11 min read

A better world is possible – for now, here's collapse

To stop believing in love and liberation is to take for granted that every bit of tenderness and joy we have exists only on this planet, through the sheer cosmic accident of being alive at the exact same time, to not only stand our ground but to hold each other close.

I decided I was in love with Pecier sometime in 2016, the year both Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump were declared Presidents, the planet steadied towards environmental destruction as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations reached 403.3 parts per million, and I fumbled through hazy days of depressive aimlessness having been just diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

By all means, thanks to an imbalance in brain chemistry that I have yet to come to terms with, I had no business getting in a relationship. But as is characteristic of that year, everything else won against all reason. To this day I joke that our meet-cute was social and ecological collapse and that Pecier and I got together just as everything started to break apart. The truth is, I had no sense of wholeness to begin with.

Pecier, however, was – is – patient. He does not mind if other people mispronounce his name or when word processing programs autocorrect it to Peter. An astronomer and science communicator, he responds respectfully when people ask him about their horoscopes and UFO sightings. He holds my hand outside doctor’s offices, through turbulent flights, throughout protest rallies so we don’t lose each other, and during the exact moment when something particularly heartbreaking – fires razing through poor neighborhoods, the state-sponsored massacre of activists, typhoons decimating entire provinces, laborer candidates losing to yet another billionaire – comes on-screen during the evening news.

Most of the time, his patience and gentleness are enough to calm me down without the help of panic attack pills. He strokes my back as I close my eyes and I imagine being onboard a spaceship escaping the world and looking out the window as I am whisked away to nothingness, until I am so far away that the Earth — all its violence, trauma, injustice, and noise —is reduced to nothing more but a pale blue dot.

***

I say “decided” instead of “fell in love” because much of love is a choice. This is true both in romantic relationships and in fighting to help save the planet, decisions that I made as a wide-eyed twenty one year old despite the unshakeable belief that we are headed straight and soon to the end of the world.

I started working on climate change through a newly-established non-profit in the Philippines. It was my first full-time job. I found it more meaningful than anything I’ve ever done in my life, so much that I dropped out of school to do it, school striking as it is way before Greta Thunberg united a youth climate movement. At first, it was very selfish – I liked the flexible hours, earning my own money, and feeling that I am making a difference. Then, it became a lifeline – I traveled a lot and spent my days making sense of mitigation targets and emissions pathways that I didn’t have much time to deal with the darkness that settled in whenever I am home.

Despite not having finished my degree, it seemed I was doing well. I got invited regularly to talk about climate action. I represented the youth in United Nations conferences. Decision-makers in national climate policy and international negotiations, including senators, commissioners, and a few other legislators knew me by my first name. I genuinely thought I found my place.

Around the same time, Pecier waltzed into my life after being Facebook acquaintances for years. He brought a telescope to one of our first meet-ups, where I invited another friend because I didn’t realize he wanted to be alone. The second time he asked me out, a full five months after this mistake of mine, he was the one who brought friends from an online group that spent hours dissecting why the country will be in a much better shape if secularism was genuinely upheld. Extrajudicial killings and troll farms were unheard of and we lived in ignorant, privileged bliss as budding armchair activists not knowing everything was going to change dramatically just in time for the 2016 Philippine national elections.

Weeks before Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, a good friend received death threats from anonymous accounts on social media. A lot of us from progressive spaces were quick to sound the alarm, so much that I received at least two myself and Pecier had to hide his workplace and other identifying details from his profile. Our friend eventually filed a cybercrime complaint with the National Bureau of Investigation who tracked down the accounts’ owners and their cities of residence, but by then it was useless – for every user suspended, three more troll accounts popped up in its place.

The lack of civility in online discourse that we all claimed as the hallmark of the 2016 elections was merely a smokescreen for something more insidious going on: an industry to mainstream propaganda and fake news targeting activists while propping up elite political families was taking off. This was not a handful of rude social media users who thought ad hominems were fair game to prove a point. It was a well-funded and well-networked disinformation campaign that was just getting started.

Meanwhile, 2016 climate trends continued to break records and environmental activists who went up against corporate interest in fossil fuels closer and closer to home continued to receive threats and intimidation – one evening, a grandmother who organized with a community we worked with in Bataan against a coal plant was gunned down by still unidentified men.

