Thursday, June 3, 2010

Children of Change

Had things gone well enough, this would have been my third and last entry to the Kabataan Essay (English) category of the Palanca Awards. But as fate would have it, this essay was never meant to see the light of the judges’ day. The theme was: What is it in the environment that you can save? Your thoughts would certainly be most welcome.

Not so long ago, I embarked on the most ambitious project I could ever think of as a preschooler: Collect a mountain of candy bar wrappers. But it was not for the sake of a space in one of those Guinness Book of World Records; I was doing it to save the world.

Less than a block from where I used to live, garbage trucks would converge in the late afternoon to pick up sack upon sack of trash accumulated by the neighborhood during the day. The smell alone prevented me from leaving the house, and the only reason people gave me as to why the trucks have to come every single day was that ‘it is a way of making the city cleaner’. Back then, the idea of a five-year-old pioneering a new wave of thinking towards saving the environment was very possible for me.

You see, what’s good about children is that at their age, they have yet to acquire a concrete grasp of impossibility. It’s more than just the mere suspension of disbelief that is put to use during story time; it’s about that staunch determination that they display when they ‘know’ that something can actually happen and be done. It’s that whole-hearted, untainted belief in the ‘everything’s possible’ catchphrase that we see them pour out when they’re up to a task.

It’s this very same conviction in the possibility of things that led me to help save the world, in the first place. At that time, I figured that if cleanliness is all the issue, then by all means should I help along. And save the world it was, wrapper by wrapper. Today, my collection is – as expected – no more. It only took some time before the entire household discovered a miniature candy-wrapper version of Payatas growing right under their noses, and for me to be told that I wasn’t making anything cleaner at all if our house became a dumpsite.

More than a decade since any hope of Payatas replicating in our house was dashed, idealists and go-green advocates the world over are pushing the question all day: In an era where environmental conservation is fast becoming both a cliché and the only hope for man’s survival, what is it exactly can you save in the environment? To this, I can now only give one sensible answer: the ideology of saving the environment itself. While others think that we should all be heading for the mountains to plant trees or the seaside to plant mangroves, this is what I propose instead: a revolution by word-of-mouth to change the general consciousness among the youngest members of society.

It’s not that I have abandoned all hope in building an empire of candy wrappers. But in as much as I’d like to play the role of the idealistic youth, present-day situations demand that I be realistic. Certainly, the power to influence government decisions is beyond me; gathering people to rise in unified action or head to the hinterlands to plant trees is the last thing I’m capable of organizing right now; and planting my very own tree here in the city would only be sending that tree to its death. What I do know, however, is this: Words never fail to work.

Three years ago, I represented my school and gave a talk on environmental consciousness to some five hundred students in a scouting camp. The instant I knew about the task at hand, I was quick to dismiss it as a piece of cake – or the icing, for that matter, since an opportunity of a lifetime had just landed on my feet. The only problem is, my audience was composed of pupils from grades one to three – in short, children. The icing just as quickly melted away.

For indeed, how do you explain to such young kids that every one of us has had a hand in exacerbating the already-devastating floods that swamp the entire city (and cause a suspension of classes) every time some typhoon comes knocking? What exactly is it can you tell someone barely into grade school to do if he wishes to see clearer skies and cleaner seas when he reaches fifty? Or, for that matter, how do you tell someone so young that the only way he is ever going to reach fifty in a healthy state from now on is if he rises in action towards saving nature? By then, the challenge for me had become to convincingly play Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth to people who barely have an inkling as to who he is.

In the thick of delivering my speech, however, I found myself on familiar ground. There once was a time when I used to believe that I’d one day magically sprout wings and be able to fly anywhere I want to. It was that very moment manifesting itself before me in the form of children eagerly listening to what I had to say.

Dr. Jose Rizal – he who exemplifies hope for the Filipinos, as many would like to believe – was all passion and love for country when he said that education is the key to a better nation. The problem is, the less fortunate kids – and there’s an army of them – simply don’t have the opportunity to go to school at all, thanks to the wayward workings of society. And with the more fortunate ones, let’s just say that not all kids of the 21st century were programmed to adore school to the highest degree.

This is the very reason why I believe that words are our best weapons in this battle for a better world. They hit the mark face on, and they transcend the barrier of age. In the ten minutes that I spoke, I realized that the very task itself was simply to talk to the children using the simplest words and most creative explanations. Tell them about global warming, the rapid decline of our environment, and that we need a new bunch of heroes to save the world – for sure, my message would have gotten through.

On a larger picture, words not only transcend age; they transcend boundaries. If every aspiring environmentalist in this country would talk about saving the earth on Facebook or Multiply, or write just one blog post about it, think how much attention it would all generate. Or if we even just bring up the subject of the environment in its barest bones during casual conversations – be it with the jeepney driver, the manicurist, the security guard, or the household helper – think how far the message would be able to travel. Think, then, how these people would talk to their children or grandchildren and forward the message. It’s all a simple matter of talking about environmental consciousness with all honesty to people – and to children.

More than just spreading the word, however, there is a simpler, though very, very trite reason as to why we should reach out to the younger generation: The youth is the future of this country. In about fifty years, this world would be run by an entirely new generation whose actions the present is totally incapable of predicting. This is precisely why passing on the ideology of going green is the most important thing we can do right now. It is about passing on a legacy, a way of thinking, just as every parent teaches his or her child a set of life lessons. More than just the influence, it is about making sure that our present efforts will not be in vain. Best of all, it would mean keeping that flame of hope burning – that someday, all our efforts in preserving the environment will be rewarded and continued.

Our elderly neighbor always complains that the youth nowadays are very, very different from the past. We spend most of our time playing, partying, and spending our allowances on the most mundane things – and I unquestionably agree with him on this point. However, what he fails to realize is that the present is always a product of the past. It is because parents tolerate internet and television addiction that children become hooked to computers and TV screens. It is because adults all around us are smoking, drinking, and doing who-knows-what-else that the youth are also smoking, drinking, and doing who-knows-what-else-could-be-worse. Most importantly, it is because the older generation fails to highlight the importance of environmental consciousness to the youth that only few young people nowadays could care more about it.

A century ago, Rizal and the propagandists used ideology as their sharpest sword for the Philippine Revolution. Today, we are also on the brink of revolution – an environmental one – and I propose ideology to be made our main weapon. We can only depend so much on other people – and even they themselves are not a guarantee for change. The ideology of saving Mother Earth is all around us; it is perhaps the only thing in the environment that ordinary citizens like me can actually save and pass on to the next generation.

After I gave my speech, the young scouts all headed to the nearby plaza for a tree-planting activity. Whether their trees are still in battle with the claws of pollution is something I cannot answer. What I do know is that something in each of them survived: the ideology I passed on – that they, the future generation, have a responsibility towards the environment.

When my ill-fated candy-wrapper collection finally succumbed to its fate, I was left with the notion that saving the earth is not everyone’s business. But if we start telling the younger ones that they need to do their part in saving the earth, maybe we’ll finally see a gradual change in consciousness among generations. Maybe, more and more kids, possibly even with their parents’ support, would start their own collections of candy bar wrappers in the hope of saving the world – or helping do so. Then, maybe people would finally wake up to the fact that saving the earth is everyone’s business – because it really is.

For now, it’s time to talk.


Janice said...

What, may I ask, is the reason why you didn't send the Palanca entry?

Vincen Gregorii said...

I basically ran out of time... realized too late I still didn't have the authorization and notarization forms etc... started too late I guess.=)