Refuse to use
EVERY time I refuse to use straws, or offer my cloth bag to the bagger at the supermarket, or reprimand total strangers for throwing trash or spitting on the sidewalk, or say I'm a vegetarian for ethical reasons, people ask me if I've turned environmentalist. It's as if turning into one is like turning into a "manananggal" at night and assuming a human form during the day, as if one cares for the environment one day, and becomes indifferent to it the next. The term carries a seemingly exclusive and elitist connotation to a lot of people. But it isn't, and it shouldn't.
There are a number of NGOs whose advocacy is the protection and conservation of the environment. I commend the commitment and efforts these people have, and the dangers they put themselves through to fight for their cause. Probably, they're the most unselfish people in the world.
A friend, who belongs to one such NGO, shared with us his experience during his last climb. When he reached the peak of the mountain and saw the gorgeous landscape below, he said to himself, "I want my future children and grandchildren to see this." But he was worried that the mountain with its thick vegetation might not be in the future.
I've been in Manila most of my life, constantly complaining about the smog, the trash, the almost unlivable Pasig River, and the horrendous unhygienic habits of people. Even so, I make time to bike around the Marikina River Park and enjoy whatever is left of the urban greenery. Ironically, that relatively small area alone has both confirmed my feeling of luck that I live in Marikina (of all the places in Metro Manila) and further intensified my need to live elsewhere. Despite the community-friendly River Park, with its nice landscape and attractions, I fear that eventually, the river will stop flowing, and everything along with it, unless something is done soon.
I don't belong to any environmentalist organization, but an increased awareness of what's happening provides enough drive for me to make people respond to the need to change. I make do with what I have and where I am pushing for an advocacy I share with those affiliated with big groups.
In the little school where I teach, I was able to integrate this nagging compulsion with the subject matter in our English class. Considering the students' abilities and experiences, my co-teachers and I deemed it practical to focus our efforts on reducing the use of plastic. So we designed a batch project entitled "Refuse to Use." There was a series of activities followed by a symposium on the environmental toll our use (or misuse) of plastic is taking.
This project has three phases. The first is the personal refusal to use plastic. The students are instructed to refuse plastic items or bags whenever they go to sari-sari stores, shops or malls. Instead, they bring with them cloth bags or recycled plastic bags or, if the item is small (and dry) enough, they put them in their pockets or carry them. The students note down the reaction of the bagger or vendor.
The students found out that most shop owners and salespeople approved of the project because it cut costs and not really because it helps lessen pollution.
The second phase is the signature campaign, in which each student gathers at least 300 signatures from members of their families, neighbors, communities and elsewhere. We are expecting a total of at least 14,000 signatures.
The last phase involves writing a petition to reduce the use of plastic in businesses. We are writing to small-scale industries, mall owners, newspapers and government agencies to seek their help in spreading this concern.
Right after the students submitted the output for the first phase, I asked who among them continued to refuse the use of plastic. Nobody did.
It was a disappointing result, but expected. For how can one change a habit (which took 10 or 15 years to develop) over a course of two weeks? How can we expect parents to understand when they themselves don't see the need? Even at home, despite constant reminders from me, my dad still accumulates an average of five plastic bags per day. He says he forgets and he just can't refuse. It is frustrating, and discouraging.
I mulled over this predicament and realized that respect for the environment, readiness, will and commitment are crucial if we want actual changes to happen.
Everything comes from respect. A child follows a parent's advice because he respects the parent's capability to give sound advice. One does not eat meat because one respects an animal's right to live. Lack of respect results in abuse, destruction, indifference.
People should be ready to change their lifestyles. The simple act of refusing a straw can cause strain or perhaps embarrassment to any person doing it the first time, but I don't know why it should. We can buy biscuits in bigger packages instead of small ones. Or we can bring a cloth bag everywhere and explain to the bagger or vendor to use the bag instead of plastic, whenever we buy something.
When one is ready, one has the will to adapt to any changes because one believes in the urgency of doing so. In the long run, one develops a commitment. The scope of commitment is relative to an individual's capacity and resources. If one is committed to something, one is willing to be the catalyst of change.
I can accept that we lack the respect, readiness, will and commitment to change our ways for the environment. The urban Filipino psyche is not geared toward this concern. This is all the more reason to intensify our advocacy. For shall we wait to show respect until we have condemned the earth to an irreversible slide to destruction? Shall we be ready to do something only when great damage has been done to the environment? Will we summon the will only when there's nothing left for us to salvage? Shall we develop a commitment to save the eartth only when we have destroyed everything that nourishes the human race?
When I am asked if I've turned environmentalist, I answer: Shouldn't we all be?
Anna Rhea R. Manuel, 25, is taking up her master's in Reading Education at the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City. She is also an English teacher at the UP Integrated School.
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