Everyone had a lot to say at the beginning, but it was remarkable how quick a lot of us simply gave up on engaging once the scale of the crises became apparent. The news showcased so much suffering it was unbearable. I started crying about feeling helpless during therapy as a far more mentally-stable Pecier waited outside for me to finish with my sessions. All of the mental health professionals I approached told me the same thing: to focus on the present, the here and now, every time the future got too overwhelming. But the present – filled with headlines about impunity and worsening climate change – did not help. I retreated more and more into depression and spent so much time thinking about killing myself, I did not know if I was going to make it out of 2016 alive.

***

“Collapse” traces its roots to the Latin medical word “collapsus” meaning to fall together. Its most common use in English, which Merriam-Webster defines as to fall or shrink together abruptly, not only means mere simultaneous destruction. For something to collapse – a chair and its whittled legs contending against foreign weight or perhaps a fault-lined street of buildings through just one earthquake – the devastation must be caused by a suddenness that can never be overturned, resulting in complete and total ruin.

By its very definition collapse is not incremental, like environmental degradation or mass disenfranchisement with political institutions, and so from an organizing perspective it is harder to mobilize support against gradual destruction when the illusion of more corrective time is always present.

We have learned to dramatize ruin through dates on our calendars. Perhaps this is easier to accept than the reality of us having fallen deaf to the screams in the background on each day that precedes our final collapse. In the Philippines, we focused concerns over voting machines malfunctioning on election day last May 9, realizing too late that thirty million voters ended up electing the son of a dictator as President because of a decades-long political project that pushed out a narrative of a savior amidst widespread abject poverty. And who could ever forget about 2030, the year we’re projected to breach the infamous Paris Agremeent climate target of no more than 1.5 degrees of global warming, and the statistical improbability of memorizing all the lives lost in every single disaster just before?

What the grand mission of preventing collapse forgets is that immense suffering already exists outside one single cataclysmic event. Activists of color have long faulted our western counterparts for thinking of catastrophe as a date to be plotted in the preventable future when the present day already brims with so much pain. If we are to construct all action as hinged on preventing only the worst that could happen, what is to become of all the days that preceded this always looming collapse, of our people’s episodic resistance of apocalypse in our own backyards, will these pile up and finally form a revolution?

***

Pecier and I almost met four times six years before we got together. The first almost-meeting was in 2012 during a forum hosted by an online group we were both part of. Celebrate three years of reason, science, and secularism, the colorful event page poster said. This was the first community I ever encountered that debated social issues for fun, which middle class, self-important seventeen-year-old me thought was the best use of my time online.

I remember feeling entirely out of place because everyone spoke in perfect English and ordered frappuccinos during breaks. Meanwhile, I commuted for an hour and a half to the venue and debated riding the ordinary versus the airconditioned bus on the way home so I can afford a sandwich. I recognized the more dominant voices from the group from their profile pictures and wished I had their confidence. Pecier, apparently, was somewhere feeling exactly the same things, but we never crossed paths.

Remember when our main issue in life was that religious groups in this country were exempted from paying taxes, Pecier would often joke, usually whenever we were in the company of friends from this community, our political opinions lukewarm at best mostly because everything still functioned well enough in our little bubble that it did not merit an uprising.

This detachedness from the reality of widening inequality and structural violence had me pursuing random interests from the years of eighteen to twenty-one. The next three times that I almost met Pecier were in fact at the sites of these curiosities – he was at the Manila Observatory to observe the once-in-our-lifetime transit of Venus the same day I was, months later he was walking around the science museum where he taught just as I was leaving and wondering if the man I saw from a distance really was him, and he was trailing behind his hiking companions just as I was greeting them descending Mt. Pico de Loro sometime in 2013.

When Pecier and I finally intentionally made plans to meet just by ourselves in December 2015, our first real-life conversation lasted for eight hours. We mainly talked about our dreams: he wanted to pursue astrophysics, I wanted to be a poet. We decided to be together to make these happen. Instead, the next year he dropped out of graduate school and I became unemployed thanks to crippling depression. We racked up debt, we fought and made up multiple times with our parents, we hurt and barely communicated with each other as the planet burned to a crisp.

