Ecology and Population

Rosa Linda G. Valenzona
Reproduced with Permission
Original WORD file and charts

In modern consciousness Ecology evokes catastrophic images of uncertainties – a population bomb ticking to “go off?” Are we in imminent danger of famine and hunger? Is the planet earth dying?[2] These visions of impending doom are blamed on “irresponsible breeding” and emergency solution – usually population control – is considered imperative to ward off the apocalypse. These solutions often treat people as impulsive and uncontrolled sources of great social harm and in need of strong social discipline. The Catholic Church due to its “conservative stand” on contraception and abortion is accused of encouraging this irresponsible breeding. Many Catholics, though adhering to the doctrine of the Church on life issues, entertain doubts on the issues relating Ecology to population.

These views originated with Thomas Malthus whose essay in 1798 predicted terrible famines from population growth and the consequent imbalance in the proportion between the natural increase population and food.[3] Writing forty years ago Simon Kuznets remarked that since Malthus first published his famous Essay on Population in 1798, the world population has grown nearly six times larger, while food output and consumption per person are considerably higher now, and there has been an unprecedented increase both in life expectancies and in general living standards.[4] Malthusianism has found support in two major interest groups – the racist groups who look at the poor as an underclass who form part of the unfit racial stock and the environmentalist groups who are proponents of the radical view that places man at the same footing as the rest of creation, if not lower. The most famous restatement of Malthusianism in defense of the environment was made by Paul Ehrlich in 1968 in his books cited above. This was then followed by the publication in 1972 of Limits to Growth by the Club of Rome. The latter was an open declaration of war against modern science, technology and the human population that produced them. Underlying these radical views is a biocentrism that considers any alteration of the natural order as immoral based on an environmental theology that is nature centered. This has justified the promotion of voluntary genocide or population control on a global scale. Thus the population control program necessarily spawns the attitude that treats the human embryo as a mere biological material like any other biological material, a mentality that is the forerunner of the culture of death – euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, cloning, etc. – practices that belittle human life.

Due to their ideological roots both branches show an understandable lack of interest in scientific inquiry to resolve issues of fact making such scientific endeavors a mere exercise in futility. However, the Church has wisely advised economists and demographers to undertake a deeper research in order to provide a reasoned rejection of these ideologies for Catholics who want to uphold human dignity and protect the family.[5]

The starting point of such a reasoned rejection has to be laid out in an authentically Christian anthropology and following the tradition set by John Paul II by going back to Sacred Scriptures.

Scriptural Foundations

Since man is different from the rest of the living species the framework for understanding of how man relates to his environment has to be found in natural law. Genesis 1:28[6] and Genesis 1:31[7] are two passages that ethical principles for evaluating human interaction with environment:

1. Subordination: This passage has always been understood by societies of the Judeo-Christian culture to emphasize the subordination of the earth and all the life in it, to man. All the other living organisms reproduce and flourish according to the inflexible laws of biology and instinct, but only man was given this express command. He is the only one gifted with autonomous intelligence to make the choice.[8]

2. Dominion: His rational nature makes man capable of purposive activity – work. He can define a problem, formulate a solution and put it into effect. Flowing from this rationality is also the capacity for science – understanding the natural processes and the capacity for technology – applying scientific laws to formulate solutions to daily problems. The bees have not innovated since they built their hives in their thousand years of existence but man has progressed from cave dweller to inhabit skyscrapers in populous cities or warmly heated houses in the arctic climes or cool air-conditioned tropical bungalows. This incalculable creativity fueled by an ethical orientation illustrates man’s superior capacity to adjust to his environment far exceeding that of any other living creature.

3. Stewardship: Dominion over nature is limited by the duty to safeguard it for the future. He should cultivate a natural moral concern for it “giving what is due” to nature, to the environment, and indeed to the whole of creation, treating all creatures down to the last sub-atomic particle with due regard to nature, revealed in the physical and biological laws they obey.[9] Man collaborates with God in helping physical creation achieve its own perfection.

This triple mandate possesses its own internal logic – population growth can be sustained because by unraveling the natural processes man subdues nature and discovers the key to harvesting of its bounty. Stewardship is the prudent means to achieve sustainability part of enabling nature to achieve its fulfillment. This environmental ethic enabled the Judeo-Christian culture to achieve material progress thus bringing material development to its fullest bloom. To argue that man’s irresponsible breeding has a negative impact on his environment is to question his superior capacity to adjust to his environment.

The history of man’s survival from ancient to modern times with a special focus on his interaction with his environment is the best evidence for evaluating the interaction of ecology and population.

