Year for the Planet Year 2 Week 6: The New Cargo Cults

Year for the Planet is a campaign to make better choices for the planet. 2017 was when I fixed my eating habits. This year, 2018, is where I deal with my clothing choices.

I’m about 60% done with decluttering—I can see the light, almost!—and with each bag of garbage I throw away, I feel that I’m about to give my parents one of the best gifts a human can have: a new beginning. There is nothing quite like the lightness and freedom of seeing another square foot of space free from shoes that are no longer worn, plastic bags of stuff that have been long forgotten, and bottles of expired food. (If you have been following me on Instagram, you might have seen these tiny nightmares.)

It goes without saying that the hardest part of decluttering has been opening up boxes and bags. What was meant to protect the contents inside became an added layer of friction, which explains why the longer they accumulated dust, the less likely we were going to open them up.

It was during watching Werner Herzog’s Into the Inferno when I first came across the term cargo cults. First described in Melanesia, it refers to contact with more technologically advanced societies. Rituals are performed to make Western goods—cargo—to appear. The film focused on a tribe in Vanuatu who worshipped the god, John Frum, short for “John from America”, who is depicted as a WWII soldier who will bring wealth and prosperity to followers. Immediately I thought of the Philippines’ tradition of balikbayan boxes. These are large care packages sent by Filipinos based overseas to their families back home. They consist of a lot of, well, stuff, from junk food to clothes to shoes to towels and whatever the sender feels his family might need. It is the cargo cult that went on a worldwide diaspora.

I have been a benefactor of this part of Philippine culture; when I’m living abroad and need to pack up and leave, I usually use these boxes as companies charge by volume and not by weight. I could send a box that weighed like a small elephant for $70 USD. And relatives on my Filipino side have sent us many a well-meaning box. But while I understand the desire to send loved ones things they might not be able to easily get at home, I’ve always believed that this is the Next Best Thing that people can do, considering the lack of opportunities many Filipinos have back home. If you can’t be there for people physically, then at least you can take care of them through other means. But as I open yet another box, now covered with dust, I wearily think to myself: there’s gotta be a better way to care for each other instead of sending stuff we might not even need.

 

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