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Reflections on Earth from Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

Jaime Vergara lives in Saipan and is a columnist for the Saipan Times. Born in the Philippines, he became a naturalized US citizen in 1984. He has lived and worked all over the world, including in the Philippines, Nigeria, Tonga, Jamaica, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Malaysia, Venezuela, Korea, and in the United States, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, DC, and Greensboro, NC and Hawaii. He is an ordained Methodist minister though his most recent engagements have involved teaching social studies in Saipan and English in Shenyang, China.


Whether the US Congress or the United Nations gets the credit for starting Earth Day is immaterial. What matters in the Northern Mariana Islands where the pristine nature of mother Gaia is still recognizable is whether the awareness of the day keeps bodies behaving towards mother as an organic “thou,” rather than an inert “it.”

The population explosion in these islands is not among members of the indigenous community whose land ownership rights are constitutionally protected in Article 12 of the Commonwealth Constitution, as it is a swift capital influx with contract workers in tow to fund construction and administrative services.

Laid back indigenes languish on the false security of sole land ownership, blindly embracing mercenary use of public land for the quick increase of revenues and fees without much consideration of long-term consequences. The US military lease on land in the Marianas holds the upper hand at the planning table and no one knows exactly what the Department of Defense has in store, their environmental statement report so dense that, according to local academics, it requires an expert to make it understandable.

Like the bigger picture on the planet itself, owning the land and the rights to its shoreline resources is not enough. The planet presently carries more than its sustainable load figured at the subsistence level. Meanwhile, the industrialized nations proceed with a rapacious unsustainable use of resources it creates and protects as its prerogative.

We are not indulging in a blame game or fear mongering. We note that the interest of the local has become the domain of the global, leading Japan to create in the 80’s the word “glocal” as pertaining to global systems and structures in the local. That interrelatedness is no longer an option but a given.

While we point to inequality of gains and benefits glocally exacerbating the overcrowding in choice geographical locations, with a sickly planet continually violated by human intrusion into its ecological balance, we do not despair. We may bury our heads in the sand, but we are clear that though the planet’s support system is extremely strained it is within our management scope. Our brains’ interconnect is inevitable, we can prevail if we focus to create rather than destroy.

A US general wrote to Marines: ”You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.” So it is with the human species. We need to interrelate some seven billion human brains to ensure survival of Mama Gaia’s health.


A TV movie in 1983, The Day After, was about a nuclear exchange between the United States (US) and the then Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) before the latter disintegrated and the former started subtle to overt national bragging. What triggered the exchange in the movie was a quarrel between the two Germanys, and a Soviet blockade of West Berlin. The film never pinpointed who started the nuclear holocaust but the movie was about the exchange.

The film focused on mid-America’s Kansas after a nuclear attack and the radiation slowly devastated the survivors, ending in a fade out into black and silence after questions asked on radio went unanswered: “Hello? Is anybody there? Anybody at all?” Deafening silence prevailed.

The Day After Tomorrow was a climate fiction-disaster movie more than 20 years later (2004) about when a global warming warning went unheeded in a United Nation’s conference in New Delhi and this resulted in global cooling and the freezing of the Northern Hemisphere. The US President, in a slap to current sentiments, then asked constituents to escape the new Ice Age by crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico, a sight that was incongruous at a time when “wetbacks” were vilified for crossing the border. A solid fence actually went up in Texas to keep out the migrants from across the border.

Meanwhile, search and rescue operations were conducted in a devastated frozen New York City. The human instinct of survival was tested. The movie ends with Astronauts looking out of their space station on Earth, the Northern Hemisphere covered in ice and snow, and a voice blithely saying: “Look at that . . . Have you ever seen the air so clear?”

Disaster movies fascinate us and call us to attention. The haunting “air so clear” vision of ecological devastation in The Day after Tomorrow is a disturbing echo of the “Is there anybody there?” following the nuclear devastation of The Day After decades earlier. We are called to create our image of what we want the world to be through intentional planning, rather than calamity that it might be.

The government of the Netherlands was recently sued by its own citizens for alleged failure to stem climate change. The suit proposes that conscious choice is an option rather than acquiescence and resignation to unguided fate and destiny.

The figures on Earth’s health are verifiable. The population uses more than the planet’s holding capacity, from our extractive policies of mining nature’s assets that puts value on minerals more than on miners; to indiscriminate expelling of effluents into rivers, lakes, and seas beyond their natural absorptive abilities; to taking out farm hands by increasing use of insecticides, pesticides, and fertilizers to ensure full production—all forcing us into stages of metabolic evolution not of our own conscious design.

Then there is the planet, not just a bundle of inert elements and materials for our use and misuse, but a throbbing organism in its own right with human beings interdependently dependent on its wellbeing, tied as if with umbilical cords to its green mantle.

