Philippines Notes, Part One: Litter in Paradise

The easy default reactions of an American who encounters unspeakable poverty and squalor when visiting a country like the Philippines are pity, scorn, and outrage. How monstrous, it seems, to call places like these “developing countries” when the extent of their development is obvious: great bastions of wealth and property concentrated in the hands of a few; great seas of want populated by many. One observes the cardboard and tin shanties, the piled refuse, the stench of waste, and one initially feels the pulse of righteous indignation pounding through American veins conditioned to believe that, if given a fair chance, anyone can improve his lot in life through hard work, ingenuity, and persistence.

Why, oh why, can’t the Horatio Alger narrative work here? Are things so institutionally broken, so irreparably damaged that the society cannot pull upon its collective bootstraps and rise above the filth that imprisons them?

One day, while visiting Laguna, an hour south of Manila, I thought I witnessed a perfect metaphor for the Filipino syndrome. In a land filled with towering coconut trees and countless species of avian life, where a white beach and some sparkling water would complete the picture of what many of us consider “paradise,” I saw children unwrapping candy treats and blithely tossing the plastic wrappers on the ground. I saw badly maintained buses spewing spumes of black exhaust with each acceleration. I saw animal droppings left to rot in the sun in marketplaces. This ghastly scene plays out endlessly in Manila, the alternately grand and grotesque capital city, where fabulous wealth towers beside unthinkable poverty — just as in most cosmopolitan concentrations around the globe. Seeing the residents of a putative paradise, though, befouling their postcard-worthy hamlet was, I thought, another plate of noodles altogether.

Then I realized that we Americans do the same thing, on a much larger scale, every day of our lives. Our cities are less dense, our exurban sprawl more diffuse, and so the massive quantities of carbon dioxide we spew into the air while driving our giant cars and the chemical byproducts we pump into our rivers and lakes while producing our consumer products seems less an affront to the natural habitat we’re ruining. The Philippines has a littering problem; America does, too. Ours is just slightly camouflaged. Before we deign to instruct our “third-world” friends on how to keep their house in order, we ought to examine how our rapacious appetite for more of everything is dirtying the world beyond our borders. Per capita, we pump more poison into the air than any country, which is one of the reasons our elected leaders withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, citing “unfairness” and “scientific uncertainty.” Imagine if we Americans had to exercise more discipline and self-abnegation than the average Filipino does. Life wouldn’t be quite as jolly.

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