The Evidence of History

Astrophysicists tell of how uniquely made the planet earth is for supporting complex life: it is a rocky terrestrial planet with plate tectonics to recycle nutrients; the right kind of atmosphere; a large, well placed moon to contribute to tides and stabilize the tilt of the planet’s axis, the right distance from the right kind of single star in a near circular orbit – to maintain liquid water on its surface.[10] Without surface water creating the greenhouse effect the earth’s surface temperature would be – 16 0 centigrade too cold to support the carbon based life so important for human survival. This knowledge fills one with awe at the greatness of Divine Providence in providing man with a unique earth.

Anthropology and Archaeology tells us that man’s journey from the caves to modern skyscrapers did not take place in a day; his unique abilities unfolded in history as he struggled against the environment. The hunter of the Paleolithic stage was a parasite living of the bounty of nature. Nature was always and everywhere his mistress and mother. Behind the outward appearance beast and plant, storm and thunder, rock and tree man saw a vague undifferentiated supernatural power. The beasts are not merely a source of food supply, and an occasional danger, they were mysterious beings which are in a sense superior to man and nearer to the divine world. The Paleolithic man noted the laws and rhythms and cycles of change in the life of nature – there is day and night, summer and winter, birth and death; the rain falls and the grass grows, the seed ripens; man did not see them as mechanical changes of material facts but as divine mysteries to be adored with trembling.[11] As the climate improved with the recession of the last great ice age, Late Paleolithic man gradually became more settled and started staying in favorable spots close to waterways for longer than previously.

The many indigenous tribes in the inner jungles of the major islands of the Philippines such as the Mangyans of Mindoro and the Aetas of Central Luzon exhibit culture of the Paleolithic hunters. They are more conscious of collective ownership of ancestral domain than of private property. Their small population allowed indigenous people to farm only a small portion of their land each year. By the time they return to a given plot to plant, forest had reclaimed it. This seeming disadvantage was in fact a huge advantage: forested land could be cleared well enough for planting merely by slashing down the young forest vegetation, burning it, and sowing seeds in the ash. Stumps of larger trees were simply planted around. Neither plowing, nor even hoeing, was necessary. Such “low-tech” farming paid off very handsomely for no more labor than it took. The Danish economist, Ester Boserup documented this behavior among tribal communities in underdeveloped countries in the African and South East Asia.[12]

Christopher Dawson states that the Neolithic age was not a mere change in the manufacture of stone implements; it was a true change of life. Man ceased to be a parasite on Nature, like the hunter, he learnt to cooperate with Nature – to govern and direct her. From food-gatherer to food-producer – this was a change revolutionizing his whole way of life, his social organization and manner of settlement, his relation to his environment and to his fellowmen, his religion and thought. The consecration of nature into the religious practices of the Neolithic man could very well have led to the invention of agriculture and the domestication of animals.[13] The regular and continuous food supply meant bigger populations could now live in settled and more secure areas. Archaeologists explain that the construction of cities which was the beginning of civilization implied the ability to generate agricultural surplus so that some people ceased tilling the soil and became builders.

During the pre-modern times man was at the mercy of nature; cycles of famine and abundance meant occasional food shortages; this as well as lack of knowledge of disease prevention and cure kept mortality rates high. Outbreaks of infectious diseases such as influenza, scarlet fever or the plague decimated the adult population while lack of clean drinking water, efficient sewage disposal, and poor food hygiene caused low child survival. Water and food borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, dysentery and diarrhea were common killers. Over much of pre-modern times birth and death rates were both very high (30-50 per thousand). This made for a very slow world population growth, estimated to be roughly .05% and doubling time of the order of 15,000 years. World population reached the 1 billion mark in 1804.[14]

This comparison of rates of survival between 17th century England and current day Great Britain shows the effect of child mortality on age structure: “Survivorship keeps track of the fate of a given birth cohort. They show the percent still living at a given age. Nowadays in the developed world few children die before reproduction. In Great Britain in 1999 only 1% of all children born alive died by the age of five (compared to 10% in India and 35% in Niger). However, 300 years ago it was quite a different matter, as the graph above illustrates. In the 17th century in the city of York only 15% of the children made it to the threshold of reproduction (15 years); only 10% made it to the age of 20. With so few females living to reproduce, only a high fertility rate could maintain the population.”[15]

In England this state of affairs led to the enactment of the Elizabethan Poor Laws obliging the parishes to provide food to the rural poor, an attempt to ward off hunger riots and revolutions. The Poor laws continued to be enacted up to the late 17th century to mitigate the effects of enclosures on the increasing mass of rural poor. This was the dismal reality Thomas Malthus presented when he wrote the famous Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798 formulating the famous Malthusian Theorem.[16]

Population and Agriculture

However Malthus dismal prognostication did not foresee the Agricultural Revolution was unfolding in 18th century England. Crop rotation, selective breeding, seeds drill technology, and the invention of numerous farm machineries as a consequence of the enclosures movement increased farm output released the labor force needed by the urban industries.

