The Credible Hulk. Episode 2: Overpopulation Doesn’t Exist

The Credible Hulk. Episode 2: Overpopulation Doesn’t Exist

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In the first episode of the Credible Hulk, I tackled the view on squatters to use the available research and statistics to show how Philippine society relies on such informal settlers. With the right data and analysis, it became possible to show how wrong some of the official statistics are (really I can’t emphasise enough how wrong and how terrible they are). We saw that the average squatter actually holds a legitimate job, pays rent, tax, and benefits society at-large. In other words, the rest of the population relies on squatters in many, many ways.

Overpopulation is a very related issue. In almost any discussion on Philippine development, or indeed development in many other countries, overpopulation is a concept thrown around to basically say that there are too many people and we cannot deal with the population. And as the Philippines reached its 100 millionth person in July this year, that conversation is becoming more and more relevant… sort of.

Is the Philippines overpopulated?

First off a definition is required. By overpopulation I mean a place where the resources aren’t enough to sustain the entire population. And so with that great semantic work over with, we can move to the first question: are the Philippines overpopulated?

globe picOn the surface of it, it certainly seems so. Manila is the most densely populated city in the world (basically meaning most crowded), with over a million and a half people spread across less than 15 miles2. That works out to just over 110,000 people per mile2. With four cities in the top ten of the most densely populated cities in the world, the Philippines is only beaten by India, which has five. In the top 50, the Philippines has 11 and India 16, meaning together they have more cities on the list than the rest of the world combined.

Naturally, that means if anywhere is overpopulated, India and the Philippines are. To say that neither country is suffering from overpopulation would be to say that overpopulation doesn’t exist… but that’s exactly what I’m about to say.

Overpopulation Doesn’t Exist…

Take a look at the statistics and you can see the Philippines has enough room for everyone… in the world.

With roughly 120,000 square miles of land, the Philippines is the 64th largest country by land area. Yet if everyone in the world moved to the Philippines and it was as densely populated as Manila, you could fit the entire world’s population into half of the Philippine islands. In effect you could turn the Philippines into a super city, where everyone in the world could live (except for Piers Morgan, we’d still banish him).

Here’s the math: 111,000 people per square mile times 120,000 square miles is 13.2 billion people in the Philippines. I live in Quezon City, and that just about makes the list of top 50 densely populated cities at number 49. So if our Philippine Super City was modelled on QC, you could fit more than 5 billion Filipinos.

“Managing a big army is in principle the same as managing a small one: it is a matter of organization” – Sun Tzu

At this stage you may be thinking that Manila is overcrowded, that the traffic is among the worst in the world (not to mention the airport), there is chronic poverty, and that this all shows Manila is overpopulated. If the whole world’s population was as packed as Manila then there would be huge problems. While much of that is true, what at I’m getting at is that it doesn’t have to be. We have enough resources to provide for everyone and thus by definition cannot be overpopulated, only mismanaged.

Overpopulation Doesn’t Exist… Yet

overpopNow while you could fit over 13 billion Filipinos in the Philippines if the entire country was like Manila, no-one is suggesting that we should go out and have as many babies as we can to make it happen (aside from a few religious nutjobs). As much fun as that process would be in the short-term, it wouldn’t be wise in the long-run. Mostly because these figures don’t tell the whole story.

While we could fit the entire earth’s population into the Philippines, we would still need a lot more land for farming, networks, and other infrastructure to support it, for example. Conveniently, someone has already done the research for a few countries in the world to show how much land we’d need if everyone lived the lifestyles of that country. If everyone in the world lived like Bangladesh, for example, using the same amounts of electricity and water, eating their diet, and using up other resources in the way they do, then we’d need roughly a quarter of the world’s land to sustain that super city. Meanwhile, if everyone in the world lived like Americans, we’d need four earths to sustain our current population.

In other words, as the world keeps developing, the land needed to support the biggest cities will continue to grow. Not because of population, but because of our lifestyles.

