South of the Border

Africa on the Brink

April 29, 2015

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Africa on the Brink

The governments of Europe are confronting an epochal choice in the Mediterranean. Do they allow Europe to remain on course toward inundation by the African population explosion, inevitably turning Florence into Ferguson and Barcelona into Baltimore?

The conventional wisdom is that it’s unthinkable to stop the African tsunami. Veteran public radio correspondent Sylvia Poggioli assured gullible NPR listeners on Monday:

This is a human tide that cannot be stopped,” she says. … Europeans have to start providing legal channels that will allow them to seek asylum here. This is a humanitarian crisis, says Mascena, that cannot be solved by use of force — or by leaving these desperate human beings bottled up in Africa and the Middle East.

Or will Europeans adopt the sensible policies of Australia and Israel that have succeeded at turning back Camp of the Saints-style invasions by boat?

The Sub-Saharan African population bomb is the most obvious long-term problem facing global peace and prosperity. We’ve been lectured for decades about climate change, but the staggering fertility rates among black Africans have been largely hushed up over the last quarter of a century. We’re supposed to assume the problem will solve itself without any white people ever being so crass as to mention that it’s even a problem.

While birth rates have dropped in much of the world, they remain staggeringly high in much of Africa south of the Sahara. The simplest measure to work with is the total fertility rate, a projection of babies per woman per lifetime. While many countries have dropped below the replacement rate (for example, Iran is at 1.85), there are 35 countries in black Africa with total fertility rates over 4.0, compared to only four elsewhere on earth.

The highest TFR is seen in desert Niger at 6.89 babies per woman. You could argue that Niger in the southern Sahara is an unimportant wasteland, with only 8 million people back. (Oh, wait, that was back in 1990. Now it’s up to 18 million.)

“It’s important for naïve white people to understand why black Africans aren’t terribly inclined to limit their own numbers, at least not without strict immigration restriction and constant hardheaded prodding by Westerners to undertake family planning.”

Even more worrisome are giant Nigeria (177 million people) at a TFR of 5.25, Ethiopia (97 million) at 5.23, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (77 million) at 4.80.

And that’s assuming that chaotic Congo is actually counting its vital records properly. UN demographers recently discovered that they had been understating the current total fertility rate in Africa by 0.25 due to shoddy record keeping by African governments. Thus, two years ago the United Nations Population Division released a shocking update to their population projections, revising the forecast for the continent of Africa upward to 4.2 billion in 2100 from 1.1 billion today.

That is about a half dozen times greater than the population of Europe.

Africa is almost certainly not going to add over three billion residents over the next 85 years. Something else will happen instead, ideally a decline in African fertility to sustainable levels rather than mass migrations or a rise in the death rate.

Africans will attempt to decamp en masse to Europe and to other first world countries, such as America.

If Africans aren’t allowed to get away with that, however, they might actually deal with their own fertility excesses, just as almost everybody else outside Africa has more or less done.

The problem is that this reform needs to happen soon. Due to the phenomenon of “population momentum,” even after the Total Fertility Rate falls to the replacement rate, the population keeps growing for about another 40 years.

It’s not impossible for black cultures to learn to show some self-restraint. The total fertility rate in Barbados, for instance, is only 1.68, and in poorer Jamaica it’s 2.05.

Even dystopian Haiti is down to 2.79 from 3.80 at the time of the earthquake in 2010, although with little thanks to the enormous number of NGO charities that white people run on that densely populated and deforested Caribbean country to keep the Haitians fed. After the 2010 earthquake, I looked for foreign charities boasting online of providing contraception to Haitians, but could find almost none. Apparently, that would be racist, even though a lower population growth rate clearly ought to be the highest priority for that impoverished land.

It’s important for naïve white people to understand why black Africans aren’t terribly inclined to limit their own numbers, at least not without strict immigration restriction and constant hardheaded prodding by Westerners to undertake family planning.

Europeans used to be less naïve about African proclivities.

Evelyn Waugh’s 1932 satire of the Emperor Haile Selassie’s attempt to modernize Ethiopia, Black Mischief, includes a bravura passage about the progressive government’s effort to launch a Pageant of Birth Control with a poster showing a starving family of thirteen next to a prosperous family of three, with the question “Which home do you choose?” inscribed above “a detailed drawing of some up-to-date contraceptive apparatus.” The peasantry, however, interpret the emperor’s advertisement in an unexpected fashion:

See: on right hand: there is rich man: smoke pipe like big chief: but his wife she no good: sit eating meat: and rich man no good: he only one son.