These days, we’re in a much better place. I like to think that a version of our dreams really did come true – six years later, he’s now a science journalist, I’ve published pieces here and there, and we’re kinder to each other and ourselves, learning over the years that time, rest and joyful organizing eventually heals our bouts of activism burnout.

Most importantly, in a world plagued by so much desolation and despair, we continue to choose to stand together, hoping amidst clockwork destruction that a better world will be made possible by collective care and love.

***

I stopped feeling iffy about being called an activist just last year. I’ve always told Pecier that I never deserved it, doing most of my work in cozy conference rooms or through Zoom trainings when the pandemic hit, able to hit pause and take leave whenever my disability prevented me from working, all while community activists and environmental defenders have no choice but to cuss out state forces and private armies, protecting their land despite guns being pointed at them every single day.

Until now, I am much more comfortable being called an organizer, a term I imagine to be more accessible as it only means you lead people to each other. The magic happens later, I believe, when the campaigning work is done for the day and people retreat into smaller groups sharing about where they’re from and who they’re going home to. Despite our obsession with charismatic leaders and lionizing lone individuals, I believe movements are given birth to by nameless thousands, all carrying a generational burden to leave a better world behind. Within these thousands, somewhere along the way, groups share a drink or have a meal together, and almost instantaneously find commonality in the things they hold dear, each child or mentor or parent adding up to be a renewable resource of hope and fight.

We often think of movements as corrective forces for the grave mistakes of the past, but I like to think of activism and organizing as primarily geared towards safeguarding the future, which is why I find working with young people the most fulfilling. Almost always, the meetings turn intensely towards the question of co-creation: “What do we want? Climate justice!” is after all our generation’s battle cry during mass protests and climate strikes. My life’s work is curating and facilitating days upon days of learning movement-building strategy and managing group dynamics, but somewhere along evening socials, after every long day of co-designing mobilizations or protests together, every group I’ve ever trained or worked with always turns to the question of love. It gets especially rowdy as the night wears on and people swap dating horror stories or give the latest update about our respective relationships whether it is the decision to work on campaigns together or to get married someday – sana all, a new battle cry to add to the repertoire.

Over the years, I have told the story of how Pecier and I got together so many times I lost track, but it does not matter anymore because by now he has learned to open our home to countless youth organizers – some of them seeking mentorship, some of them needing a shoulder to cry on through each heartbreak and disappointment of every scale. On especially drunken nights, these kids joke that they’ll stop hoping for love if Pecier and I ever went our separate ways.

Some days I think that, too. And then I think again.

To stop believing in love and liberation is to take for granted that every bit of tenderness and joy we have exists only on this planet, through the sheer cosmic accident of being alive at the exact same time, to not only stand our ground but to hold each other close.

***

Before today, life events held me back from sharing this winding re-introduction of myself, my writing and my work. I thought I wouldn't be happy until this long essay gets validation from the communities I work with and look up to, and that I must be of a certain level of influence for this little corner of the internet to matter. I'm realizing as I write this that this space is as much a love letter to myself as it is to the world, and the only thing that matters is that every word here resists the idea of collapse. To hope for a better world, to dream it possible, to speak and fight and care and write for and about it until it is in existence, is after all to love, against all reason, in the face of collapse.

The Very Best of Us is re-launched today amidst a persistently warming world with carbon dioxide emissions recently peaking at 420.99 parts per million, the son of a dictator winning the Philippine national elections for President by a landslide against a background of disinformation, extrajudicial killings, threats to human rights and environment defenders and extreme poverty, and an ongoing pandemic that has reinforced so much inequality as it props up new billionaires every 30 hours.

In a world plagued by so much desolation and despair, I intend for this space to host reflections on the many intersections between the personal, the political and all that is possible: the infinite ways human beings continue to stand together, defiantly believing amidst clockwork destruction that a better world will be made possible by collective care and love.

At this point, I'm exploring publishing a piece here every other week. I will inevitably write about the climate crisis as it is the unfortunate soundtrack of our generation's lifespan, but I will also talk about movement work, activists and writers that inspire me, my complicated relationship with digital organizing in the age of disinformation, gender justice, art and activism, politics and the many ways the current political climate in the Philippines and in many places stifle dissent, how we could push back and many more. Most of all, I hope to write about the world and being in this world in a way that imagines care, hope and solidarity – simply because the very best of us endures in the ways we show up for each other.

Thank you for being here.