avenue or caught in Edsa traffic aboard a nonaircon bus does the unclean air become a felt reality.
Despite our desensitization to unclean air, it has dire consequences for our health and quality of life. Studies show that, like secondhand smoke, ambient air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, increase the risk of respiratory infection, reduce lung function and exacerbate cardiovascular diseases. Alarmingly, air pollution accounts for 45.3 deaths per 100,000 Filipinos — the third highest such rate in the world.
“Is it really that bad?” some might ask, and my response will be: “Maybe not for you.” The fact that air pollution is experienced far more acutely and profoundly by the urban poor also makes it a matter of (in)equity and social justice.
Here in the Sierra Madre, people are not spared from illness — access to health remains a challenge — but the adults we encounter look remarkably young, including our guides who look 10 years younger than their actual ages. Doubtless, living so close to the forests has been good for their health, an assumption backed by a wealth of scholarship affirming the manifold benefits of being surrounded by trees.
Sadly, we have a grave shortage of greenery in our cities; the parks that ought to have served as their “lungs” are either gone or neglected, and our air-conditioned malls have served as proxies for public spaces. As the jeremiads of the architect Paulo Alcazaren point out, it wasn’t meant to be this way, but decades of self-interest and failed governance have gotten in the way of strategic urban planning.
I hope more people realize the value of our forests and trees, and see them not as obstacles to development, but the very image of the development we must strive for. I hope that beyond superficial acts like cleaning a portion of Manila Bay, our leaders act on deeper problems, like reviving our public parks, fixing our public transport system (vehicles account for 88 percent of Metro Manila’s air pollution), and finding ways for environmental protection and local economies to coexist. I also hope they find the political will to implement laws that already exist but are poorly implemented.
Ultimately, having cleaner air also entails making choices like pursuing renewable energy, protecting our biodiversity and reducing our carbon footprints. Over 1,300 meters above sea level and 200 kilometers away from Manila, this mountain may seem distant, but should we also not recognize the inexorable links between forest and city, the indivisibility of our lifeworlds with nature, the politics in the air we breathe?
When I go back to Manila, surely I will yearn to inhale the fresh air of the mountains anew. But perhaps it is not too late to work for a future when we need not go this far.
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