Blind spot on Africa’s population boom

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — You look at the numbers and you think: “That’s impossible.” Uganda had about 7 million people at independence in 1962, and in only 45 years it has grown to 30 million. By 2050, there will be 130 million Ugandans, and it will be the 12th biggest country in the world, with more people than Russia or Japan. Its population will have increased 18-fold in less than 90 years.

Many people think that population growth is no longer a problem, and everybody somehow knows that it is politically incorrect to talk about it. Back in 1968, when Paul Ehrlich terrified everybody with his book “The Population Bomb,” it was seen as the gravest long-term threat facing the human race, but now it scarcely gets a mention even in discussions on climate change — as if the number of people producing and consuming on this planet had no relevance to how great the pressure on the environment is.

True, the population explosion has gone away in large parts of the world, in the sense that most developed countries now have birthrates well below replacement level (2.1 children per woman), and that the global average, including the developing countries of Asia and South America, is now down to 2.3 children. That’s pretty impressive, given that it was 5.4 children per woman as recently as 1970.

But there remains the problem of what you might call “inertial growth.” My own mother had five children, which was not seen as at all unusual at the time. (There was one year when Newfoundland, my birthplace, beat Guatemala for the honor of having the highest birthrate in the Americas.) The next generation of our family, by contrast, dropped to 2.0: We five brothers and sisters and our five spouses have had a total of just 10 children. But that doesn’t mean that our population boom stopped.

If we had just spawned and died, it would have, but we insisted in living on after our children were born. In fact, we’re all still here, although the first grandchildren are already starting to appear — so where there were once 10 of us, there are now 23. It takes two full generations at replacement level before the population finally stabilizes.

That accounts for about half of the anticipated population growth in the next 40 years, which will raise the total number of people on the planet from 6.5 billion to about 9 billion. (In other words, we will be adding as many extra people as the total population of the world back in 1950.) But the other half of the growth comes mainly from Africa, already the poorest continent.

This may explain why it became politically incorrect to talk about population growth around 25 years ago. Nine out of the 10 countries in the world with the highest birthrates are African (the other is Afghanistan), and it seemed uncomfortably like pointing the finger at the victim. But runaway population growth is a big factor in making so many Africans victims, and it doesn’t help to stay silent about it.

Sometimes the steadily worsening ratio of people to resources just causes deepening poverty, as in the case of Nigeria, whose population by 2050 will reach 300 million. That is the same as the current population of the United States, but Nigeria, apart from being virtually without industry, does not have one-tenth of the natural resources of the U.S. If those 300 million people live at all, they will live very badly.

Often, however, the growing pressure of people on the land leads indirectly to catastrophic wars: Sierra Leone, Liberia, Uganda, Somalia, Congo, Angola and Burundi have all been devastated by chronic, many-sided civil wars, and all seven appear in the top 10 birthrate list. Rwanda, Ethiopia and Mozambique, which have suffered similar ordeals, are just out of the top 10.

Africa, which accounted for only 8 percent of the world’s population when most of its countries got their independence in the 1960s, will contain almost a quarter of the world’s (much larger) population in 2050.

This will have remarkably little impact on the global problem of climate change, since most Africans will still be very poor and have a very small environmental “footprint.” They will be very poor mainly because their populations are growing three times faster than the average in the rest of the world, and you cannot say that this is nobody’s fault. It is a failure of government.

The reason birthrates dropped in the rest of the world was that cheap, effective means of contraception became freely available and that child death rates plummeted. Once women realized that they didn’t have to have many children so that at least some would survive to adulthood, they took advantage of the contraception and brought the birthrate down with little urging from above. A few well-run African countries, like South Africa, have succeeded in stabilizing their populations in this way. The great majority have not.

Uganda’s birthrate is seven children per woman, little changed in 30 years. Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, believes his country is underpopulated, and told Parliament last July: “I am not one of those worried about the population explosion. It is a great resource.”

Museveni has done many good things for his country, but this one blind spot could undo them all. And he is far from alone.