When the shortest distance is not a straight line

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Archimedes, that super cool slasher Greek mathematician (slash physicist slash inventor slash astronomer slash etc.) said ages ago that ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line’.  I love this quote. Although it was said in the context of mathematical sciences, it in fact gave me countless reassurances when life became complicated or when I’m overwhelmed by my own overthinking. It has helped me overcome a lot of concerns by simplifying things and solving problems one simple step at a time.

But recently I’ve been mulling about so many things happening in the world, complex eco-geo-political issues that demand more creative and non-linear solutions. I hope to write about more of my thoughts here in succeeding blog posts, but now I’d like to share about one word that comes to mind, leapfrog. I came across the word years ago in one of my social science classes at the Philippine Normal University, but the first known use of leapfrog was in 1872, or 1599, if Merriam-Webster could make up its mind.

Let me share with you three examples.

A few days ago, I noticed a spike in posts about menstrual hygiene and the clamor for tax-free sanitary pads among Indians in social media. While I support women’s access to affordable menstrual hygiene products, I also believe that sanitary pads and tampons are not the only solutions. I think these are palliatives which could dangerously create more problems in the long run. I’m not saying this only in the context of India, but let’s just take it as a case in point. If women in India, a country of 1.3 billion people almost half of whom are women, use disposable menstrual products, imagine the environmental disaster it would result to!  But the narrative that is being cooked up by corporates and their allied media is that sanitary pads and tampons are the solutions in empowering women. This narrative has resulted to an aspiration for many Indian women to use disposables, while food, education, and many other basic needs are also still yet to be met. I think menstrual products should indeed be tax-free, but the government should also utilize a more proactive approach in educating women about menstrual hygiene and not put washable cloth sheets in a bad light. I think access is important, but so is informed choice.

In many developing countries, advertising is continuing to peddle modernity and convenience while in the first world, the home of multi-national companies selling disposable menstrual products, women have started using washable cloth pads and menstrual cups. These reusable products are cheaper, better for health, and more environment-friendly. Where does it say that women in developing countries have to go through the same line as western women did from cloth to sanitary pads to reusables? Nowhere. In fact these women could simply leapfrog into reusables like cloth pads and menstrual cups, and with proper care, even ordinary cloth sheets, and skip disposable pads altogether. I think it is the task of the government, civil society organizations, media, and the education sector take a proactive stance in raising awareness about menstrual hygiene while showing women that there is no shame in using cloth, if done properly, and that disposables could potentially harm their health, and definitely affect the environment negatively.

Another example is the persistent campaign to shove into the third world obsolete technologies like coal-fired power plants. I call coal plants obsolete technology because its time has indeed passed, renewable energy technologies have reached milestone upon milestone in the last decade. All over the world, the benefits of renewable sources of energy like BIGSHOW (biomass, geothermal, solar, hydro, ocean and wind energy) have become so evident that it doesn’t make sense why while these plants are being decommissioned in the first world, third world countries like the Philippines are welcoming them with open arms. The cost of renewables is dipping, grid parity has been reached, base load could be addressed with the right energy mix of renewables complementing each other. A lot of developing countries, like those in Africa, Asia, and South America have been leapfrogging to renewables instead of going through the path of fossil fuels with its host of negative effects to the environment, health, and economies.

The Philippines, for instance, is so blessed with renewable energy sources. We have everything! As an agricultural country, we don’t have to compromise food production to convert biomass to energy. We can simply convert biomass waste generated by the agricultural sector. In doing so, aside from having a renewable energy source, methane (a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than C02 in its global warming potential) that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere freely will be used as fuel. We are second in the world in the production of geothermal energy. As a tropical country, our solar power potential is extremely high, and the same goes for hydro power which does not necessarily mean huge dams but a host of small and medium scale ones like pico hydro and micro hyro sources. As an archipelago, we have very high potential for ocean or tidal energy, as well as wind energy. A smart renewable energy mix could power the Philippines with clean, cheaper energy sources that is better for the health of the people and the planet, not to mention the economic co-benefits of the employment renewable energy could generate.

So why is the Philippines approving coal plants left and right? Fear of losing baseload? No. Fossil fuels cheaper? Not for long. 100% renewables impossible? See cities and countries making radical shifts to renewables. Their economies did not stop, and in fact thrived. IMHO, it is simply the corporate lobby that is bogging down the energy department and other decision-makers on the kind of energy sources being approved. So why don’t we take the leap to renewables? Why should be swayed by corporate narratives and fear-mongering that if we start to give up fossil fuels, our life and economies will come to a full stop? This type of conditioning is very evident in areas where there are proposals to open or expand coal power generation. Their blackmail is in the form of intermittent power interruptions, pressuring public opinion to accept fossil fuels as necessary to power homes, institutions, and industries. It takes political will to make a radical shift and leapfrog into clean energy. It can be done as others have done it and the benefits have been immense.

Finally, I would like to look into child development and education. There are so many aspects of child development and education that we are getting so wrong. First, is the one size fits all approach. Second is the use of foreign language as medium of instruction for younger children. Third is the dire focus on academics. Fourth is use of technology too early. I could go on and on. In developing countries like Cambodia, we see ‘American’, ‘international’, ‘global’ schools sprouting like mushrooms after the rain. Parents spend a lot of money to get slots for their children. They check if there are native English speakers in the faculty, computer labs, uniforms that are perfect for American but not tropical weather. Recently in the Philippine university curricula, some general subjects are removed. More and more schools are using computers for early graders. Knowingly or not, the school culture being promoted is cutthroat competition. No wonder we keep on falling behind in educational global standing!

But while the frenzy for global education is on the rise in developing countries, a lot of educated, well-to-do parents in the first world are starting to send their children to forest kindergartens. These schools focus on free play and exploring of nature for learning. Waldorf education for instance do not teach reading per se, until the second grade. They shun televisions and electronic gadgets and do a lot of art and movement instead. They do not have textbooks, assignments or exams. They take the harder, yet more beneficial individualized approach. Learning is cooperative rather than competitive. Curriculum is localized instead of globalized. Steve Jobs, like many Silicon Valley parents, limited their children’s use of electronic gadgets.

Do we really have to go through the American educational model before we appreciate some not yet mainstream but totally opposite European models? How about if our educators learn start employing holistic, age-appropriate, nature-based learning that is molding more creative, resilient, and sober children? Do we need our children to start committing suicide for us to see that the pressure is just too much, and that each child have their own gifts that schools have to uncover instead of burying with books and contests? Do we really have to let our children go through so much torture of conventional one size fits all education? We don’t. Examples abound all over the world, like the Green School in Bali and Tilda Swinton’s sentimental education, but schools don’t have to be necessarily boutique type to be good for our children. Holistic education can be mainstreamed. The question is, if our educators are willing to unlearn and take the path less travelled.

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Grabbed from

With these three examples, we have seen that sometimes there is no need to go through a straight line to reach a better destination faster. The problem is that we have been modelling the first world in their development pathway. The good news is, we don’t have to. We could simply look at the lessons of their development pathway. We could look at current trends and take short cuts to development without compromising our economy, our planet, and our people. If our leaders have enough foresight to consider taking into account more sustainable and long terms solutions, shunning palliatives that actually negatively impact our lives, then a better world is possible.


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