environment 8: population word war


Junie Kalaw

The raging word war between Catholic Church representatives and the indomitable secretary of health on the topic of condoms as a means of addressingour pressing population problem is turning NGOs red with frustration or green with envy, and the air gray from the swirling dust that has obscured the real issues surrounding our pressing population problem which are: the relationships between population and consumption, population and poverty, poverty and natural resource policies, and between population and human resource development.

A one-sided view of the problem considers population in terms of number of bodies and ignores the fact that these bodies consume food and use energy.  This view dominates even international fora like the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) where rich countries point to the fast rate of population growth of poor countries as the main problem of sustainable development, while poor countries single out the high per capita consumption of the rich countries as the major problem.

To bring the two sides together, a more realistic and dynamic population index would emerge by multiplying each unit of body by the per capita consumption of food and energy.  Thus, multiplying the Philippine 2.4% body count increase per year by a factor of one on both food and domestic energy-use yields a total of 2.5% on both counts.  On the other hand, the US yearly increase of 1.5% multiplied by 6 (the ratio of their per capita consumption of food compared to Filipinos) yields a total of 9%, and 1.5% multiplied by 13 (the ratio of US energy consumption to Philippine consumption) yields a total of 19%. There is a bigger problem, therefore, on the consumption side than on the birthrate side of the issue.

If we are to consider the warnings of environmental economists that our present US$32 trillion global economy cannot continue to grow sustainable in the closed biospheric system of our planet because we are now using 40% of net primary production of energy and that doubling this rate of appropriation by our species might not be possible, it becomes imperative for the rich to reduce their consumption and the poor their birthrates.

The correlation of higher birth rates with poverty is well documented.   There are two major causes: (1) the cultural bias for large families in the belief that more children is an investment for ensuring the survival of the family unit, and (2) the fact that women in poverty have less opportunities for education or options as regards childbearing.  Only when there is a rise in the income level of the poor does the family birthrate decrease.

Obviously, more than controlling poverty, both material and educational poverty need to be addressed to solve the population problem.  Perhaps if church representatives could fight to the death the causes of poverty, they would be performing a better witnessing for all the children of God.  If the church would threaten loggers, big landholders, and politicians with the same intensity they summon vis-a-vis condom-pushers, the country would be better served.

But levity aside, what is distressing is that all the heat the word-war has generated has not reached the core of the population issue, which is the quality of life as expressed in its consumption patterns and lifestyles.  The sustainability of our ecosystems, cultures, and communities ultimately depends on the citizens’ personal choices of what to consume and what lifestyle to develop. Perhaps for the first time in our evolutionary history, our private and personal decisions impinge so critically on public interest.  We need to translate our personal moral values into values for the common good.

If the concern of the church over the immorality of birth control could be expended instead on the quality and justness of the lifestyle of its faithful, then there would be integrity in its moral stance.  If the state could exercise the same determination over social equity and ecological security as on the prevention of birth, governance would be more sustainable.

Church and state have since seen fit to reconcile.  In the normal course of such moves, reconciliation amounts actually to a partition, with the church protecting its moral ascendancy and the state its political primacy.  But while it is necessary to respect cultural and religious differences, poverty is not sustainable and its eradication not negotiable.  As the North-South Commission Report on a Program for Survival puts it:

“While hunger rules, peace cannot prevail.  He who wants to ban war (or for that matter artificial contraception) must also ban poverty.  Morally, it makes no difference whether a human being is killed in war or condemned to starve to death because of the indifference of others.”

14 August 1994