By Kat Fiedler, Associate Pace Environmental Law Review. Class of 2017
This year’s Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Lecture on Environmental Law was given by Antonio A. Oposa Jr., Pace Law School’s Distinguished International Environmental Scholar-in-Residence. Mr. Oposa is an environmental litigator, organizer, and activist, and arguably one of the most creative minds in the field today. One of Mr. Oposa’s many accomplishments was achieving a holding in the Philippine Supreme Court that children had standing to sue on their behalf and on behalf of future generations – or what is now known as the “Oposa Doctrine.” Mr. Oposa’s work has been widely recognized throughout the world. Mr. Oposa was recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Roll of Honour. He also received the Philippines’ “Outstanding Young Man Award” in 1995 and is the only Asian to receive the International Environmental Law Award from the Center for International Environmental Law.
Mr. Oposa’s lecture was framed around several stories, and this was done with purpose. The act of storytelling itself is part of Mr. Oposa’s message. He said that “words are paintbrushes,” and in telling stories about how we have treated the environment, we have attempted to validate the destruction we have caused. For example, in “disemboweling the earth,” we claim that we are making “progress.” We have long told ourselves, or have ourselves been told, stories of progress as we watch our homes being destroyed. Mr. Oposa emphasized that in order to change the future, we must change these stories and the meanings of these words we have used, for “we can’t paint the future with the same old paintbrush which we used to paint the past.” Among those words which we need to redefine are “environment” and “development.” Mr. Oposa also explained as land, air, and water are the ingredients for life, a change in perspective on these essential resources can change our actions. If we consider the trees and the forests as the lungs of the Earth, the land and soil as skin or flesh, and the seas and waterways as blood, we can begin to see the connectivity of life. And, more importantly, “once we understand this, we will go crazy to protect it.” Thus, in telling stories throughout his lecture, Mr. Oposa reflected the role storytelling has and will continue to play an intimate role in how we exist on this earth.
To say that Mr. Oposa’s lecture was inspirational would be an understatement. Mr. Oposa exudes courage and positivity in such a way that you can only feel the same. His energy is even more admirable given that he is painfully aware of the severity of the climate crisis and other environmental atrocities. Mr. Oposa has lived through tragedy beyond which many of us can imagine. Yet, he has found a way to transform every conflict and setback into opportunity through his enormous creativity and genuine belief that nothing is impossible. One such example is in the work he has done to combat dynamite-fishing in the Philippines. His efforts led to the arrest of fishermen who were using these practices. But rather than have them jailed, he insisted that they be placed on probation under the condition that they protect the sea that they destroyed through a program that came to be known as “Adversaries to Allies/Advocates Program.”
Amidst this creative and effective work, came great tragedy. Mr. Oposa’s work in limiting these fishing practices was seen as a significant threat to the commercial fishing, a threat that some thought was too great, despite the resulting protection of one of the richest marine ecosystems of the world. A bounty was placed on Mr. Oposa’s head. Under this same bounty, Elipidio “Jojo” de la Victoria, a friend and colleague of Mr. Oposa, was murdered. A second tragedy struck when his home was “erased” in Typhoon Haiyan, reaffirming the immediacy of the climate crisis. Yet, even in the face of these insensible losses, the strength of Mr. Oposa’s soul shines and he continues to view the world with hope and opportunity.
One of the reasons Mr. Oposa must be able to retain this positivity is that his creativity allows him to see solutions that have a sort of poetic beauty. For example, he says that since “extraction-consumption economics” got us into the crises we face today, only the opposite – preservation, will serve as the solution. This requires a transformation into “restorative economics,” which restores the goal of life: happiness. Mr. Oposa spoke of the success of his self-created “fish condominiums” which have helped restore fish habitat. One can now see fish “dancing” in the moonlight. Mr. Oposa said, “if we take care of the seas, they will not only feed us, they will dance for us.” Mr. Oposa also spoke of his “Share-the-Roads Movement,” in which he urged local governments to divide the roads in half, so that half can be used for human-powered transportation (i.e. bicycles and pedestrians). This is a logical action given that only 2% of people in the Philippines own cars. Again, thinking well outside the box, Mr. Oposa is in the brainstorming stages of an upcoming effort to push for intergenerational climate justice in the International Court of Justice.
This short summary only begins to exemplify the lecture of Tony Oposa. I have heard him described as an infectious speaker, but he is an infectious thinker and dreamer. While many say that we shouldn’t believe that anything is impossible, Mr. Oposa walks the walk.
Finally, Mr. Oposa graciously thanked countless colleagues and those who inspired him in such a way that I believe he would be disappointed with my attribution of the aforementioned efforts to his name, without the acknowledgment of others. Therefore, consider this as an acknowledgement of all who have worked and inspired Mr. Oposa. As he stated at the end of his lecture, “there is no limit to what we can achieve when we do not care who gets the credit.”