NigeriaOne of the more dramatic questions to be asked of the coming decades is how states will respond to population changes – their decline in some countries and their growth in others. One of the significant nations, I think, will be Nigeria. Nigeria has seen its population more than double since 1990, and almost half of its people are no older than fifteen. In the next twenty years, it is predicted to rise again by more than 62%, making it the fifth most populous country in the world, with a population far younger than those of other large states.

All is not hopeless in the Giant of Africa. It has a growing economy: rich enough, indeed, compared with more unfortunate neighbours, that it attracts almost as many migrants as it sees off to other nations. Its government has worked hard, it seems, to root out corruption, and has received acclaim for its steady progress on the matter.

The trouble is that its progress has to be more than steady. The needs of its millions of newcomers have to be met, and the conditions of its youth provide cause for concern. Its poverty rate is high, and has been creeping upwards. Further education is a rare opportunity. Worst of all, perhaps, job creation has fallen behind the pace at which youths are maturing. Unemployment and underemployment is thought to have doubled in the past six years.

Nigeria’s former president, Olesegun Obasanjo, has warned the government to tackle youth unemployment. Professor Festus Iyayi, a Nigerian intellectual, has hit upon a reason why this should matter to them…

High levels of youth unemployment can become a significant factor in shaping orientations about the legitimacy of the state: it can feature in evaluations of regime failure and decisions of regime change. In effect, high levels of youth unemployment pose dangers for the stability of the extant social order.

Indeed. And if you were a young Nigerian, angered by joblessness and deprivation, who might seem to be an alternative to the state? For some, it is could well be a group like Boko Haram: the bloodthirsty separatists who took a break from massacre people in churches and schools last week to slaughter people in a mosque. Fourty four worshippers were slain, while twelve civilians were killed in a nearby village.

The Nigerian government claims to be winning the fight against Boko Haram, and to have killed its second-in-command, but even if the struggle with this organisation is won, it may have set an obnoxious example to African militants. The Islamic supremacists of Ansaru, an offshoot of Boko Haram, have spent the last two years kidnapping people in states west of its stomping grounds.

Quite apart from the threat of radical ideologues, there is the problem of organised crime. The government has bought peace with some of the worst oil thieves, but it continues at daunting levels and is claimed to have enriched a thriving class of mobsters that, in their ruthlessness and sense of self-preservation, seem to ape the behaviour of their distant Italian cousins.

It is a cliche of Western perceptions of the third world, formed out of a thousand earnest charity appeals, that its inhabitants are the passive victims of deprivation. This obscures not only its working and middle classes but the fact that many people do not hang around waiting for jobs, money or death but turn to darker sources of income – and identity.

When the majority of a population are youths, and if they find it hard to gain employment or acquire resources, they might well ask themselves why they are obeying the whims of old, incompetent, often corrupt officials. This might inspire some of them to become budding politicians and entrepreneurs. Others, though, are liable to become extremely angry, and receptive to the ideas of forces of anger in their countries, and extremely desperate, and open to providing for themselves and their loved ones by all available means, regardless of their legal or, indeed, moral nature.

What matters is working with them before such thoughts arise, rather than struggling with them afterwards. A group of jobless men protested against President Goodluck as he worked towards disbanding Boko Haram, saying that he ignored his people until they committed violence. “We believe that the government listens more to those who cause mayhem than those who seek peace and dialogue,” said a protestor, “But the government should note that there is a limit to which a group that has been pummelled by poverty and hunger can go in exercising patience”. Only listen to criminals, in other words, and previously law-abiding citizens might choose to act in such a manner as to make sure they are heard.

It seems probable to me that coming decades will feature a lot of angry young men; stewing and, sometimes, boiling over in countries marked by rising and declining populations. In the former, young people may be frustrated by the difficulties of supporting themselves. Amid the ageing populations of Eastern Europe, East Asia and the Middle East, meanwhile, young people may be vexed by having to support an awful lot of other, older people. They must be involved with and invested in their societies, or many could choose to disregard them altogether.

