‘Agam’: Showing the effects of climate change through storytelling

Originally published in GMA News

Melting polar ice caps, rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, extended droughts, devastating super typhoons: the effects of climate change have been written about so much that many of the stories are starting to blur into each other.

“When we talk about climate change, listeners are forced to choose between wonky, constipated jargon or cliches of disasters, victims, and easy formulations of what the problem is. And that’s unfortunate because the problem is so complex and so big that it requires deeper engagement with the public,” said Renato Redentor “Red” Constantino, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, a non-profit group working on sustainable energy solutions.

“[We thought,] surely there are ways to engage the public to talk about the issue in a story-telling way, in a way that captures the magnitude of the problem, but also how personal it should be,” he told GMA News Online.

One of these ways is “Agam,” a collection of 26 narratives about climate change that do not classify as scientific pieces or sob stories.

The book is the brainchild of Constantino and Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section editor Regina Abuyuan. The two came up with the concept in 2011 after attending a photo exhibit pushing for the passage of the People’s Survival Fund Bill, which would create a fund that local governments could use to put climate mitigation practices in place to lessen the impact of natural disasters.

The exhibit featured portraits of people affected by climate change. But Constantino and Abuyuan thought that more could be done with the photos presented to them. “Why not present the issue in a different way?” said Abuyuan in an interview with GMA News Online.

Some of the photos from the exhibit made it into “Agam,” taken by photographer Jose Enrique Soriano. The written pieces collected in the book were based on the photos.

“The images are all portraits of Filipinos across the archipelago, and you will notice from the photos that all of them reflect ambiguity. There are no easy narratives there. The book could be about anyone,” Constantino said.

Different perspectives

The book’s contributors—24 writers from different backgrounds—were each assigned a photo that served as a prompt for the piece they were to write. They were free to write in any literary genre and use any language. The result is a collection of fiction, creative non-fiction, and poems in eight different languages: Sinama, Maguindanao, Bicolano, Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Waray (English translations were provided for all of these) and English.

Three writers used local literary forms. “One used a children’s rhyme in the Sinama language. One from Tacloban used the ‘panawagan’ form—it took the form of a radio call—and the other used a ‘krutsay,’ parang story-telling,” said Abuyuan.

“Some wrote about the people in the photo, some wrote about the hat that the person in the photo is wearing, some wrote about the river in the background. Gina [Abuyuan] wrote hers from the perspective of a dog looking at the person at the photo,” Constantino said.

The submissions could not be longer than 1,000 words. And while this is a book about climate change, the writers were forbidden to use the phrase “climate change,” as well as words that are often used when writing about the topic: “adaptation”, “mitigation”, “temperature”—”…all the words that the world of NGOs (which I belong to) and the scientific world often use, but which also often separates them from the public. And so you have a book about climate change without none of such words,” Constantino said.

“The message also is that we better start telling stories about this issue rather than talk about the technicalities only. They’re important, but if you don’t get engaged, it doesn’t really matter much,” he added.

Among those who participated in the project are poet and bookstore owner Padmapani L. Perez; Cultural Center of the Philippines Intertextual Division Director Hermie Beltran; Carlos Palanca awardee and distinguished anthropologist Arnold Molina Azurin; former PAGASA Director Leoncio Alhambra Amadore; 2003 Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and the Creative Communication Arts winner Sheila S. Coronel; and University of the Philippines-Diliman Chancellor Dr. Michael Tan.

“We tried to put into one book something that is unique, that crosses some of the conventional boundaries in publications, largely because the content of the book is about articulating stories, views, on an issue that has really not enjoyed the kind of depth it deserves,” said Constantino.

The complexity of climate change

“Agam” lays out its objective right away. “The introduction tells the readers, if you’re looking for the glib 10-things-you-can-do-for-the-climate, this is not the book for you,” said Constantino. “The book wants to reader to pause, to take a deep breath, to see how complex the issue is, and to tackle the issue in a deeper, more personal way. Because there is no single solution to this problem, and it won’t be solved overnight.”

Climate change will be with us for a while, Constantino added.

“It requires far more than just switching off your lights or switching to renewable technology because it questions the very trajectory of our development, the way they’ve organized our economy,” he said. “And so the response to climate change must be more enduring. This is not only about disasters. It’s about slow-onset impacts that are not necessarily confined to the definition.”

“Agam” will be launched on Tuesday, June 24 in Quezon City. The book will soon be available in major bookstores and in major online booksellers. There will also be a launch in Tacloban and three in the US: in California, New York, and Washington DC. At the DC event, the book launch will be accompanied by an exhibit.

The proceeds from the book will go to Re-Charge Tacloban, a project that funds the building of e-jeepneys and integrated solar sustainable transport facilities in the Yolanda-hit city.