KASAMA Vol. 10 No. 3 / July-August-September 1996 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

the only way to sustainable development

This essay is reprinted from Pay Now, Not Later: Essays on Environment and Development by Isagani R. Serrano, published by the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Quezon City, Philippines, 1994.

Photo: Tim Rosen New York 1992

"LET'S worry about our own problems now and let the future generations worry about theirs."

Nobody has said this explicitly but the message remains clear: development is being pursued regardless of its disastrous environmental consequences for this planet's future inhabitants.

We are now confronting a serious ecological crisis. Desertification has taken over millions of hectares of arable lands whose frontiers were reached long ago. Trees are being felled daily at a rate that even the most effective reforestation program cannot possibly renew. A good number of animal and plant species have been lost forever. Non-renewable resources are rapidly being depleted, as the demand for energy rises.

The list is long and alarming. More serious is the irreparable damage inflicted on humans. Despite worldwide pleas of concern, it appears very little has been done about the situation.

In our case, it is pretty obvious that resources are being expended much faster than they can be regenerated. In 1988, the fishing communities of Bataan were hit by a devastating plague called "red tide". Experts described what it was, but no one has any idea where it came from. Environmentalists say that industrial wastes let out into the Manila Bay from many years back have a lot to do with it. Who then is to blame?

Like most culprits, the owners of industry along the bay would disavow any ill-will. This is exactly what the Bataan Pulp and Paper Mills' owners said when people started complaining about the air and water pollution caused by the mill. So it seems there is no one to blame, except maybe all of us.

And yet, environmental norms are unequivocal. All of us, rich and poor alike, care about the air we breathe and the water we drink. We all appreciate green forests, verdant mountains and clear blue seas. Our common love for nature transcends our class biases.

But why this seeming predisposition to self-destruction when the development rhetoric is all too clear? Is it caused by lack of education on the need for conservation?

In its broadest sense, sustainable development means meeting the needs of the present without undermining the capability of future generations to meet theirs. But nobody would dare oppose this. The key question is why sustainable development does not take place and why it seems unrealizable.

The moment we ask this question, we cannot avoid looking into the costs and benefits of development. Which brings us to the conflicting interests of the elite and the poor majority.

A society such as ours that permits the control of lands, forests and waters by a few hundred families must expect maldistribution of benefits derived from these resources. Owners of big farms, big fishing boats and giant industries cannot be expected to voluntarily submit to environmental impact assessments because these cost money and thus lessen profits.

Development cannot be sustained without democratizing the control and utilization of resources. Putting resources under the elite's command may bring about growth, as past development efforts have shown, but never will it lead to the equitable distribution of the fruits.

The marginalized majority cannot be expected to keep their peace while the rich enjoy the benefits of development at their expense. Social stability can never exist in this kind of situation. And where this is absent, it would be idle to talk of sustainable development.

About the Author:

Isagani Serrano
is Vice President of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement. Born in 1947, he was twice detained for a total of seven years by the Marcos dictatorship. Since his release from detention, he has helped found several people's coalitions around development and environment issues.

From the Foreword by Waldon Bello:

"Ranging from the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, the essays reveal Serrano's versatile and restless mind - one that refuses to be confined to narrow issues and familiar paradigms but sees and draws out implications for the Philippines in diverse global developments. …As the Philippines debates the direction of its economy on the eve of the 21st century, panaceas like the government's "NIC by the Year 2000" are no substitutes for tough but discriminating thinking. The challenge is to formulate strategies of growth that do not sacrifice the environment, democracy, and the people. Serrano's hard questions and disturbing insights help light the path to such approaches."