HuddlestoneReactions to the census have been Panglossian. Sarah Mulley of the IPPR, in a piece that is advertised as demonstrating that Britons are “a people at ease with diversity”, states that “0nly a small minority of people think that immigration is a problem in their community”. Given the segregation prevalent in British cities one must ask how many people live in diverse communities.

What I’d like to focus on, however, is religion. People are excited by the decline in Christianity. I am not. The most notorious religious activist in England in the past decades, I think, has been Mary Whitehouse, a woman who thought our cultural standards were declining and who Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex and Lesbian Vampire Killers has proved wholly wrong. Uncomfortable jokes aside, I am, of course, not going to idealise somebody who loathed The Singing Detective but the fact that our most infamous of fundamentalists is known for trying to prohibit sexual fantasies about Christ should lead us to grasp that the Christians among us have not been particularly imperious.

The greatest influence that organised British Christianity has had in recent decades is, indeed, probably in its charitable and internationalist works: the Salvation Army is the obvious example but think also of Trevor Huddleston in the anti-Apartheid movement; the Quakers who helped to form Oxfam; the religious socialists behind Christian Aid. Christians have, relative to the standards of believers in their and other faiths throughout previous millenia, been extremely liberal – too liberal for their own good in some cases as they have done little to avoid their own decline.

Why fear their passing, though? Well, as Eric Kauffman has argued, religion is not dying out – its milder forms are. Evangelical Christians are replacing Anglicans. Muslim populations are growing in Europe and across much of Africa and the Middle East. (Though, as Nicholas Eberstadt among others has argued, their birth rates are declining in many places.) Even liberal Jews are noting the sharp rise in the Haredi demographic. Nature seems to favour the faithful, and atheistic populations are liable to shrink as they observe the growth of fundamentalist communities.

Besides this, though, I am unsure if lots are people are better off without religion. Forms of this and other faiths are hideous, of course, and inspiring, elevating modes of nonbelief could be established. Yet I have grown up among religious people and it seems to me that for a brief period in the history of mankind we have seen members of our species cleaving to beliefs that bore little of the thuggish dogmatism seen elsewhere but still managed to foster ethics of restraint and heedfulness and attitudes of reflection and reverence. I would not advocate beliefs I did not think were true yet I still wonder where future nonbelievers are going to look to find codes and convictions beyond the epicurean and absurd. I’m an introspective bastard and I’ve never truly found them.


By the low standards of the 21st Century I am not dramatically bad for the environment. I have never flown, do not drive and consume meat on rare occasions. This has much do with the lightness of my pockets, the spring in my step and the tastes of my palate but, still, if Pentti Linkola was to seize control tomorrow I would not be first against the wall.

Where I could be more of a threat to nature is in my consumption of fish. I’ve eaten a lot of skipjack tuna and Pacific salmon and though I’ve reduced my intake of such fish I have replaced them with sardines. Sardines are great. They taste rich and salty; they are full of protein and omega-3s; they have less of the mercury that bigger fish are poisoned with and they’re about the cheapest out there. They are also more numerous than other species. The trouble is that if a lot of people eat them very often – or, indeed, as I do, pretty much every day – this might not be true for long.

Conservation is, however, a complicated business. Some argue that the fall in stocks of predatory fish has led to a boom in forage fish and we consume more of them; others hold that the dependence of ecosystems on these delectable prey should cause us to leave them alone. Ultimately, one man’s habits are of little consequence and what is required is concerned and efficient research but this is no excuse for not trying to be responsible. Perhaps I should eat more lentils. They could become interesting.

I digress. I was reading a doommongering and at least somewhat misguided article on sardine stocks on Mother Jones and happened to glance at the comments. This is from the first…

Although I find articles like this, detailing various symptoms of life in th[e] 21st century, interesting and worrying,  they make fairly trivial journalism compared with the real problem.  This problem is that since I was born… the population of the world has trebled – an unprecedented rate of increase.