What brought about this Agricultural Change? Ester Boserup’s study of agricultural change in traditional non-modern economies covering 1945-1995 discovered the explanation. Population has to grow beyond a certain minimum to induce agricultural change – intensifying land cultivation and shortening fallow times. Cultivating less fertile plots, covered with grass or bushes rather than forest, encouraged fertilization, field preparation, weed control, and irrigation, changes that led to agricultural innovation. Population growth leads to development of towns and the concomitant development of specialized crafts and skills (non-farm activities) as more and more people cease to live off the land. This in turn pressured farmers to produce more food using ever improving techniques to meet the growing demand for food.[17]

In 1750 English population stood at about 5.7 million. It had probably reached this level before, in the Roman period, then around 1300, and again in 1650. But at each of these periods the population ceased to grow, essentially because agriculture could not respond to the pressure of feeding extra people. Contrary to expectation, however, population grew to unprecedented levels after 1750, reaching 16.6 million in 1850, and agricultural output expanded with it.[18] England by 1870 produced 300% more than in 1700 with only 14% of the population working on land.

The successful war against food shortages was followed by the one waged against diseases. In England social reforms in the 19th century improved working, living conditions, as well as sanitation and hygienic conditions. The discoveries of causes of diseases by Pastuer and their prevention by Jenner, important first steps in the battle man fought against diseases, gradually pulled down mortality. The decline in death rate in Europe began in the late 18th century in Northwestern Europe and spread over the next 100 years to the south end east. Mortality rates for Measles, Tuberculosis, and Scurvy for US and England continued falling over the first half of the 20th century.

These graphs show the impact of modern science and technology on disease control in the West.[19] This decline in mortality when fertility remained high brought about a demographic revolution that contributed much to the Industrial Revolution. On the supply side – this population explosion provided the labor supply for the burgeoning industries without adversely hurting agriculture. On the demand side market population explosion aided industries by providing sufficient economies of scale. In Sweden this demographic transition took almost a century to complete (1815-1975).

The decline in childhood death meant that at some point parents eventually realized that they need not require so many children to be born to ensure a comfortable old age. As childhood death continued to fall parents gradually become confident that fewer children will suffice. Rise in female literacy and labor force participation also had an impact on women’s attitudes towards child-bearing.[20]

In 1650 the share of Asia and Africa in the world population is estimated to have been 78.4 percent, and it stayed around there even in 1750. With the demographic revolution that followed the Industrial Revolution, the share of Asia and Africa diminished because of the rapid rise of population in Europe and North America. During the nineteenth century the inhabitants of Asia and Africa grew by about 4 percent per decade or less, the population of “the area of European settlement” grew by around 10 percent every decade.[21]

This interaction of ecology and population in the history of the West can therefore be summarized in these observations:

  1. Pre-modern populations survived high mortality rates due to poor nutrition and inability to control diseases survived by maintaining high fertility.
  2. In spite of a continuous battle against inadequate food supply and diseases population gradually grew and population pressure led to agricultural innovation and invention.
  3. Man’s increased control over food production and disease through modern science and technology reduced mortality.
  4. The delayed adjustment of fertility behavior to lower mortality produced a population explosion. This demographic dividend contributed to the take off of modern economic growth.
  5. Population growth decelerated when families eventually adjusted their fertility decisions to the lower mortality rates.
  6. Development was the cause of fertility fall, not its consequence.

Population growth is a modern phenomenon caused by the fall in mortality. It came only after man’s improved ability to adjust to his environment permitted him to successfully win the war against hunger and disease. Previous to this man had no choice but have many children to survive. It was only when modern agriculture and medical technology proved its worth in bringing mortality down that man could afford the luxury of reducing fertility.

Third World Experience

But what of the 3rd World experience? Could the Malthus’ mistaken prognosis for the West be valid for the 3rd World as well? Will Asia and Africa which make up 71.2% of current world population be equally successful in waging the battle against hunger and disease?

