Year for the Planet Week 18: Knowing What’s At Stake

Before you can fix the world, you have to fix yourself. Year for a Planet is a personal challenge to be a better human for the planet for a whole year. This year, 2017, is where I deal with my food choices.


The past few days, I had the amazing opportunity to do another climate change art workshop in Tacloban City, Leyte, in southern Philippines. You would have heard of it, regardless of where you are—it was devastated in 2013 during Supertyphoon Haiyan / Yolanda, and is often in discussions on climate change.

Tacloban is a city that figures well in my work in The Apocalypse Project, even though I had never been there before. I often have a slide in my talks dedicated specifically to this place, where I would say that the apocalypse had happened in my own country while I was imagining a fake future one in Singapore. This encapsulates what William Gibson famously said (though it doesn’t refer to technology), that “The future is already here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” What horrors would privileged people know, compared to what people here in Tacloban just experienced? Places like this represent how unequal the world is.

This is why I am especially happy to visit Tacloban, where it is both relevant to my work in climate change and to this project. So, what’s really at stake if we keep making terrible choices, one of them being food?

I hopped on a tricycle that took me to various places relevant to the Haiyan disaster. There were at least two ships that ran aground. One was stuck in a swamp, and a little boy took me through some muddy residential areas to see it as close as possible. Another one—the ship that you’ve probably seen on the news—had a half missing and was turned into a memorial.

A ship in a swamp
A ship was turned into a memorial

Many houses were newly built after the storm, but there were some that remained in their post-disaster state. The roofs were gone, and the walls yielded to graffiti and street dogs.

A house beside the ocean is devastated by Haiyan.

Heartbreaking was one of the mass graves I visited, where most crosses were unmarked. For the few that were, their birth years painted vague pictures of the people whose bodies they guarded—1982 (not that much older than me), 2006, 2009 (mere children). Some had photographs stuck to them.
Locals I talked to all had lost someone, or knew someone who did. One relocated his family to another province to get over the trauma, as his six-year-old would cry every time he heard thunder. Another had a friend who lost almost all members of his family.

A mass grave for Haiyan victims
Photographs of a child marks a grave

We passed by an astrodome, which was not too far from the water. It had been used to evacuate residents, but the flood waters reached the first floor and had killed the people taking refuge there. Now, a memorial stood nearby, with a list of of the names of those who had perished.

An astrodome served as an evacuation center, but flood waters arrived and killed people on the first floor.

Most alarming was seeing how, four years later, many residents had rebuilt their rickety houses beside the ocean. A local told me that they preferred living there because food was easy to come by. And here I thought it was sickeningly unfair, how people would rather risk another catastrophe because systems here still didn’t serve the people.

The next day, I ran a climate change art workshop with some youth from Plan International, with whom I’m holding an art residency. I don’t think I’ve ever been so nervous about holding a workshop in my life. What on earth do you say to kids who have experienced such terrible things, not to mention living in one of the most corrupt countries in the world? My work is about stretching people’s imaginations, and yet here I felt it was mine that was going to be expanded.

TLDR: the workshop went well—one of the most meaningful I’ve ever led. And these few days in Tacloban reminded me of why it’s important to carry on with this project. Somewhere, someone in the world is affected by our choices.

Thank you to Plan International Tacloban and Kimberly Joonmukda for the invitation.


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