The thread that ensued was almost wholly dedicated to overpopulation, with many commenters agreeing that these sentiments were “right on”. This is not uncommon when debates turn to resources or emissions. Certain people seem to feel it is their duty to inject the topic into any forum where it might be met with eyes and ears. Now, it is true that overpopulation is a major issue. It poses considerable threats to the environment and it is liable to make life unpleasant for people in lands most characterised by populousness. These tend to be the poorest nations with the fewest resources and the least education. The new millions, then, are liable to have a grim future.

Yet I fail to see how overpopulation is relevant to this debate. Here is a chart that shows the twenty nations whose people consume the most fish. (The types of fish are also of significance but I am being simplistic in order to make a point.) The US has a growing population but that is due to immigrants from nations that don’t put away a lot of ’em. Indians and Nigerians have considerable birth rates but given that they account for 5% of the world’s intake despite numbering 20% of its people they aren’t about to empty oceans. Other countries that are doing the most to contribute to the growth of our species – Kenya, Ethiopia and the DRC – do not even make the list.

If numerousness determines the scale at which at least some people nosh on aquatic creatures, indeed, the signs are promising. China and Japan get through far more of ‘em than other countries and their populations are nosediving in number. The trouble is, of course, that the remaining Asians might start eating more, thus demonstrating that the idea that resources need dwindle or grow as populations rise or fall can be misplaced, for the simple reason that people do not and will not consume them at the same rates. This can be of relevance to issues concerning resource depletion and energy use today because the Western and East Asian countries that get through the most stuff tend to have stable or declining populations while those African and Central Asian countries that have growing citizenries tend to consume the least. The issue, then, is often the amount people consume, not merely the amount of people.

Or, in other words, those Afghans are unlikely to be eating salmon.

The New York Times reports a view from Jonathan Haidt…

As a scientist, he takes a passive, empirical view of human nature. He describes us as we have been, expecting no more. Based on evolution, he argues, universal love is implausible: “Parochial love . . . amplified by similarity” and a “sense of shared fate . . . may be the most we can accomplish.”

One might object to this. After all, none of us “love” English people qua English people. In fact, we dislike a good many of them. But here’s a thought: if a hundred Englishmen were being worked to death wouldn’t you be affected? This could be explained by a desire for self-preservation if they were being killed in England so let’s say it’s abroad. You be angered, horrified and sympathetic, no? I would. Yet in North Korea tens of thousands of people face such hardships every day of every year and have been doing so for decades. Aside from, perhaps, the odd teary moment over Nothing to Envy or Escape From Camp 14 has this knowledge had the slightest impact on your emotional state? Apart from those times I’ve been directly confronted with it I have to admit it’s left mine relatively unaffected. That also applies to massacres in the Congo; disease in Kenya and oppression Zimbabwe.

All people have limited emotional responsiveness. They act according to their membership of communities based on shared experience and ambition, and common humanity is simply not a guarantor of fellow feeling. Even the strongest, broadest concept of tribal allegiance, that of the Muslim Ummah, is nebulous in practice: speaking crudely, Pakistani Muslims tend to be stirred up over Kashmir; Egyptians over Gaza and Kurds over, well, Kurdistan. It needn’t mean we fail to recognise the injustice and suffering faced by others – though, of course, we might – but that our intellectual acknowledgement rarely transcends the cerebrum and manifests itself in empathetic feeling. This is only true, I think, when we have a tribal connection to the victims – be it familial, national or ideological – or heavy exposure to the reality of their suffering.

While this might disincline us from working as hard to ameliorate distress as we might otherwise, it can focus our attention on achievable goals. And, besides, it’s worth remembering that if we truly empathised with all people, let alone creatures, we’d be struck down with an anguish that would make existence Hell.

This does not, of course, mean you have to base your emotions round particular loyalties; only that it should be remembered that most people will.

Here’s an old discussion between Tyler Cowen and Peter Singer. Discussing world poverty the small-“l” liberal Cowen argues…

…what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work [is] “immigration”. I don’t even see the word “immigration” in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us…Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?

