Population solutions

The population problem has many sides to it, and often various issues are mixed together in one emotional brew, preventing reasoned discussion. Debate highlights the disagreements while ignoring the many points of a possible consensus.

Does our country have a population problem?  There are at least three ways of viewing this problem.  In its most basic sense, this is a problem of density, expressing a relationship between the human species and the space it inhabits.  But it is also, more importantly, a problem of society impinging upon the limited resources at its disposal.  That society may need to cut present consumption in order to ensure future growth.  But again, having enough is not only a matter of economic growth, but also of the kind of social order that presides over the allocation of resources.  Some ways of defining the population problem tend to rationalize or mask the basic disparities existing between nations and within nations.

But we do have a population problem.  It is a problem that exists at both the societal and the individual level.  Our population is expanding so fast it has already encroached upon critical space like the uplands, where life chances are marginal, and where ecological damage is long-term.  Our cities are ringed by congested slums, where people are forced to live in sub-human conditions. Our facilities and public utilities – our schools, hospitals, water services, transportation, etc. — have not expanded as fast as our population has grown.  A steady stream of migrants from the countryside pours into our cities in search of opportunity and a better life for their children.

We may lecture them all year about the evils of an unjust and exploitative social system.  But it would be foolish and unfair to expect them to put their lives on hold until the promised emancipation.  These are families who want to be able to plan their lives now so that their children do not have to face a future without hope.  They are entitled to all the information and assistance they need, including the provision of safe modern methods of birth control, to enable them to fulfill the tasks of responsible parenthood, and thus change the course of their lives.  The choice, says our Constitution, is ultimately theirs, not the government’s nor the Catholic Church’s.

The Church is entitled to oppose and campaign against population measures that it deems contrary to its religious doctrine.  But the government not only has the right but the responsibility to formulate a population plan.  House Bill 3773 or the proposed Responsible Parenthood and Population Management Act is one such comprehensive plan.  It is long overdue.  A society that does not think of its population growth will confront the problem sooner or later in ways that permit no room for maneuver.

Reflecting on the experience of India, the noted French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss writes in his classic work, Tristes Tropiques:  “When a community becomes too numerous, however great the genius of its thinkers, it can only endure by secreting enslavement.  Once men begin to feel cramped in their geographical, social and mental habitat, they are in danger of being tempted by the simple solution of denying one section of the species the right to be considered as human.  This allows the rest a little elbow-room for a few more decades.  Then it becomes necessary to extend the process of expulsion.”

I think that in a significant sense we Filipinos are already “solving” the population problem in a manner we did not choose.  One has to be blind not to see the stark division of our society between the few who have the chance to live full and productive lives and the many who are condemned from the start to experience life only as a slow and painful death.  This is a caste system in many ways, yet we shield ourselves from its reality by building walls and gated subdivisions.

Exclusion is followed by expulsion, says Levi-Strauss, recalling the events unleashed by Hitler in Europe.  “The systematic devaluation of man by man is gaining ground, and we would be guilty of hypocrisy and blindness if we dismissed the problem by arguing that recent events represented only a temporary contamination.”

A new underclass has taken shape and is found all over the world, consisting of people who have fled from poverty at home.  Filipinos constitute the single largest chunk of this global migrant caste, about one-fourth of our entire labor force.  Excluded from their own society’s structure of opportunity, they seek new lives abroad.  They leave their families behind, hoping to send for them at some future time.  Their departure gives the society they left a little breathing space; the remittances they send help temporarily stave off hunger at home. The services they perform abroad no doubt make life easier for the host nations they serve.  But this will not continue forever.

Already, dark clouds loom in the horizon.  Everywhere they go these intrepid Filipinos face the threat of expulsion.  Japan recently seized upon the issue of human trafficking to impose new restrictions on the entry of Filipino entertainers into its closed society.  Malaysia, despite its vast uninhabited lands, feels threatened by the large numbers of Indonesians and Filipinos on its territory, and regularly launches a cleansing campaign.

Our people do not deserve to undergo these wrenching processes of degradation.  The state loses its reason for being when it cannot provide for its own citizens’ needs, and plan a future that ensures the survival and prosperity of its population.

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