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‘Laudato Si,’ urban land abuse and ills

Pope Francis’ newest encyclical, “Laudato Si,” is an overarching document that touches on just about everything that affects the environment and is affected by it. The ills of urban life don’t escape its sweep. He posits that we can have neither nature without humanity nor humanity without nature.

Thus says the Pontiff: “Nowadays, for example, we are conscious of the disproportionate and unruly growth of many cities, which have become unhealthy to live in, not only because of pollution caused by toxic emissions but also as a result of urban chaos, poor transportation, and visual pollution and noise. Many cities are huge, inefficient structures, excessively wasteful of energy and water. Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature” (para. 44).

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This point becomes particularly poignant when one visits better-planned and -managed cities just in the Asian neighborhood, such as Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. For instance, it struck a chord during my most recent sojourn in Singapore, which is the diametric opposite of our own Metro Manila. I thought: Here’s a (non-Christian) city where administrators have rationally provided for and benignly taken care of people and the environment so that humanity and nature are in harmony.

Why can’t authorities in both public and private sectors in the Philippines—a Catholic country at that—be at least nearly as rational and considerate to people and nature? The wonder is that these officials frequently visit, and must be awed by, Asia’s better-managed cities, let alone those in the West. Are selfish personal interest and insatiable greed the reasons behind our officials’ nonchalant and uncaring attitude toward people and the environment? Which further begs the question: Are non-Catholics more considerate, humane and appreciative of nature?

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It’s now a cliché in our country that running for political office has become a mere investment proposition and keeping the position a profitable family enterprise. Political dynasts, propped by patronage, typically get reelected easily and, hence, have little incentive to pursue the public good of nature and humanity.

The lords of business, meanwhile, keep on building on just about every square meter of real estate with uncaring and wild abandon in pursuit of seemingly never-ending profit maximization. Behold, for instance, all kinds of high-rises and malls continuously sprouting all over Metro Manila and other urban centers without any regard for open spaces for parks, greenery and trees that act as carbon sinks. There appears a total lack of planning or simple consideration for rational land use, as seems a matter of course in the other Asian cities.

The Department of Transportation and Communications has much to blame for the worsening malaise and chaos that have befallen our cities, and the dire state of transportation and communications in general, for that matter. Consider, for instance, the ills that characterize urban public transport, air and sea conveyances, resulting in unbearable inconvenience and discomfort—and even tragedy—to the riding public.

A good deal of pollution is caused by vehicle smoke emissions that are supposed to be checked by regular emission tests timed with a vehicle’s registration and annual re-registration by the Land Transportation Office. But these tests carried out by LTO-authorized private testing outfits appear to be a mere charade; otherwise there ought to be less—not more—pollution from vehicles. Worse, the smoke emission testing fee has escalated from P50 a few years back to P600 currently! One can only surmise that these wily entrepreneurs (perhaps in cahoots with LTO insiders) are making a killing from what can only be a scam, at the expense of vehicle owners and the environment itself.

I mentioned this issue to the transportation secretary when I met him in Tagbilaran on the occasion of Bohol’s reelected governor’s inauguration on June 30, 2013. But his response—to the effect that emission testing had been privatized and he couldn’t do anything about it—was very disappointing. This merely reflects the seeming weakness and ineptitude of the DOTC leadership, exemplified further by the glacial motion of the public-private partnership projects under its wing. It’s a major letdown why the President hasn’t acted to change the situation and has just allowed the public to grin and bear its consequences.

Pope Francis further calls for fossil fuels to be “progressively replaced without delay” with renewable energy. Fortuitously, our country can now take advantage of technological developments in renewable energy, solar power in particular. While previously dismissed as impractical, inefficient and pricey, skepticism has made an about-face (Opinion, 5/28/15). Solar energy’s efficiency has risen and costs are plummeting, such that its adoption is growing faster than any other source (traditional or renewable), averaging 50 percent per annum globally over the past six years.

Apart from solar energy connected to the grid, it is particularly suited for individual or distributed small-scale power for off-grid rural areas which are home to most of our country’s poor. Research has shown that electrification can be a speedy pathway out of poverty—Francis’ oft-stated primordial concern. Both off- and on-grid solar power are now widely used in poorer countries in East Africa and South Asia. There’s no excuse for the Philippines to be (again) a latecomer in seizing this opportunity.

Ernesto M. Pernia, PhD ([email protected] com), is professor emeritus of economics at the University of the Philippines and former lead economist of the Asian Development Bank.

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TAGS: encyclical, environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis
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