Sunday, October 30, 2011

One in seven billion

*my column in the Oct. 30 issue of Cordillera Today

Last Wednesday, October 25, 2011, together with local media representatives, we were invited to cover the La Union leg of “Coffeetalks,” an initiative of a cement manufacturer that gathered together sustainable construction advocates from various groups to discuss possible collaboration efforts. I must admit that I was prepared for another junket courtesy of a corporate entity hoping to score “pogi points” with the media. It slipped my mind that this was being done by Holcim Philippines, Inc., and that they do walk the talk.

The speakers presented both ongoing projects as well as proposals for new ones and what really caught my attention was the presentation done by Mike Guerrero of Green Architecture Advocacy Philippines. I particularly liked his anecdote about “ice-tea buildings” – boiling water to make tea and then putting lots and lots of ice to cool it down is not unlike building structures like those with glass facades that naturally act like an oven, then spending millions and millions and much artificial energy to cool them down.

Then he talked about an ongoing project he designed for a fisherman’s village in Bani, Pangasinan.

First, instead of a whole row of houses joined together at the sides, this village had duplexes – the housing units were designed in twos to allow for windows on three sides to maximize natural ventilation. I was reminded of an aunt’s home in the lowlands that had really huge windows only on one side and how hot it got specially during the summer months. This is because despite the size of the windows infront , the air did not circulate inside. This happens too when you’re in a car and you only have the driver’s window opened – just open the passenger side window even just a bit and notice how much more air flows inside the car.

The main windows of Guerrero’s design faced north, and according to him, that’s because our country is positioned above the equator and thus the sun would “never” hit those windows directly except perhaps during the summer solstice, among the rare times that the sun is at its highest point in the sky – lessening the heat inside and the need for electric fans or air-conditioners to cool the house.
Next, he discussed the design of the roofs – instead of having the usual A-frame design, the houses had roofs sloping only towards one side. This makes it easier to collect rain water. And the roofs faced south so that if and when the homeowners can afford to install solar panels in the future, the roofs’ position would provide the most exposure to the sun.

And unlike most mass housing projects where every bit of land is appropriated for the structure, Guerrero made sure that each house would have a patch of earth each to allow for expansion, or plants. He particularly recommended the plating of bamboo since his design made use of this durable, inexpensive, but often taken for granted material particularly in the houses’ interiors so that should they need to replace a beam or two, they can easily source it out right from their own backyards.

But the lesson here isn’t exactly about the aforementioned innovations, but how Guerrero arrived at such concepts - environmental consciousness. We go about our daily lives with hardly any thought at all about the earth that we all share. All that Guerrero did was be aware of his environment and how he affects it.

And while our egos tell us how big and significant we are, we tend to think the exact opposite when it comes to how our lives impact the environment. We tend to make ourselves believe that the few plastic bags that get thrown in the pile of burning leaves in our gardens, or the emissions of our vehicle, or the harmful chemicals that we carelessly let loose on the earth hardly affects the earth.

Besides, we’re just one of several billions of polluters on this planet, right? The problem is that most of those several billions either deny their contribution to climate change and the earth’s destruction or are simply totally unaware of it. We think that we’re just one of seven billion, and that’s why we find ourselves amidst more intense monsoons, heat waves, snowstorms, etc., today.

What we need is to view that same thought from a different perspective – that the one cigarette butt, or that one car that we drive, or that one plastic bag that we either burn or carelessly throw away, is but one of seven billion.

And when you do something that can help this planet, or just your own backyard,  again, remember that you are one in seven billion who can do the same.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Apple

*my column in the Oct. 23 issue of Cordillera Today

The world mourned the passing of one Steve Jobs a couple of weeks ago. Using a device just a bit bigger than a cigarette pack, I browse through the endless stream of text, photos and videos about the man who helped define the way humans live their lives in the Age of Aquarius. The contraption has a screen with a glass surface that shows high-definition images from that virtual world called the world wide web. If the image is too small, I simply, actually instinctively, “stretch” it with my thumb and forefinger. I pan up, down, left or right by swiping a finger across the screen. This I do while listening to music on earphones attached to the device - I can choose from over ten thousand songs stored in it.

My browsing was interrupted by a call from my mother-in-law on the other side of the earth. I receive her call from her bedroom in America as I sip coffee in a glass at Luisa’s along Session Road. She wanted to talk to my wife, so I told her that I would “text” her which meant sending a text message from mine to her mobile phone to go “online.” She will get that message in a split second as soon as I press the “send” button.

Those born in the last twenty to thirty years will never know what life was like before the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates chose to skip classes and devote their time to leading a global revolution by helping bring computers to our homes. They will never know how we managed to communicate using wired telephones that actually “rang” when there’s a call.

Luckily for people like me who as a child played barefoot under the sun, we have a much deeper appreciation for the technological marvels brought about by the digital revolution led among others by one Steve Jobs. When virtual 3-dimensional moving pictures came about, while we experienced it with jaws dropped, stupefied, the younger generation merely said, “but of course.” It will take so much more to amaze them than mind-bogglingly lifelike visual re-creations projected on a screen.

Jobs, Gates, et al have benumbed this generation.

A couple of weeks later since the passing of Jobs, I am once again swiping and stretching images, watching moving pictures and listening to what’s being said about the killing of one Muammar Gaddafi. He came to power in Libya four decades ago via a coup that deposed the monarchy and was then regarded as that country’s messiah. After living a life of luxury at the expense of his people and country, two days ago he was dragged out of an underground sewer line where he hoped to evade the advancing rebel forces determined to end his regime.

They found him, dragged him out, beat him up, and here I am watching the images on a tiny screen. I saw him being dragged out bloodied and I couldn’t help but wonder what he could be going through his mind at that moment as men with guns whom he himself tried to murder earlier paraded him in the streets of Libya. Later that day, the images on the screen were of the lifeless body of one Muammar Gaddafi with a bullet hole on his forehead.

As a child, I once followed a neighbourhood throng crowd around a suspected robber shot dead by police officers just a block away from where we lived. I squeezed in between bodies to get a glimpse and when I finally caught sight of the dead body, alive just moments earlier, I ran away, terrified, throwing up along the way. The image gave me nightmares for weeks after that.

And here’s Gaddafi’s dead body, I can zoom in by simply by sliding my thumb and forefinger on the screen. I can hear the voices of the Libyan people and others around the world and I read texts celebrating the death. Earlier the world zoomed in and out of images of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse. Watched and replayed over and over again the video of Saddam Hussein being hanged.

And on another tab on their internet browser, the world watched a blindfolded man being beheaded by a terrorist with a knife. A drunk coed being gang-raped at a party. A man being beaten and hacked to death by a mob. And with hardly a flinch, we easily swipe away the images to move on the next one, perhaps one of a cat being skinned alive by a group of bored teenagers, or being killed with the heel of a shoe by an online prostitute.

I think I’ve said this before, and I say it again: I believe man did not eat that forbidden fruit in Eden – he did so here on earth not so long ago, and the apple is computers. And with that bite we now “know” more. And as we know more, we feel less and less, care less and less. As information becomes more and more available, more and more accessible, we become more and more detached from reality. After all, they’re just high-definition images on a screen. Merely virtual reality.

The apple benumbed this generation.