New Internationalist

Myths and madness

I recently heard a discussion on the BBC World Service about population control and climate change which suggested that the world cannot sustain our growing population. Views ranged from imminent disaster if populations 'are not controlled', to relating the need for family planning to climate change and the need for the West to drastically curb its consumption if the planet is to survive. 

I take the latter point of view. Africa has a population of some 700 million on a land mass of just under 12,000,000 square miles which is equal to about 16 people for every square mile - hardly overpopulated! Of course, urban centres are highly dense and cities such as Lagos, Nigeria are growing at a massive rate, leaving the infrastructure unable to cope. But the same goes for cities in the West. I live in London, which has a population estimated somewhere between 8 million and 14 million (depending on how far out from the centre you include - and of course no one knows the number of illegal residents). Suffice to say the population is huge and the infrastructure bursting at the seams. 

But to return to the African continent. One can frame the answers and questions depending on one's position. It seems to me that there is a perception that Africa is overpopulated and as such cannot feed itself. The perception is clearly borne out of images of starving Africans - images from Darfur, Ethiopia and so on. However, incidents of famine are far more complex and have little to do with population numbers as a whole. On average, fertility rates are higher, and life expectancy much lower, than in Western countries. Apart from this, there are issues of water - pollution of rivers and lakes - plus land erosion, land-grabbing by agri-industries and foreign governments at the expense of the small scale community farmers, and conflict - much of which centres around the exploitation of Africa's resource-rich lands. Added to the present impact of climate change, we can safely say the crisis is not about population but about the abuse of human rights and the rampant unregulated exploitation of land and resources.  

Calling for African countries to reduce their population bears no relationship to the population or the land mass. The truth is that whilst Africa is rich in resources needed by the industrial world, such as oil, cobalt, diamonds and cocoa, African people are not beneficiaries of the profits from these products. Transnationals, Western governments and neo-colonial African leaders make sure of that. On the contrary, people are impoverished by the exploitation of these resources. The DRC and Niger Delta are excellent examples. Sure, on an individual basis there is a need for family planning but not as a policy of genocide - to kill off Africa's population because the West is over-consuming and needs more land and resources to feed its people and their electronic gadgets. 

When one considers that there are more cars in the US state of Maine than in the whole of Africa, then what is really needed is not population control on the continent but a reduction in the greedy consuming patterns of the industrialized world; mining and extraction of resources undertaken with regards to human and environmental rights - a respect for the land and people. Recognizing that the continent only produces 4 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases and adequately compensating Africa's people for this gross imbalance.  

If this means higher costs of consumer goods so that those who toil the land can make a decent living, then there will have to be a change in how and what is consumed.   The industrialized world - the highest consumers and highest emitters of greenhouse gases - has been on a 300-year frenzied feed of Africa's resources and people and has created a lifestyle of cheap consumer products, cheap utilities and the belief that they can own anything - all this at the expense of the Global South and in particular the African people. The onus is on industrialized nations to adapt to the necessary changes dictated by the encroaching climate change; not Africa and its people.

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