Schools and fish | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Schools and fish

In the wake of the fishkills, last Wednesday I wrote about fish parables, drawing parallels between overstocking in lakes and inland waters, and our own crowded human communities.

I couldn’t help but continue to think of parallels with fish as the new school year starts. Seeing students troop into the schools in large numbers, I could understand why the term “schools” has been applied to groups of fish.

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The television networks have been having a field day capturing some of the more extreme examples of overcrowding in schools. The most depressing footage showed one school where the students’ desks were put side by side with no space in between, so that students and teachers had to step on the desks to move around the room.

That reminded me of a funeral I had to attend some years back at Manila’s North Cemetery, where the lack of space has resulted in areas where the tombs were put shoulder to shoulder without space in between. Not only that, some tombs were stacked two or three on each other. So, to bury the person, we had to climb up and walk over several tombs to a tiny space allocated for the newly deceased. As we buried that friend, I thought of a sign I saw some years back in one of Benguet’s municipal cemeteries: “No Vacancies.”

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No problem

With all these encounters with the living and the dead competing for space, you would think that we recognize that there is a population problem. But no, there are still Catholic bishops and anti-family planning true believers who insist that overpopulation is a myth. They are a noisy minority, bombarding journalists like myself with their e-mail propaganda, written usually by conservative economists who insist that the world’s carrying capacity is almost unlimited. We can support larger populations, they argue, and the more people we have the more likely we will develop economically because there will be more consumers. One wrote, rhetorically, would we have all these malls if we didn’t have so many people? I cringe at such displays of crass capitalism, reducing people to mere consumers.

Very deceptively, too, they point to China and Japan as economic powerhouses and claim it’s their large populations that spurred economic development.

We forget Japan’s imperial forays and World War II that happened in part as a reaction to the pressure of a large population. After the war, Japan adopted a massive family planning program which includes legal abortion.

China, on the other hand, insisted under Chairman Mao that each additional child was not an extra mouth to feed but two hands to help out, and that family planning was “western”—exactly the same arguments we hear today from some of our local Catholic leaders. After Mao’s death, China went to the other extreme, realizing they would stagnate if they didn’t do something about their large population. The leaders imposed a drastic one-child-per-family policy in the late 1970s.

The intense family planning programs in China and Japan skewed the age distribution of the population so that today, the elderly constitute more than 25 percent of their populations. It is this demographic winter which anti-family planning groups warn about, painting a dire scenario of a time when we would have so many elderly people neglected and uncared for because there would be no young people left.

Their scenarios of a demographic winter are grossly exaggerated though and given how slow we are with family planning, it will take 60 years before we come close to what China, Japan and western countries have today. Even more importantly though, even without that demographic winter, the relatively few elderly people we have are already neglected, as economic hardship and unemployment force young Filipinos to work overseas, leaving behind children and elderly relatives to the care of others.

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The “no problem” folks are able to cook up some of the most amusing scenarios, my favorite being the claim that the entire world population can fit into the state of Texas, and the entire Filipino population into Bohol. I did some quick calculations on population and land area. Indeed, this can be done, but do the Boholanos want almost 100 million people on their island province?

And do Texans want almost 7 billion people in their state? With a land area twice that of the Philippines, although with a population of only 24 million, they are already fiercely invoking anti-immigration rhetoric, insisting there’s no more space left.

Foot in the grave

Last Wednesday I gave a talk on the family and on reproductive health at a conference of the newly established Association of Reproductive Health Practitioners. I began by referring to the need to establish the parameters for continuing dialogue with those who oppose the RH bill. I feel there is no room for dialogue with people who claim there is no population problem. On all counts, from the health of women and their families, to the development of the nation, we would be like ostriches with our heads in the sand if we continue to deny the existence of a population problem, and how it is destroying families and communities.

Anti-family planning groups will claim that for centuries, women had many children without problems. But that only betrays an ignorance of history. Since time immemorial, and in all cultures including our own, women looked for ways, often desperately, to limit their childbearing and before contraception became available, this had to be through abortion and infanticide.

In this pre-contraception era, women feared pregnancies, well captured in the Tagalog saying that each pregnancy is like having one foot in the grave.

Indeed, many mothers did end up in the grave. Recently while researching for a paper on Rizal, I noticed one of his sisters, Olimpia, had died young. I immediately suspected what her cause of death was, and with some more research, I was able to confirm that she died from hemorrhage, after delivering her third child. She was 33.

Be careful of the way anti-family planning groups play on superficial perceptions. For example, I’ve come across claims that it’s only in cities where we have overcrowding. So if you’re driving off for a weekend break in the countryside, you will see lots of open spaces. But look harder and you will see that rural people live in very close proximity to each other, with large households crammed into each home; so problems of disease outbreaks and the deterioration of environmental conditions can be as serious as those of the urban poor.

We have to go beyond the concept of “carrying capacity,” i.e., of how many people can be squeezed into each square kilometer. People are not so many cows assigned to a number of hectares of pasture land. As for schools, well if we are dealing with schools of fish all we’d be thinking of is bare survival. Our kids need schools, and homes, where they can learn and thrive.

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TAGS: columns, family planning, featured columns, fish, opinion, Population, schools
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