pop goes the world: sotto’s scare tactics

POP GOES THE WORLD  By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  3 November 2011, Thursday

Sotto’s Scare Tactics

The most frightening thing I’ve ever seen during a  Halloween season came from  Senator Tito Sotto – and he didn’t even wear a mask or costume.

His statement in the media on the birth of the symbolic 7 billionth baby was disturbing because it was downright irresponsible, negating the ill effects of rapid population growth.

He shrugged off the fears of a population explosion, saying that even if the world population doubled to 14 billion, “all of us could still fit in the state of Texas.” (Texas, according to Wikipedia, is the “second largest US state by area and population,” its oil wells, cattle ranches, and beautiful big-haired women sprawling over 696,241 square kilometers.)

Senator Sotto also said the birth of Danica May, one of the United Nations’ symbolic “7 billionth babies”, at Fabella Memorial Hospital last October 30 “should be a celebration of life and not be used to spread fear about population growth.”

This was most likely in response to Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s statement that the birth of the 7 billionth baby was “not a matter of joy but a great worry…We shouldn’t be celebrating.” Interpreting this as coming from a macro point-of-view, the minister’s point was that hitting that number should spur the development and implementation of solutions on how to slow the population growth rate and improve the standard of living for most, if not all, people on the planet.

United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki Moon echoed this, saying the “terrible contradictions” of “lavish lifestyles for a few, but poverty for too many others” leads to the question “What kind of world has baby 7 billion been born into?”

Sotto’s statement about Texas parallels Pro-Life Philippines Foundation, Inc.’s arguments.  A newspaper report quoted the foundation’s website as stating that “six billion people on the earth today would fit within the state of Texas, with each family having a house with a little yard. So it is not a question of area. The problem is the growing concentration of large numbers of people in certain cities, caused by the deterioration and lack of opportunities in the rural areas…” with the result that “cities are confronting serious problems with basic infrastructure, health services, food supplies, education, transportation, sewage disposal, and housing.”

But Pro-Life and Sotto are looking at the problem upside-down and are arguing against themselves. No one has said it is a question of area or space. It is a question of living space, of arable space, of usable space. Not all areas are safe nor appropriate for habitation. Not all areas are suitable for agriculture or food production.

And not all countries have solved the problems Pro-Life itself has pointed out – infrastructure, sewage, housing, and so on. Billions all over the world live in poverty, fear, and ignorance.

In this country alone, the homeless families sleeping at the center islands of major thoroughfares, with sex their primary diversion because they can afford hardly anything else, not even a roof over their heads, are a compelling reason to pass the reproductive health bill.

The expansion of a country’s population when that country cannot provide a satisfactory standard of living for its people is folly. It is crass irresponsibility. It is downright criminal.

The knee-jerk reaction would be to accuse the senator of lacking critical thinking skills and a capacity for logic and reason. The fair thing to say would be that his thinking and resultant stand stems from religious doctrine and other cultural sentiments that many other Filipinos share – that, as the senator said, artificial birth control methods are “abortifacients”, that those advocating population control measures “shouldn’t be smarter than God…He has a process of life and death and they should not interfere with God’s process.”

But this line of thinking is self-serving. If the senator were consistent, then he should also believe that sick people shouldn’t go to hospitals and seek treatment for their illnesses. No one should drink medicines. Because doing so would “interfere with God’s process,” would it not?

* * * * *

To know more about this and other global issues, we need to do our research and seek out information. For everyone to be able to do this we need to spread literacy by instilling a reading culture. A person who reads – and I don’t mean this in a merely functional sense – is empowered to gain knowledge for himself. It’s like teaching a man to fish for himself instead of giving him fishes on a handout basis, which merely instills a mendicant mental culture, dependent on what the media supplies.

A major drawback to the development of a reading culture in the Filipino milieu is the lack of access to books. Without access to printed materials, how can people be encouraged to read?  We have few community public libraries, and the ones run by the government carry only outdated materials.

For instance, the one nearest my home – the Sta. Ana, Manila, library – though a sunny, well-lit place furnished with antique tables and chairs that I coveted from the time I first visited a decade ago, only has musty old books and no magazines. Over the years I’ve donated three balikbayan boxes full of books to that library, sometimes unceremoniously dumping them on the doorstep after office hours. I haven’t been back to there to see what happened to the books I gave; it was enough for me that those books were out there, benefiting someone, anyone.

A bit of good news related to this is that the Department of Education has declared November as “National Reading Month” to instill in the youth interest in the printed word. Among the DepEd’s planned activities are a Read-a-thon, to discover outstanding readers in class; the DEAR program, which encourages students to read 20 minutes daily; and the shared reading or mentoring program.

But these activities all take place inside schools. We need initiatives that will spread the word, literally, outside that context.

Now here’s an idea. There’s something called World Book Night, held in London for some years now, with the US to follow suit for the first time next year, on 23 April. The event was created to coincide with World Book Day, founded by UNESCO in celebration of books and reading around the world.

On World Book Night, volunteers hand out free books to passersby on sidewalks and street corners. The books are selected and donated by participating publishers.

Strangely, the venture’s effect is an increase in book sales. Sales of three of the books given away in 2010 surged in the triple digits: Nigel Slater’s “Toast” rose 367%, John le Carre’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (a classic thriller) soared 106%, and Seamus Heaney’s “New Selected Poems” climbed by 102%. Given that, perhaps Philippine publishers might consider doing something similar next year.

We don’t even have to give away new books – pre-loved ones are fine. If you have been touched by books, if reading has transformed your life in any way, then help spread the love and the magic. Calling on government agencies, private corporations, and book-loving individuals to join forces in organizing a Philippine World Book Night! ***

Photo of Senator Sotto taken by JennyO. Baby Danica image here. Homeless woman image here. WBN poster here.

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