“This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings. But one cannot prescind [leave out of consideration] from humanity. There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality. In this horizon, a genuine sense of the common good also disappears.” – Pope Francis, June 18, 2015.
“We know deep inside us that all beings have value. All people are precious. All of creation has sacred, inherent worth. We must take a stand in defense of the children of all species—including our own. We cannot continue to tug at the web of life without tearing a hole in the very fabric of our earthly existence—and eventually falling through that hole ourselves. – Van Jones, 2008
When Pope Francis announced his encyclical on the environment, our common home, I wanted to shout out all the elements of his document. After all, many of his statements ring truth.
Like how in Chapter 1, the singular focus of serving the business interests and consumerism have made our earth less rich and beautiful. We need not look far to notice that in Los Angeles, years ago, when there were no air emission controls, frequent gray days from smog were experienced. But now, we are able to see glorious sunsets and sunrises.
Not too long ago, Los Angeles was synonymous with smog, with 200 days out of 365, looking somber gray and with dirty beige horizon. Smog in the 1950s was described as a chemical reaction of sunlight, nitrates, ozone, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Smog is especially harmful to children and seniors who in turn develop emphysema, asthma, respiratory diseases, stroke and heart attacks.
But with the Clean Air Act of 1970, including the requirement for cars to get smog checks before renewing car registrations, air pollution woes slowly changed. Larry Pryor of KCET reported that the biggest single factor altering Los Angeles’ air quality was the 1970 federal Clean Air Act, “it was such a huge change in the law, because local controls were erratic and sensitive to industry costs rather than health costs.”
Los Angeles then is Beijing now.
Toxic air pollution in urban cities
Dirty air is what Beijing residents are breathing. Good Morning America reported in 2013 that the most toxic air was experienced in two days when Beijing residents purchased 500,000 surgical masks and stayed indoors. Even though the sun was shining, given that the air quality index registered at 755 AQI, the sun could not be seen. As compared to smoggy Bakersfield, its 159 AQI was much less toxic. In just 24 hours, the surgical masks purchased in Beijing had turned into charcoal ash gray.
In 2003, Beijing skies looked like pea soup, limited to fewer days. Students like, Li Yutong, could still play outdoors, “I used to play football outside and go running, but you just can’t do that anymore. School kids seem to get sick more often now – and they’re much fatter because they don’t play outside,” The Guardian reported.
Now, the British School of Beijing has constructed an inflatable dome for students to play sports: running, basketball and more. It also spent £ 3 million to install a hospital-grade air filtration system, with new air curtains, as well as 200 ceiling- mounted air purifiers.
Students are required to stay indoors when the Air Quality Index (AQI) gets up to 200, while 500 is considered maximum doom. When a marathoner was asked how he felt running with AQI 400, he described it as running through a smoldering bonfire.
“Paper face masks have been common here for a long time, but now the heavy-duty kind with purifying canister filters – of the sort you might wear for a day of asbestos removal – are frequently seen on the streets. On bad days, bike lanes are completely deserted, as people stay at home or retreat to the conditioned environments of hermetically-sealed malls. It’s as if the 21-million-strong population of the Chinese capital is engaged in a mass city-wide rehearsal for life on an inhospitable planet. Only it’s not a rehearsal: the poisonous atmosphere is already here, “ The Guardian continued.
Bonfires to trash burning to smoke-belching vehicles
In 2007, I lived in Tacloban, Leyte for six months. Early in the morning, when I walked around the park, at about 7 am, I would gasp for air. I’d look up and see smoke coming out from backyards of homes, presumably from trash being burnt, which included plastics. The air got so bad that halfway into my walk, the smoke triggered an asthmatic attack. But it was not only me — a lot of residents were coughing and regularly walked with handkerchiefs covering their nose and mouths, as a form of protection from smoke-belching tricycles, idling, waiting for passengers in the town plaza.
In Manila, these smoke-belching tricycles were joined in by trucks and taxis to form an unconscious chorus of pollution. But in 2010, most of the taxis had switched to liquid petroleum gas. Taxis became the modern day vehicles emitting no noxious fumes.
However, issues of environmental safety became issues of personal health and safety, as Gulf News Philippines reported half of the 40,000 registered taxi drivers converted to liquid petroleum gas, with adverse health effects: “Most of the time my throat feels dry even when I’m not thirsty and I don’t have the desire to eat unlike before,” said Florencio Gatbunton, 43, a taxi driver for 25 years. He had been driving an LPG powered-cab for the last seven years.
Amado Mariano, 35, also complained of similar symptoms. He has been driving an LPG taxi for five years. “Sometimes I would have a headache, something similar when you have a head cold that would not come out. Sometimes I just want to throw up and vomit for no reason,” he said.
For now, advances in technology have led to E-jeepneys powered by batteries, recharged by electricity, that are now used in Makati and The Fort in the Philippines.
In Los Angeles, “metro buses are now using compressed natural gas (CNG), reducing the need for diesel, and at a fuel cost that’s about 30% of diesel. 2,250 buses are now fueled by Southern California Gas (SCG) in Los Angeles. In 2011, Metro passed its billionth mile on CNG-fueled buses and retired its last diesel bus,“ according to SCG’s website.
One morning, I took the Metro bus and I found the ride to be pleasant, clean, comfortable, with a courteous driver, and no noxious emissions. Los Angeles took the steps to be kinder to Mother Nature, made possible by Metro’s leadership team who decided to be reverent to Mother Nature. We too can follow their example of being considerate to our common home.
“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.” – Pope Francis, June 18, 2015.
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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for Asian Journal Press for 8 years now. She contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in the field of science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium and Mexico and 22 national parks in the US, in pursuit of her love for arts.