PARANOIA AND guilt are among the occupational hazards of covering the environment. I have not had too many moments of ease while learning all I can about the overwhelming threats to the planet.
You can feel self-righteously detached from other subjects like government corruption and crime (i.e., the guilty ones are not me). But on the environment beat, it’s hard not to imagine a personal responsibility for at least some of the ills our earth is heir to-garbage, air pollution, or even open-pit mining (oh no, this computer I’m using contains mined resources).
The paranoia comes from the sense of endless siege from environmental dangers. Reporting on crime can also fill a journalist’s mind with dread, but one can at least feel immune to it by escaping to, let’s say, a high-security mall. But how does one escape global warming?
So it was inevitable that a sprinkling of paranoia and guilt got mixed up with the tremendous joy I felt when I heard the news about my coming first-born. My wife Ipat and I had waited seven years for that news, withstanding the family pressures and whispered rumors that accompany such a long wait. But that was time also spent thinking about such things as an intriguing article I once read about a human extinction movement, where people chose not to reproduce until our species just faded away. It was the most radical way I had heard of to save the earth.
Yet I knew no matter how much I wanted to save the planet, I just as dearly wanted to have a kid, even just one. Human extinction was not going to be one of my options.
Still, it seemed like nature had other plans for us for quite a while. So when our fertility doctor finally confirmed on the ultrasound what the pregnancy test told us, we were stunned. That lovely throbbing spot on a black and white monitor was not just our baby-to-be, it was living proof that hey, we really were part of the web of life, along with algae and frogs, and it felt great.
After the initial happiness, though, anxiety started setting in. We had long worried about my wife’s health, her asthma attacks induced by the thick air pollution around our subdivision, a floating soup of white dust from a nearby cement factory combined with the darker particles from vehicular traffic. Since our advocacy against air pollution had so far been ignored by both government and industry, the short-term remedy called for chemical steroids that enabled Ipat to breathe.
But the ingestion of chemicals was a mixed blessing at best. Chemical poisoning and its effects on animal reproduction, after all, was the subject of A Stolen Future, a grim book both Ipat and I read while pondering human reproduction.
When pregnancy did occur, we seemed to face a Solomonic choice: the risk to the baby of chemical exposure in the womb, or the threat of asthma from not using the chemicals. In the end, after consulting our doctor, we decided that not protecting the mother would be a greater danger to the baby. But it was a lesser evil that still filled us with dread.
We did eventually move out of that dusty subdivision to another part of the big city. But Metro Manila is a smorgasbord of dangers to the unborn. Much of our food contained untold pesticides, our water was contaminated by lead pipes, and so on down the line of nightmare-inducing environmental hazards. This was the world our baby would be born in, surely much worse than the earth I inherited in 1961, four billion people ago. It wasn’t my fault of course that the world ended up this way. But had I done enough to make it better?
The growing anxiety created a dire need to relax, so one day we took refuge in a movie theater, where we saw a film that was said to be a lesson in crafting realism. It was only at the height of the action in “Black Hawk Down”-the story of the bloody US military fiasco in Somalia that was said to presage the urban hell of present-day Baghdad-that I realized that all that realistic mayhem and acoustic warfare could have some traumatic effect on our baby. Add another dash of guilt to the brew of emotions.
After nine months of this roller coaster, which included confidence-boosting Lamaze lessons, we were finally in the hospital for The Moment. We dared not voice our fears, but as well informed as we were, we yearned for blissful ignorance for a change. The Lamaze lessons became useless when the baby refused to come out the natural way and he had to be surgically extracted. My knees were wobbly, but my video camera was rolling when the baby entered the visible world, his eyes wide open, looking at the strange contraption pointed at him without a hint of fear or even surprise.
All his body parts were intact. He cried. He was normal! I suddenly felt relieved, relaxed, and very human.
That was two years ago. The baby has become a frisky, talkative toddler. Alon Roberto Luna Severino eats organic food, has never tasted softdrink, and still breastfeeds. He’s healthy and happy, without any evidence of chemical or movie-induced trauma.
His parents’ generation has not been able to save the earth, the causes of our paranoia and guilt growing all the time. But now we also have a reason to feel optimistic and grateful. Perhaps this baby is a sign, at least to his parents, that maybe, just maybe, we pushed doomsday to a later date.
Howie G. Severino is a writer, producer and cameraman with GMA 7. He also sits as a member of the board of editors of the PCIJ.