Bernardo M. Villegas
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Rebalancing Strategy
published: Mar 31, 2017

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Sweet Spot

           There is a recurring phrase in every positive assessment of Philippine economic prospects during the next few decades.  As I have experienced in the various road shows in which I have participated in the U.S, Europe and Asia, foreign investors are taking a closer look at the Philippines because of the "sweet spot" that they perceive we are now going through.  In plain terms, they are attracted to invest in the Philippines because we have a "young, growing, educated and English-speaking population."   I relish reporting this to university students and young professionals in their early twenties.  They are the ones who will reap the full benefits of this advantage over the next twenty to thirty years during which they will reach the peak of their respective careers.  In fact, they are the ones who will still be very productive members of the work force by 2050, the year in which Hong Kong Shanghai Bank economists predicted the Philippines will be catapulted to No. 16 largest economy in the world, surpassing countries like Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and many European countries that are already suffering from steep declines in their respective populations.

          By 2050, Philippine population will peak at about 150 million with a population density of 500 persons per square kilometer.  This is close to the present population density of South Korea of about 487 persons/  If we consider that South Korea is completely bereft of natural resources like fertile land and minerals, there is no reason why the Philippines cannot reach First World status like South Korea today if we just apply the very well known means that this Northeast Asian tiger used to escape the "middle income trap":  investments in infrastructure, quality education at all levels, promotion of small and medium-scale industries, and  research and development.

          To immunize these young people from the error of Malthusian pessimism which characterizes some of our thought leaders today, I am sharing with them the scientifically based opinion of Dr. Erle C. Ellis, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland and visiting associate professor of Harvard's Graduate School of Design.  In a recent op-ed contribution to the New York Times entitled "Overpopulation is not the Problem," Dr. Ellis debunked the myth of overpopulation:  "The world population is now estimated at 7.2 billion.  But with current industrial technologies, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations has estimated that the more than nine billion people expected by 2050 as the population nears its peak could be supported as long as necessary investments in infrastructure and conducive trade, anti-poverty and food security policies are in place.  Who knows what will be possible with the technologies of the future?  The important message from these rough numbers should be clear.  There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.  We are nothing at all like bacteria in a petri dish."

          Why is it then that some of our opinion makers, especially in the legislature and the media, are still obsessed with the idea that the Philippines is overpopulated?  We may find the answer in what Dr. Erle wrote about his own experience:  "It was only after years of research into the ecology of agriculture in China that I reached the point where my observations forced me to see beyond my biologist's blinders.  Unable to explain how populations grew for millenniums while increasing the productivity of the same land, I discovered the agriculture economist Ester Boserup, the antidote to the demographer and economist Thomas Malthus and his theory that population growth tends to outrun the food supply.  Her theories of population growth as a driver of land productivity explained the data I was gathering in ways that Malthus could never do.  While remaining an ecologist, I became a fellow traveler with those who directly study long-term human-environment relationships--archaeologists, geographers, environmental historians and agricultural economists."    I always end my talks on population to young people with the challenge that they make full use of their talents and knowledge to continue defying physical limits.  As Dr. Erle concluded:  "Our planets' human-carrying capacity emerges from the capabilities of our social systems and our technologies more than from any environmental limits."  For comments, my email address is