Haiyan, Inner Rebirth, Solution Ecosystems, and the Emergence of a New Philippines

Nicanor Perlas | 30 November 2013


Even today, more than two weeks after the monster typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) devastated the Philippines and affected more than 14 million lives, many are still at a loss as to what the ultimate meaning of Haiyan is for the country. Upon deeper reflection, a truly amazing picture is emerging amidst the rubble of destroyed communities. We can only see this if we are able to see beyond the obvious chaos that has ruled over once-thriving cities and towns.

Take Tacloban in Leyte. Global attention has focused on this city because Haiyan practically wiped this middle-sized urban center off the map. Haiyan killed thousands and forced hundreds of thousands more into homelessness and misery.

But Tacloban is hardly unique. Total devastation also exploded in a dozen towns in northern Iloilo, Capiz and Cebu, not to mention other areas. Haiyan destroyed hundreds of thousands of houses and wrecked the livelihood of countless families.

So what amazing hope can possibly arise from such a nightmare?

Quite a lot! When there is total chaos, then the chance for a new beginning is also present and easier to realize. Ineffective and inefficient physical and societal structures are gone. There is now a huge opportunity to replace outmoded structures with more innovative and appropriate infrastructures and societal arrangements. Old mindsets that impeded true development have lost all their legitimacy. In this vacuum, new ideas can come in a rebuild a new world.

Let us re-imagine Tacloban City as we also could for other similarly devastated cities and towns.

There is now a chance to re-think its architecture. Why replace the old structures with the same construction materials that were so easily torn apart by Haiyan? Can we not instead build super typhoon-resistant houses and office buildings?

Why rely solely on a centralized grid to deliver electrical power when decentralized renewal energy systems, including solar and wind, can achieve the same results and be less vulnerable to super typhoons? They are also more portable in the event that they have to be evacuated and used in an emergency.

Why depend solely on delivered drinking water when storm-damaged roads and bridges can disrupt the process of distribution? Why not rely instead on small portable water purifiers that can turn muddy waters into potable, drinkable water?

Why depend only on cell phone towers that can be easily knocked down by super typhoons? Why not invest more heavily on satellite-based telecommunications systems? As we all have painfully seen, lack of communication during the height of search and rescue operations can be heart-wrenching.

Why rebuild the same road systems that result in messy traffic when cheaper and more efficient mass transportation systems can do the job. Why bring back highly polluting old vehicles when electric buses are available and less polluting?

Why go back to the same agricultural crops that can be easily wiped out by super typhoons when climate change adapted farming systems will do a better job?

Even more radical, why continue with the same educational system that stunts the emotional, social, naturalistic, and existential intelligences of students, capacities so essential in preventing and responding to emergency situations, when multiple intelligent, holistic education approaches are available?

In short, why go back to a way of life that made us prone to disaster and death when we have the full opportunity, unencumbered with remnants from the past, to create an entirely new disaster resistant and resilient way of life? Why long for a messy past when we can build sustainable societies from the ground up?

In a profound sense, the Philippines has no choice. It is a favorite “punching bag” of around 22 typhoons that disrupt the country every year. With global warming going beyond levels that are considered safe for humanity, due in no small measure to the lack concerted global effort to head off the disaster, these typhoons are likely to morph into monster typhoons. Devastating super typhoons like Haiyan will be the new normal in the near future of the country.  Given this context, the Philippines has no alternative except to re-imagine its future.

However, for all this to be realized, two things have to happen. One, there has to be a massive change in the mindset of thousands of Filipinos. There has to be inner change. They cannot continue believing that things will go back to normal in a few months or even in a few years. It never will. We are entering a totally unprecedented and hostile era in the history of humanity on this planet, brought about in large measure by peoples’ inhumanity to each other and to Nature.

Difficult as this inner change may seem, the stark realities experienced by millions directly and still other millions indirectly will hasten the dawn of this important inner shift. An inkling of this has already been visible in the countless tales of self-sacrifice, bravery, and compassion that is still going on around the country.

More difficult will be the second requirement needed to arise from the ashes of destruction. Filipinos will have to consciously learn to construct wide-ranging societal partnerships to tackle the tremendous challenge of disaster preparation, mitigation, and re-inhabitation.

We all have to learn to create solution ecosystems to tackle the urgent challenges that super typhoons are forcing upon us. Solution ecosystems are carefully, sensitively, and strategically constructed threefolding societal partnerships between the many sectors of business, government, and civil society.

