Covid-19 and Our Ecological Sins

Covid-19 and Our Ecological Sins

A Chinese tourist swims with a Butanding in Oslob, Cebu. (Photo: Viator)

(My) generation may not have a future anymore because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.

— Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg

BEFORE I move on to my topic for today, let me greet my buddies, Roy Caraga Mabasa a belated happy birthday yesterday, September 13, and Carlo Mateo, who is celebrating his birthday today, September 14. More power guys!

Roy Mabasa (left) and Carlo Mateo (right).

MORE than two decades ago, I was awed by the huge number of Butanding, or whale sharks, that periodically visited the sleepy town of Donsol in the province of Sorsogon to feed and breed in its warm waters under the faraway volcanic heights of Mount Mayon’s perfect cone.

I visited Donsol on assignment for PJI (Philippine Journalists Incorporated) in one of the first expeditions to document the annual convergence of whale sharks in the area—a phenomenon inexplicable then—and yes, to enjoy the sights and beauty of the place with my photographer Romel Saniel.

Donsol, now a tourist destination site, was unknown before the discovery of the Butandings and this was highly publicized after the expedition through the help of some of our media colleagues, not to mention National Geographic’s ace marine photographer Robert Yin and local television broadcaster Karen Davila.

But in recent times, Donsol’s pristine ecosystem has deteriorated with the arrival of tourists who wanted to witness the gentle giants swimming in its coastal waters. In addition to pollution by tourism, petrochemical discharges from industrial zones nearby are also blamed for damaging its ecology.

And hundreds of kilometers away, Manila Bay has also experienced a revival since the country went into a nationwide Covid-19 shutdown in the middle of March last year. After many years, people converge to its beachfront, now covered with crushed dolomite to make it appear as ivory white as the beaches of Boracay in Aklan and Caramoan in Camarines Sur.

While Manila Bay attracts people only because of its famed sunset, it is for most local tourists a place where one can go to escape the heat and enjoy the beach and coastal waters while caring too little for the unbroken stretch of sandy beach from Bataan to Cavite to leave it covered with litter.

The natural beauty of Donsol, Manila Bay, and other parts of the Philippines might be one of the few positive aspects in this time of great difficulties brought about by the coronavirus pandemic that we can enjoy.

But who do we blame for the global health crisis brought by a disease we had not even seen in our worst nightmares?

Accusing fingers have been pointed at China because the virus that causes Covid-19 is believed to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan City in Hubei province.

There may be truth in blaming the Chinese and their unnerving taste for exotic foods, but maybe one day, we may come to know what really caused this international disaster, or it may remain unresolved like the mysteries even inexplicable phenomena we find in many places such as the Bermuda Triangle.

Yet even if the Wuhan wet market is truly to blame, every one of us cannot deny our role in failing to stop the widespread killing of wild animals and birds for food and medicine for years in China and elsewhere in the world.

For too many years and more than the lifetimes of Man since he walked upright from traveling on hands and feet like our primate ancestors, Mankind’s assault has not only been limited to wildlife but has targeted almost every aspect of Nature.

And we continue to pay the price—extensive pollution of air, land, and water is blamed for nine million deaths each year. This is about 16 percent of total deaths.

But despite the lessons we have learned and are learning, we have not changed and continue to cling to the belief that we deserve to be on top of the food chain as we lord it over all creations and are obsessed with a consumerist culture that promotes ruthless economic development at the expense of ecology.

It is hard to disagree with the experts who suggest there might be a direct link between pandemics such as Covid-19 and environmental degradation. For centuries, we have continued to destroy forests and habitats and are engaged in illegal wildlife trade that brought us, humans, to be in close contact with wild animals and slowly creating conditions for a massive disaster towards our own extinction.

In many developing countries like ours, only a handful of people believe development and nature conservation can go hand in hand. Thus, deforestation, encroachment of rivers, incessant mining, and plundering of wildlife are all very common.

Brushing aside protests from environmentalists, including indigenous people’s communities, the Philippines continues to utilize fossil fuels and coal-fired plants, a trend that poses enormous threats to the environment and wildlife.

And the ghostly specters of our ecological misdeeds have come back to haunt us. The World Health Organization recently warned that the novel coronavirus may not disappear fully from the world, which means we are not likely to be pardoned for our sins against nature anytime soon.

Six years ago, Pope Francis’ groundbreaking environmental encyclical Laudato si’ called pollution ‘a sin’ and hit out at ‘irresponsible developments’ that cause irreparable damage to our environment.

The pope also reminded us of what we often forget: “When we speak of the environment, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live.”

And much too often, we forget we are also part of nature, and harming nature means we are destroying ourselves and our relationship with nature.

Even before Covid-19 spread to wreak havoc on humanity, the pope had discussed our ‘ecological sins’ during the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon in October more than two years ago. He even hinted at updating the catechism of the Catholic Church to include a definition of ‘ecological sin’.

Pope Francis’ strong and passionate calls for an end to the throwaway culture and love for nature have resonated around the world. The youth around the world, led by advocates like Greta Thunberg, heeded the calls. But despite these, the question remains about how much the world has paid heed or changed.

For years, the world’s leaders have failed to do enough to save our planet from pollution and degradation despite a series of climate change conferences spearheaded by the United Nations, and these have been unable to get on board the two biggest polluters, the United States, and China.

The truth is that nothing—no great book, documentary, speech, or conference—can suffice to save the environment unless we change our hearts and view ourselves as parts of nature.

Maybe one day the coronavirus pandemic will be over, but the really important question is whether we will get back to our normal lives as ‘reformed human beings’ with love for nature and wildlife.

If not, the famed Butanding of Donsol will vanish and the glorious sunset at Manila Bay’s horizon will be darkened from our memory.

History and future generations will not forgive us for leaving behind a devastated planet plagued by pandemics and climate change.


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