Overpopulation is an Excuse

So here’s why the “debate” about overpopulation annoyed me enough to write about it. When you talk about development, and how the Philippines hasn’t grown as much as many countries around it, people so often point to the population. They blame overpopulation, they think that overpopulation creates poverty, they blame squatters for having too many children. In other words they blame poor people. It’s not just morally wrong, it’s academically wrong.

Firstly they’ve got it the wrong way round. Poor management and underdevelopment cause high population growth rates, poverty, and other squalor, not the other way round. Secondly it’s a question of priorities. To provide basic education, water and sanitation, reproductive and basic health, and nutrition for everyone in the world would cost less than Europe spends on cigarettes (Shah, 2010). The resources are clearly there, so it is a question of management. When people say an area is overpopulated, then, what they are actually saying is that it’s managed poorly. Overpopulation means we don’t have enough resources to support the population, but clearly we do when the world’s military spending in 2013 was over $1.7 trillion, but to eradicate all poverty is estimated at 10 times less (Sachs, 2005). The fact that globally 25,000 children under the age of 5 die every single day (and growing), because they don’t have enough food, clean water, medicine, or other basic necessities is not because of overpopulation, it is the result of a collective choice to organise society according to such inequality and inefficiency (You et al, 2010). Perhaps nothing sums that up better (or worse) than how the world’s richest 85 people have as much wealth as the poorest 3 billion.

per square mileWe have all the resources in the world to feed, clothe, house, educate, and otherwise provide for every single person on earth, and likewise we have all the resources in the Philippines to care for every citizen. Consider that 50 years ago the Philippine economy was bigger than Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea combined. Skip forward and you can see that all four of those countries have bigger economies than the Philippines today. Singapore has just over 5 million people while Hong Kong just over 7 million, and yet both have bigger economies than the Philippines and its 100 million population.

And if you think that it’s because the Philippines had a bigger population, South Korea and the Philippines offer the easiest comparison as population-wise they were virtually identical. In 1960, South Korea had 25 million people, while the Philippines had 26.3 million people. Skip half a century and South Korea’s population doubled while the Philippines quadrupled.

South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore are known as the Asian Tigers because of their miraculous growth during that period. They went from Third World to First World in an unprecedented short amount of time, and they did it in large part by investing in their people. Investing in healthcare and education meant a healthy and skilled workforce, while political leaders took a long-term strategy to achieve sustainable growth.

There are a host of other political and economic reasons why the Asian Tigers developed and why the Philippines lagged behind. But the basic point is that the size of the population did not preclude growth. Take a look at Indonesia and you can see how a country with two and a half times more people can develop immensely, with 250 million people, and a GDP of US$878 billion.

Yet only 15 years ago Indonesia’s GDP was just US$95 billion, just over 10% of what it is now and only a shade higher than the Philippines’ US$74 billion in 1998. Good political and economic practises lead to sustainable growth. Bad practises lead to mismanagement, or what looks like overpopulation.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that Indonesia’s rapid economic growth came right after President Suharto was ousted, a man responsible for killing millions of people and by far the most corrupt leader of the 20th century. Ousted in 1998, he embezzled an estimated $15-35 billion. Of interest, Ferdinand Marcos is 2nd on the list after stealing an estimated $5-10 billion. Ousted in 1986 it’s also no coincidence that the Philippines has grown quickly afterwards. However with his wife in the House of Representatives and his son a Senator, adding in the PDAF scandal, a former President impeached for corruption now back in government, and many other examples besides, the Philippines is clearly stuck with political dynasties and other forms of corruption and mismanagement holding the country back. It would be the patriotic, then, to debate these issues instead, not to blindly follow “flag and country”.

As should be obvious by now, population – or overpopulation – is not the factor in development that many people make it out to be. It is an excuse politicians and their supporters often use to cover up the fact that they’re not doing their job properly. It’s all a distraction from the real issues.

In the next episode of the Credible Hulk, I’ll be talking about one of the major ways we can boost development, health, and cut our carbon footprint with relatively little effort or sacrifice on our part: stop eating beef.


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