It is clear that government alone cannot do the job. We have to mobilize a massive bayanihan or mutual solidarity effort that involves the different identities and talents in the country because that is what it will take to face the challenges brought about by continuous waves of super and monster typhoons in the years to come.

When we think of solutions ecosystems, we can take to heart observations by renowned outsiders and experts who have visited the country in the past ten years. Without exception, they all have come to the same conclusion.  The Philippines has an unusually high potential to create threefolding societal partnerships or solution ecosystems among business, government and civil society, partnerships geared to advancing integral sustainable development.

Perhaps this is the reason why the Philippines was able to introduce and shepherd societal threefolding deliberations and partnerships at the level of the UN during the latter’s global meeting of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development in 1998. This approach to societal partnerships, which morphed into the idea of solution ecosystems, eventually became the basis of the partnerships espoused by the UN Millennium Development Goals at the dawn of the 21st century.

These global observations are not surprising when we take into consideration how our own languages teach us to sense each other at profound levels not easily found in other cultures in the world. This is not to argue for Philippine exceptionality as all nations have something to contribute to world civilization. Rather it is to point out what particular contribution the Philippines, out of its own unique culture, can make to the world.

Even Pilipinos are not aware of this even if they live it. There are over one hundred words for touch in Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilonggo. Our languages are educating and teaching us to be sensitive to others in all kinds of ways that are unknown in other cultures. Even the term, high “social intelligence”, in the sense of Daniel Goleman’s famous book of the same title, does not capture the profound meaning of touch etched in the Pilipino psyche. 

In any event, because of this faculty of deep “touching”, Pilipinos are highly sensitive to an unusual degree to the nuances of societal processes so essential in building solution ecosystems. For the latter cannot function if human beings do not trust and respect each other.

In addition, we should not forget the strength of our own culture to engage in massive mobilization out of damay or compassion for the suffering of others, which, among others, rests of this profound capacity to be touched at the deepest levels of our being.

Lest you think that is soft, just turn to history. As Reynaldo Ileto has clearly shown in his book, Pasyon and Revolution, damay was the basis of the Philippine revolution and the creation of the first democratic nation in Asia.  Lest you think damay is soft and inconsequential, just think of your many friends who have dropped their many responsibilities to help out with those stricken by monster typhoon Haiyan.

And, have you ever wondered why thousands are dropping their Christmas buying habits and instead donating their money to typhoon survivors? Yes, you are right. It is damay at work. Look no further to understand that this tremendous power of damayan is alive and well especially during times of disaster.

Is this all a pipe dream? The answer is a resounding, “NO!”. On the contrary, hundreds of disaster-engaged citizens are now creating the basis for such a vision and possibility. They are creating solution ecosystems or threefolding societal partnerships (between civil society, business, and government) to strategically prepare for the super typhoons to come in the decades ahead. This is already happening in Cebu, an epicenter of the current relief operations, and being discussed seriously in other cities of the country.

The Philippines was once known as the Pearl of the Orient Seas. This was literally so in the past when lighthouses and beach fires illumined the coastal waters of the county during bad or stormy weather. And we can do this once more at a different level if we understand the secret of how pearls are made.

When a grain of sea sand enters the soft tissue of an oyster, it causes great irritation and pain to the latter. However, the pain does not immobilize and devastate the oyster. Instead, the oyster secretes a substance to cover the irritant and remove the pain. And the result? A beautiful pearl emerges from the pain of the oyster.

By its very geographic location, super typhoons will continue to batter the Philippines. But like an oyster, the country will not be cowed to its knees. Instead Pilipinos will rise up to the occasion and transform their collective pain into the pearl of collective intelligence and super-human efforts to build the new cities of the future, a future that can withstand the fury of monster storms and the lashing of a Nature in a warpath against the transgressions of an arrogant and egotistic humanity.[1]

[1] This promise is so palpable that dozens of individuals across the country have come together to actualize this promise not only for themselves but for all others who want to pursue this possibility. These individuals are connected with the Movement of Imaginals for Sustainable Societies Through Initiatives Organizing and Networking (MISSION). They are organizing a national gathering on creating solution ecosystems to tackle the profound challenge of continued disaster in the Philippines. The event, tentatively dubbed as Liwanag After Disaster, will take place in March 2014. Stay tuned at www.imaginalmission.net.


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