See: on left hand: poor man: not much to eat: but his wife she very good, work hard in field: man he good too: eleven children: one very mad, very holy. And in the middle: Emperor’s juju. Make you like that good man with eleven children.

And so the peasants flocked into the capital, “eagerly awaiting initiation to the fine new magic of virility and fecundity.”

But Waugh was Punching Down; so today we’re more high-minded and thus more ignorant about Africa.

Why have black Africans traditionally been obsessed with procreation? In the most comprehensive and insightful explanation of Africa I’ve ever seen, the 1997 book <

Africa: A Biography of the Continent, author John Reader notes:

Children were precious and the drive to reproduce became a central feature of African culture and social order. … From the time that Europeans first set foot in Africa, travellers have commented upon what they saw as an excessive interest in sex among Africans.

Reader is an English photojournalist who was sent by Life Magazine in 1969 to photograph a Leakey family expedition to dig up early proto-human fossils. This triggered in Reader a passion for understanding Africa at the deepest levels.

Although Reader’s book never uses the term, a central aspect of his model of what makes humanity different in Africa from most of the rest of the world is its traditional lack of a Malthusian limit.

In most of the world, the struggle to feed a growing population from a limited amount of land strongly disciplined the culture in some fashion, perhaps in the direction of monastic celibacy, intensive cultivation of the soil, or late marriage. The average Englishwoman from 1200 to 1800, for example, married around age 25.

High cultures attempted to sublimate sexual drives into art, but in Africa, dance (with its constant pelvic thrusting) is intended to encourage impregnation as soon as possible, rather than at a carefully chosen time.

Why was there no Malthusian trap in Africa until quite recently?

Outside of a few healthy highland regions such as Ethiopia and Rwanda (home to notorious genocides), for most of the thousands of years that agriculture has been practiced, the vast sub-Saharan region has been relatively underpopulated:

The human population has never approached the size that the continent seems capable of supporting. … An FAO survey published in 1991 reported that only 22 per cent of land in Africa suitable for agriculture was actually in production (the comparable figure for south-east Asia is 92 per cent).

Reader notes that because humanity originated in Africa, both diseases and mega-fauna competitors such as elephants and lions have been co-evolving along with us over the millions of years. Thus, humanity never got the drop on the African ecosystem the way it did on other continents, especially the New World.

When the first Siberian hunters broke through into North America, they rapidly filled up the New World because there were few indigenous diseases and the trusting local elephants, such as the wooly mammoth, didn’t anticipate that these unimpressive looking two-legged newcomers carried sharp spears.

But in Africa, tropical diseases such as sleeping sickness and falciparum malaria were a major cause of infant mortality and an incessant drain on the adult population.

Moreover, elephants were wily rivals to humans. Without a dense concentration of humans to drive off marauding herds of elephants, they could eat your entire crop in a day:

A “sort of chessboard effect” developed, with people occupying one set of squares and elephants the other. … [O]ral histories recount how farmers succeeded in raising crops to maturity only when their fields were close together and the local community was large enough to supply the people needed to repel raiding elephants.

But if human density got too high, infectious disease took its toll, especially on the young. (That’s why black Africa was so lacking in urbanization.) In Africa, life (and death) was more random than elsewhere, so lack of foresight was less reliably punished and planning less often rewarded.

The rational response to the African environment was simply to procreate more offspring whenever possible, even though you may well lose numerous children to disease and do a poor job of educating the others. In Africa, traditionally, the biggest risk was having too few people in your village:

Lone farmers stood little chance, and if conflict or disease reduced a community’s manpower, elephants rapidly completed its collapse.

This realist perspective shouldn’t make us too gloomy about Africa’s ability to change, though.

These African traditions of quantity over quality in raising children are now obsolete in a world where elephants are no longer rivals. Africans now have AK-47s, so it’s more likely that four billion Africans will kill off all the wild game than that the elephants will get the upper hand again.

Indeed, many people in Africa today would like to change their self-destructive old ways. But if white people keep reassuring them that they’re awesome just the way they are and that any problems they have are the fault of bad white people, how can we expect Africans to develop a less catastrophic culture?

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