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Misery from progress

12:30 AM August 16, 2019

Progress is generally defined as a “movement toward an improved or more developed state, or to a forward position.” So, if that is the case, where is progress in Metro Manila? Or in the other highly-urbanized cities around the country? Is population density an improved state, or a sign of superior development? Is gridlock traffic a manifestation of a more developed state. Definitely, it is not a forward position when it hardly moves.

Is half a million to one million pesos per square meter a sign of progress? Or is it the hungry, the homeless, and the street beggars? When it says “an improved state”, what is the meaning of “improved” to a few, to the many, and to the marginalized? And whose standards will we as a society follow?

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It might well be time to redefine the meaning of progress to capture reality in the Philippines. Too often, too long, the word and imagery of the word ”progress” has been made a carrot that we all want to chase and eat. If we do not have the graphics and experience of progress, if, in fact, we have only an imaginary idea that most of us can never have, It is deceptive on the part of leaders, not only of government but most especially those in charge of education to continue doing so. That deception delivers frustration and disappointment at the end of the day.

Some religious teachings would like to make us believe in a heaven where joy and peace abide, where there is no suffering. At least, these teachings make sure we understand that we have to die first before we can taste that kind of heaven. What about progress? What does it promise? And when can the promise happen, before or after we die? If progress is not real, it should never be a promise, not even in an election campaign. Unless the absence of progress at the end of every term means imprisonment for the elected officials who failed to deliver.

There is also selective progress, the kind that is for a few, for the minority of the population. For a long time, economic classification had been expressed in Classes A, B, C, D & E. For a long time, too, Classes A & B represented only 1% of Filipinos. I think it has not substantially changed, and today’s categorization maintains that Classes A, B & C comprise 10% of Filipinos. Do they have progress? In what form? Is it their kind of progress that we all strive for, that we all are being promised by our leaders? If their progress is impossible for the vast majority, then we must stop using word progress to motivate us.

Let us look for progress that is attainable in our lifetime. It does not matter how simple that progress is as long as it is within our grasp after years of effort and sacrifice. At least, we are not chasing a fantasy that will never come, not in our lifetime, not in the lifetime of our children and grandchildren. Ah, yes, it might happen, that one in a million, that rags to riches story, but do not count on it as you do not count on winning the lotto. Let us define clearly what progress can mean for us as citizens and as a country. Then, let us build pragmatic pathways towards it, measurable, time-bound. That can be the narrative we chant like a mantra or the rosary to ourselves, the image of hope we give our children to compensate them for their future struggles, the academic curriculum taught in school where application is the hands-down choice over memorization, and the political platform of personalities and parties who wish to lead us to progress.

Just days ago, the new mayor of Baguio City expressed his intent to stop all new construction of high rise buildings. He said that the city is now under strain and stress from over-development. I believe he wanted to say more, to describe in more detail what the price of progress has been for Baguio City. And I have heard thousands of residents and visitors say the same thing over the decades of a mismanaged city. Unless progress meant allowing development profits for a few at the cost of the suffering of many. Like traffic. Like environmental degradation. Like the loss of a city’s character and ambiance.

It was so gratifying to note that the Secretary of the DILG agreed with the mayor of Baguio. That empathy can translate to active support in the drive to make it happen. But much more than that, the move can become a bright example for residents of other cities who are also bearing the brunt of wanton development mislabeled as progress. Why not a national moratorium on the construction of all high-rise buildings in cities where population density and traffic problems are heavy? And why not make the moratorium automatic whenever population and traffic problems degrade the well-being of a city.

It has also been reported that a draft of an Executive Order has been given to the President banning the cutting of trees and the construction of high-rise buildings for one year. Why one year? Why not for one generation? And why not most other cities with population and traffic density that strains and stresses their residents? Let the Filipino people taste the benefit of not cutting more trees and no new high-rise buildings. I am sure that the innovative profit-driven developers will manage to build elsewhere and, albeit by force of circumstance, maybe build a better Philippines, kinder to people and their well-being. What may emerge in the one generation stoppage may show us a wiser model with learnings from past mistakes.

More immediate, though, is the need to redefine progress, to make it integral that progress is equivalent to benefit, and benefit can only be so if it applies to the majority. Because progress as originally defined and used today can equate to misery for many.

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