This 5-year moving average of UN Demographic data[22] shows Infant mortality rate falling over 1948-1998 for selected 3rd world countries. This fall was dramatic (as much as 90% in the case of the Philippines), because it accomplished in half a century what took the West two centuries. The first development decade[23] was not declared until 1960 but at the close of the II World War with the Marshall Plan in place for Europe the interest in helping 3rd world countries had an immediate impact. “Progress in human development during the 20th century was dramatic and unprecedented. Between 1960 and 2000 life expectancy in developing countries increased from 46 to 63 years. Mortality rates for children under five were more than halved.”“[24]

The drop in mortality meant higher survival rates of children to reproductive age. This increased the size of the reproductive population (15-45 age cohorts). This rise child-bearing population added momentum to population growth, a phenomenon that also took place in advanced countries over 1750-1950. The more dramatic fall in mortality in 3rd world countries meant greater momentum or a more explosive population growth. Population growth in 3rd world countries is not due to “over-breeding – it was above all triggered by the tremendous development impact of improved medicine and health information. As in the advanced countries fertility adjustment was likewise delayed.

The fall in fertility did not take place until serious improvements were achieved in the status of women. In 1948 14.35% of Filipino women belonging to the 14-19 age groups were already married. By 1995 this had gone down by half – 7.85% as most of women this age were going to school. In 1970 Filipinas got married at the age of 22; by 1995 this had gone up to 24.1 years old.[25] Both education and rise in women labor force participation had the same effect in delaying marriage.

Across Asia and in much of the developing world fertility went down only during the last quarter of the 20th century. The slower decline in Africa in comparison to Asia is most likely due to the slower improvement of the status of women in that continent. Eventually the fall in fertility caught up and population growth of less developed countries began to slow down.

In comparison to its Asian neighbors the Philippines had a higher growth rate and took longer to slow down its population growth. One possible reason for this is that although improvements in the status of women were more quickly achieved in the Philippines than in its Asian neighbors – countries of Muslim or Confucian or Hindu cultures, contraceptive prevalence continues to be lower in the Philippines than in other Asian countries. Improvements in women’s status can easily account for the 82.2% of the fall in fertility in the Philippines.[26] On the other hand Total Fertility Rate of African countries like Kenya and Nigeria continue to be significantly high.

These trends generally mirror the same familiar path that the West took with modernization. The initial rise in population density during the colonial period led to intensification of agricultural production. Modernization of health technology – vaccination, pest control, improved housing conditions, sanitation and hygiene resulted in vast improvements of survival rates. Accelerating population growth pushed by growing reproductive population. Delayed fall in fertility came with improvement of women’s status.

How did the 3rd world cope with this explosive population growth? In the 1970s high-yield dwarf varieties of wheat and rice resistant to plant pests and diseases tripled wheat and rice harvests in 3rd world countries. New seeds accompanied by chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation replaced traditional farming practices of millions of 3rd world. This produced the Green Revolution that dramatically increased agricultural productivity.

FAO data on per capita cereal production[27] show that world per capita cereal production has steadily risen over the last half of the 20th century. Although per capita production for developing countries is lower than that of Developed Countries it has not gone down in spite of explosive population growth – it has even gone up slightly over the period since food production in these countries has more than kept up with population growth. This is even more obvious when one examines on daily per capita caloric consumption (from cereal, protein and oil sources). Calorie per capita for the developing countries – steadily increased to 2,666 calories per capita daily by 2002 – exceeding daily nutritional requirement.

Though many countries have had declining food production per head they have not experienced hunger or starvation since their economies have prospered and grown. When the means are available, food can easily be bought in the international market if it is necessary to do so. Amartya Sen, 1994 Nobel Prize winner for Economics, states that the difficulties in food production for countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, like other problems of the national economy, are linked to wars, dictatorships, and political chaos. The food problem of Africa must be seen as one part of a wider political and economic problem of the region.[28]

Sen criticizes the doomsday prophecies of imminent disasters which have not proven any more accurate than Malthus’s prognostications nearly 200 years ago. “There was no way of refuting the theses of W. Paddock and P. Paddock's popular book Famine – 1975!, published in 1968, which predicted a terrible cataclysm for the world as a whole by 1975 (writing off India, in particular, as a basket case), until 1975 actually arrived. The new prophets have learned not to attach specific dates to the crises they foresee, and past failures do not seem to have reduced the popular appetite for this creative genre.”[29] Taking the approach of Julian Simon in his debate with Paul Ehrlich[30] Sen concludes that since the relative price of food keep falling, food production is kept in check by difficulties in selling food profitably.[31]

It can be concluded that even poor populations in 3rd world countries have also shown the same extraordinary capacity to adjust to their material and physical environment – conquering hunger and diseases.

Next Page: Population Management and Development Family
1, 2