It is time to paint a picture of the day after as a heroic human struggle not only on leveling access to resources and the means of production, but on a universal program to distribute benefits in goods and services, so that the decision-making processes of the planet are not consigned and limited to the Carnegies, Morgans, Rockefellers, Rothschilds, Harrimans and Schiffs and their allies in Central Banks and finance institutions that bankroll the operations of energy companies under the protection of the superpower of the planet abetted by the extractive technologies now spread out throughout the laboring classes in countries around the world.

The conscienticized Pinoys in this readership recognize that if they do not belong to the 6,000 landed families in the home country, they do not count among the elite that yields power presided over by corporations of interrelated global boards. They need to get in the act, regardless.

Yes, the day after must proceed from a quiet revolution of human deeds, out of self-interest, knowing that “ego and eco” are complementary poles. There are no authentic people save as there is a sustaining planet that maintains us.


Astronaut Edgar Mitchell of Apollo 14 waxed poetic:

Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate sky blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery. It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth . . . home.

The earthrise photo became the central mythological symbol of promise and hope surrounding my early adulthood. Apollo 8 took the picture and shared it with a world at the time enmeshed in the Vietnam War, but the Earth (photo enhanced by Apollo II) becoming my mother widened my lines of allegiances!

On this Mother’s day (across the International Dateline), I am a few decades late in recognizing the damage we have inflicted on Mama Gaia. Feeling sorry for the neglect will not restore her health, regardless of how resilient we consider her to be, but realizing that our humanity is tied to a breathing organism treated heretofore as “lifeless,” matters; it makes us realize that we can decide to fend for our survival as humans in the context of an organism kept alive and healthy.

We are children of evolution. My head has gotten bigger, as we focus existence more on the complexity of the cerebrum and its cortex more than we do on the cerebellum and the medulla oblongata; on thoughts more than feelings and senses; on cognition with words, pictures and numbers more than impulse and intuition with gestures and explosions. Nor do we even pay heed to what we experience in sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Ours has been a culture that perennially asks: “How does that make you feel?”

Big Bird on Sesame Street went before the Bird Supreme Court to test a bird law on “losers weepers, finders keepers” when his abode in his absence was taken over by another bird who claimed it. The Court adhering to the cold letter of the law decided on the letter of the law, but was asked by Big Bird how they would “feel” on the matter if they were in his shoes, shifting the discourse from cognition to intuition.

I brook no ill against reason and logic as operational principles until they become masters of societal behavior rather than servants to decision-making processes. For example, many deny the reality of climate change, even in high government offices.

I traveled in the last five years across the plains, rivers, landscapes and mountains of Inner Mongolia and Dong Bei, Sichuan and Chiang Jiang, Canada’s Banff, California’s Bay Area and Chicago’s windy city, Honolulu’s skyline and Manila’s smog, and the lagoon shores of Saipan. I know of the erratic nature of weather being the rule more than the exception. Friends of the US Northeast to Texas’s Southwest attest that mother Gaia shows symptoms of midlife crisis.

The awareness of climate change is really not the issue but the impingement of the reality on our behavior and our active acknowledgment of it. Behavior as simple as discarding plastic wrappers that take ten thousand years to decompose alerts us on our propensity worldwide to throw away as if someone is assigned to pick after our droppings and make it evaporate. I picked up a discarded milk carton at the flagpole of the American Memorial Park the other day.

In China, someone is assigned to tidy up every square foot of public space. On the way to the airport one snowy early morning this March, a lady swept her assigned 100 meters on an elevated highway on the winter cold with white snow still on the ground.

We are a throwaway society. My mother did the reverse. She recycled. The only problem was that her neighbors thought she was the designated recycler of their discards. So her room in Honolulu was always full of “junk”.

Saving planet Earth is a favored shibboleth. The earthrise photo is a favored image; saving it is an outlook accompanying prints in various languages. Whether we are doing something to keep it healthy and clean is another matter. That is more than just keeping the country club lawn mowed and the golf course putting greens trimmed. Beautify CNMI goes beyond just picking up people’s trash along the lagoon shores.

Systemic degradation of the planet abounds in private and public practice for the sake of the quick green buck. World investments just hit gold in Pinoy mines! Mercury on the riverbeds will increase. Effluents feed the algae in our lagoon. The indigenous community is sidestepped on the sanctity of the burial grounds at the proposed casino site currently under construction in Garapan.

We’ve harped on the short-term preoccupation of Keystone XL pipes for Alberta tar sands. We frack shale, burn coal, damn waters upsetting ecological balance, and desperate souls of a slowly dying fossil fuel trade funds lobbyists, who are written up in the press where the media practices journalism.

A Korean tourist in Saipan wore a t-shirt: “it’s the only one we’re got; love it.” I hasten to add: the Mother and her children!