Nearing 100 million people, the Philippines, with the highest birth rate in Southeast Asia, may reach 200 million by 2080. This vulnerable population is crammed into 300,000 square miles—less than a thirtieth the area of the United States—and vulnerable to sea-level rise (CIA, 2013). Untangling the thorny interactions between population, food, health, and the environment was the subject of a recent Woodrow Wilson Center forum on the Philippines. Understandably, the speakers barely began to take apart this multidimensional Gordian knot, although they did lay out some key issues.
Journalist Sam Eaton expanded on his recent PBS report that shows how large families in the Philippines lead to overfishing, which in turn leads to increasing desperation at the inability to feed such large families. In a country with lax environmental enforcement, the practice of dynamiting fish and poisoning them with cyanide persists, often results harming precious reef ecosystems. Meanwhile, families struggling to feed every last child cannot concentrate on educating them. Birth control is difficult to come by, due to long-standing opposition from the Catholic Church, which means more large families. The result is a cycle of poverty and burgeoning population that further strips the local environment. Another journalist, Imelda Abano, further laid out the litany of problems, the interconnected nature of “rapid population, dwindling fish stocks, and land for farming...aggravated by inefficient governance and corruption.” She described fishing communities struggling to get more out of dwindling stocks, with fishers who go out on the open sea for six or eight hours and come back with no fish. Many do not even know about climate change, yet they know that something is wrong. With twenty typhoons a year and increasing flooding, explained Abano, the Philippines is desperately vulnerable.
There is some good news. The Philippines passed a reproductive health law this past December (PMNCH, 2013). Opponents in this overwhelmingly Catholic country had denounced the bill as part of a conspiracy involving international pharmaceutical companies anxious for profit, and had touted a “demographic dividend” from a burgeoning young population. Archbishop Emeritus Oscar Cruz even claimed, on the PBS segment, that “if you have more mouths to feed, they produce more food to eat,” and the Catholic Church threatened proponents of the bill with excommunication. Indeed, the Mayor of Manilla at one point was holding award ceremonies for couples producing the largest families. It took fourteen years of struggle, but the law finally passed. I asked the panel if the new law would bend the curve and significantly decrease population growth by 2080. “The answer, I think, is not much,” replied Eaton, due to population momentum; the problem really needed to be tackled thirty or forty years ago. The youth in the Philippines will soon be reaching child-bearing age, a huge cohort of young people creating more young people. I also asked about the viability of something like China’s coercive one-child policy, but the panel felt other means were more effective. Eaton called such a measure unnecessary, with contraception plus education and empowerment for women the best way forward. It is women who most desire contraception, with the health benefits it brings and ability to give each child full nurturing. Currently, women will sneak away from their husbands to obtain contraception secretly, while men who find out have been known to beat up their wives and pull out IUDs, according to Eaton.
The voluntary path to small families, based on education and empowerment of women and widely available contraception, nicely fits the social equity dimension of sustainability. Environmentalists got in some trouble in the 1970s with dire warnings about population growth and the need for emergency measures, and the voluntary path has since moved numerous countries to zero population growth. Meanwhile, the issue of overpopulation has been largely relegated to the background. Still, expecting a strong reaction against his piece on the Philippines, Eaton was surprised that there was none. Instead, online commentators worried that a nightmare population and environmental disaster scenario has only been delayed. Indeed, in a place like the Philippines, where the worst dystopian scenarios may be coming true, one wonders if voluntary measures will be enough, especially given Eaton’s claim that it’s too late to bend the curve much. Yet again, coercive measures, besides being politically unlikely, are repulsive to those who believe in international human rights. With voluntary measures, some slowing of population rise will likely occur, but probably too little too late.
Still, Eaton’s reporting shows grounds for hope in the village of Humayhumay, where a local initiative called the PATH Foundation has provided cheap, easily available contraception, evading the strictures of the Catholic Church. In families where the older generation had seven or nine children, the current generation is having two, sending them to school and a potentially better future rather than struggling to provide a minimum of food. This also provides a path away from fishing and subsidence farming that degrades the environment. (Another question is sending these newly educated youth on a low-impact route to a sustainable quality of life, rather than a consumerist one that further endangers the planet—but in the Philippines this is a dilemma most people would gladly have.) Programs such as the PATH Foundation provide a best-practices approach that can be exported elsewhere, although of course adapted to local conditions. While the affluent countries may have solved the population problem—and even have a problem with an aging society—Humayhumay provides a micro-example of hope for the poorest regions, which tend to have the largest population dilemma.
The question remains whether population is the driving force behind environmental and sustainability woes, or merely one of numerous factors. The answer seems to be both yes and no; obviously, a human population of zero would have zero environmental impact while a trillion would be unsustainable under any scenario. However, if everyone had an ecological footprint like the average American, we would be well past sustainability. If we all lived like the average Filipino (although in more dispersed conditions), there would be room to grow. The forum seemed to present contradictory positions on population, at times treating it as just one of several factors, at times making an exponentially growing population appear to be the motivating force behind environmental and human crises. Eaton argued that a scattered, single-minded approach does not work and that “an integrated approach is going to be essential” when it comes to population and food issues.
While the forum began with the population issues, that is not the only starting-point. During the ensuing discussion, Roger-Mark De Souza of Population Action International commented on the way the issue is framed for different audiences. For Roman Catholics, he suggested, “let’s talk about poverty,” while for environmentalists (and human-rights advocates, as tend to gather at the Woodrow Wilson Center) “women’s empowerment is a first-level framing, and the second-level framing is population.” What’s most important is to come at the problem from a tangible perspective, but to realize the interrelationships. Yet, whatever past mistakes have been made, and however sensitive the issue, neglecting population as a major driver of environmental distress and human suffering is not realistic. The dialogue must continue.
Ethan Goffman is Associate Editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy. His publications have appeared in E: The Environmental Magazine, Grist, and elsewhere. He is the author of Imagining Each Other: Blacks and Jews in Contemporary American Literature(State University of New York Press, 2000) and coeditor of The New York Public Intellectuals and Beyond (Purdue University Press, 2009) and Politics and the Intellectual: Conversations with Irving Howe (Purdue University Press, 2010). Ethan is a member of the Executive Committee of the Montgomery County (Maryland) Chapter of the Sierra Club.