Singer responded…

I must admit that I haven’t thought a lot about immigration as a way of dealing with world poverty. Obviously, from what you’re saying, I should be thinking more about it.

Immigration is, of course, a good solution to the poverty of immigrants but to make it “the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform” would be a strange thing to do because a limited amount of people would be able to be migrate, however loose migrations controls. By 2050 the populations of the less developed countries of the world are liable to have grown by almost 50%, while the populations of its least developed nations are likely to swell by 100%. These are billion upon billion people. Even if countries went the full Singapore – and, thus, made life unpleasant for their people and, indeed, the migrants – you’d be left with heck of a lot of poor men and women. It’s the development of their economies that’s necessary for meaningful opposition to large-scale poverty.

As little as I know of economics I’ve often thought economists can be oddly incapable of looking at the bigger picture – eyeing the world through narrow frames that omit factors like scale, unevenness, historical context and so on. Cowen offers a tentative, plausibly “contrarian” defence of colonialism: wondering if “European rule” could maintain peace in war-torn Africa, to which Singer responds that uprisings against colonial powers would exist instead. Cowen replies…

If we compare the Mau Mau, say, to the wars in Kenya and Rwanda, it seems unlikely that rebellions against colonial governments would have reached that scope, especially if England, France, other countries, would have been willing to spend more money to create some tolerable form of order.

I’m no historian but I’ve always thought that the Rwandan genocide had a lot to do with the divide-and-rule tactics of the Belgian colonists. Homer Simpson’s line about beer being the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems seems appropriate.

I’ve posted before on the phenomenon of “sex selective” birth control. Nicholas Eberstatd has an essay in The New Atlantis that provides a bleak view of its scale and likely future…

The practice has become so ruthlessly routine in many contemporary societies that it has impacted their very population structures, warping the balance between male and female births and consequently skewing the sex ratios for the rising generation toward a biologically unnatural excess of males. This still-growing international predilection for sex-selective abortion is by now evident in the demographic contours of dozens of countries around the globe — and it is sufficiently severe that it has come to alter the overall sex ratio at birth of the entire planet, resulting in millions upon millions of new “missing baby girls” each year.

The social implications of this are disturbing. There are, for example, lots of people who’ve been inspired to affirm the value of women – to affirm value of women as commodities, that is. Many poor girls are forced into arranged marriages or prostitution. It’s hardly surprising. After all, if there are millions of people who think women aren’t worth bearing there’s likely to be millions more who don’t they’re worth much once they’re alive. Meanwhile, there are millions of blokes who are beginning to find it more difficult to locate partners, and they could get a bit frustrated if it carries on.

Eberstatd doesn’t think the crisis will be solved by policy. The phenomenon is pronounced in countries with both harsh and liberal stances on reproductive freedom, and attempts by the state to curb such practices have failed. He mentions, however, that there’s an exception to the trend – that one country has stabilised its birth ratios. That country, he writes, is South Korea. He proposes that…

South Korea’s SRB reversal was influenced less by government policy than by civil society: more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honoring, protecting, and prizing daughters. In effect, this movement — drawing largely but by no means exclusively on the faith-based community — sparked a national conversation of conscience about the practice of female feticide. This conversation was instrumental in stigmatizing the practice, not altogether unlike the way in which nationwide conversations of conscience helped to stigmatize international slave-trading in other countries in earlier times. The best hope today in the global war against baby girls may be to carry this conversation of conscience to other lands.

A “nationwide conversation of conscience”? I hear you. It sounds nauseating. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to say “thank you” to whoever’s working behind a checkout, let alone start nattering with the entire population. And, yet, sometimes things that make us queasy have to be endured for the greater good. (Dental flossing, for example.) If there’s any truth to Eberstatd’s claim it’s actually quite inspiring. The abolition of slavery – though, yes, a question that demanded a greater shift in attitudes – followed decades of debate. What with the grave problems facing our society – the need to reduce our energy consumption, say – such conversations are, in lieu of dangerous authoritarianism, a necessity. And, of course, they can’t just take place on Guardian comment pages.

Another complaint that people make at those of us who are concerned with population growth, articulated here by George Monbiot, is that we are just bullying poor folk. “It’s no coincidence,” he says, “That most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men”. Well, I’m white and male – if not as wealthy as I’d like to be – but I’d challenge Monbiot to name a cause – feminism aside, perhaps – that isn’t dominated by white males. He, Hansen, Lovelock, Lynas, Mann, Romm and most of the theorists of and commentators on climate change – that I’m aware of, anyway – are well-off caucasian dudes. That’s not a good reason to doubt them. Like it or not, most prominent theorists and commentators are still male, pale and towards the higher end of the wage scale.

Monbiot is right, I guess, that population growth is not an influential factor in climate change. (I’m no expert but I don’t think Ugandans and Ethiopians are cruisin’ in gas-guzzlin’ SUVs, or holidaying in Corfu.) This doesn’t mean it poses no dangers for the environment, though. It does. With dwindling resources and soaring populations more stress will be imposed on a haggard world. Here’s the thing, though: this is largely dangerous for the populations themselves. They pose no great dangers to us but the consequences of millions and millions of poor, uneducated and fervently religious newcomers won’t, as far as I can tell, be good for their societies – or, indeed, themselves. They’ll be hard-pressed to find the natural and intellectual resources with which to feed and shelter all those people. Rich white blokes who fail to recognise the dangers of this can hardly pose as guardians of the needy.

What’s to be done, though? Well, I guess we’ll have to look at the causes of growth. Religiosity seems to be correlated with high birth rates, but what separates a country like Nigeria, with a high one, from Indonesia, whose women are, erm – less prolific? Countries like Nigeria are desperately poor. The solution to population growth, then, is not some cruel regime of the sort typically, and sometimes justly, associated with environmentalists, but to raise their standard of living. Cripes! What hatred for the needy that, er – doesn’t show.

As Monbiot would note – rising consumption poses grim dangers. And, admittedly, I’m not such an expert that I know how you’d go about raising their standard of life, never mind ensuring that it stays within our means, but the alternative is that hundreds of millions of newborns are consigned to lives of real and intellectual poverty. Somehow, I’m not sure that’s the humanitarian choice.

The Guardian staff are trying to understand demographic change…

With the global population forecast to reach 9 billion by the middle of the decade, Japan is bucking the trend. Instead, its low birthrate and ageing society are taking the world’s third-biggest economy to the brink of a demographic crisis to which it is struggling to find solutions.

No, Japan is consistent with the trend of richer people having fewer babies and poorer people having more.

First, look at this…

The countries in blue are well-off and the countries in red and brown are very poor.

Now, look at this…

The countries in blue are at or below their replacement rates; the countries in green are at or slightly above it and the countries in yellow, orange, red and purple are, well – rather more prolific.

This is why population growth is such a vital issue. It’s not just a question of how many people can fit on the Earth. When we speak of “people” we don’t mean people per se. The people who’d be the result of population growth, and need to find the space and resources with which to thrive, would be impoverished, uneducated and extremely religious. Those sound like uncomfortable generalisations – even to the author – but it’s true. Remembering the reds and purples, look at this graph of literacy rates…

…and this one on religiosity…

It’s not just a question of distributing condoms. Encouraging development in that clutch of Middle Eastern and African nations – and I’m aware that’s about three hundred thousand trillion times easier to say than do – is among the most important tasks of luckier peoples. Not only will growing populations have a hard time finding the space and resources they’ll need, they’ll be in no position to help themselves.

This, by the way, is what makes environmentalists tutting at large families in better off nations so absurd. It’s bad if their energy consumption is high, of course, but if their countries are going to do useful things like – I don’t know – help unfortunate nations deal with their soaring birth rates they’ll need people there to do it.


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