(This is the continuation of this piece of reflection)
The worried troll
Absolute jerk that I am, when I was 12 or 14, I was obsessed with the 1995 book of the year that came with our edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, covering 1994. It was the year of the first Chechen war, the Rwandan genocide, the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Kevin Carter, the first free elections in South Africa and the trial of OJ. Attached were fact sheets for each country that existed at the time. In the age of the dial-up internet and Wikipedia taking its first steps out of primeval silt, these fact sheets were one of the few ways to educate yourself on the basics of other countries, relatively up-to-date for the early 2000s.
And in those fact sheets, one piece of data kept ringing in my ears: the doubling time, the estimated time it would take for a country to double its population. It was then that I discovered things like the huge population and density of Bangladesh, with an estimated doubling time of 29 years (fertility rate of 4.6 children per woman, it is now 1.94); it’s the same thing for a number of these reputedly big and reputedly poor countries. My still-developing brain couldn’t help wondering: where will all these new people go?
Well-meaning thoughts that leave a door open for downright bad ideas. It was almost 30 years ago.
A few days ago, the United Nations published its annual report on World Population Prospects, and it showed growth slowed significantly to a rate of around 1%, impacted, as you might guess, by the pandemic. Apparently, by the 2080s, the population will peak at around 10.4 billion people and then experience a steady decline. According at the same report, growth will be concentrated in a small group of countries such as India (but declining slowly then rapidly), Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Pakistan. These are the predictions as they stand today, a glimpse of some of the people most qualified for the job. Of course, things can and will change quickly, not to mention the impact that climate change will have.
Just when the pandemic started, The Lancet published a study which have shown even lower population growth, even among countries with high fertility rates, if and when certain Sustainable Development Goals are achieved. Scenarios include Bangladesh‘s population halving, India falling below the billion population mark, and Sub-Saharan Africa doubling or growing by only 50%, instead of current scenarios that predict nearly tripled growth. Other scenarios are now more or less accepted, such as a drop in the Chinese population of 50% or more. Latin America is experiencing a population spike and is aging, making us even less geopolitically relevant.
Objectively, this should be good news, but we are not talking about the framing. The Malthusian framing is one that depicts Africa’s population explosion as a crisis. The well-meaning but disturbing argument is “if they have so many problems now, imagine if the population was three times larger!” As if their governments, their families, and their wives couldn’t realize that yes, family planning is a good thing, and yes, we need to understand that. As if there wasn’t a region of the world that 50 years ago had similar indicators to Africa today and where family planning has been successful, even though many countries still ban it. most if not all forms of abortion. The Latin American population has doubled and changed since the 1970s… but that has never been the real problem; our problem is development, corruption and the Global North agenda on us. It’s always like that.
If you Google “Population Growth in Africa” and go to the news section, you will find page after page after page after page after page crowds of poor black youth (mostly men), on busy streets or drought-stricken areas. A population that in itself is portrayed as a challenge at best, or a crisis (and a threat) at worst. Certainly, a population explosion is a challenge everywhere, but when it comes to black and brown people, there is a persistent dehumanizing framing.
Wikipedia (yeah, I’m using that as a reference, I already have to do an ethnographic study for my teaching degree, leave me alone) has a sequence of entries showing the world’s population century by century (more detailed from the 1500s), and country by country (or more correctly, geographical units). You will notice that, at least since the end of the Middle Ages, the European population has always amounted to between 15% and 20%, even if you do not count Russia or Anatolia. Roughly the same proportion as Imperial China or the South Asian kingdoms, sultanates and empires combined. But then, after World War II and, to quote Trevor Noah, three continuous decades of brutal white violence, the tide abruptly changed. Now you can group together three or four Asian countries not named China or India and you have the population of Europe. Add to that the United States, Canada, ANZAC, Japan, South Korea, and the Global North, the developed world, AKA, the “civilized,” can barely match the population of India or Africa.
Is that what scares them? Regardless of their inequalities? Or that a relatively poor European country like Poland has twice the GDP of a country like Pakistan? Or that historically Europe’s way of dealing with its population explosion in the 19th century was to simply export people to the Americas and Australia?
It’s what scares idiots like Elon Musk and his creepy dad when they start breeding in the same way they accuse poor black people of doing. Of course, people like the Musks are terrified of “population decline.” Decline of the white European population. They are Afrikaners, the descendants of white Calvinist Dutch “settlers”, the Puritans who went south, literally (can you trust the people who left the Netherlands just when things were going well?). They created their entire culture around the fear of being a minority (in size) on the lands they occupied; they were founded on white supremacist ideas in a context where they could never become a majority. They reflect the condition of white supremacism on a global scale: victimizing themselves in the sense that technically they are a minority, even though they hold the levers of the world. Thinking outward is eminently a threat, even if you have made this world. They have made a miserable world even in your own countries. They have made having children barely affordable, but they blame it on women, as those who should foot the bill to even out the demographic imbalance.
The white supremacist framing of population growth in Africa and other countries of the South, whether it comes from Bill Gates and The Economist or a Stormfront chat room, always forget that it’s about women’s liberation first. The liberation of black women and women of color in general, but also white women. Contraceptives are the cause and consequence of breaking free from the fundamental shackles of gender imposition. And this, in turn, revolutionizes society and the economy of poor or developing countries; it is generally both things at the same time, evolution and counter-reaction. But progress can only happen after women are freed from compulsory motherhood.
(By Women’s Liberation, I also include the liberation of all people who can become pregnant, girls and trans men included).
But of course, the real dream of white supremacy is to “force” white women to have more children, not only by returning to the replacement rate of 2.1, but to the level of the Mormon family.
There is also a well-meaning white supremacist framing, but still, of the direction the African population is heading. Whoever paints a picture of billions of starving black bodies, like a huge mass of undefined, dehumanized suffering spanning every waterfront of one of the greatest continents, crammed into sprawling flooded cities or the beds of dry lakes, a demographic divided and transformed into more victims for the body count of climate change. Of course, it is if the countries of the North continue to consume as they consume and continue to neglect the right of Africans to develop. No longer be a mass of African bodies, but rather Ghanaians, Congolese, Yoruba or Tigray. To be people and to be subjects of history and not just an average of mouths to feed per woman.
But again, this presupposes that women, families and governments in Africa and in the Global South are incapable of understanding that yes, it is a good idea to plan the size of your family. Of course they do; it’s just a matter of access and reach.
You can try it yourself. France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies has an interactive resource that has been my addiction for the past year. It allows you to simulate the future population of each country, continent or the world as a whole by changing the fertility rate, sex ratio and life expectancy. You can simulate in the 10,000 AC or whatever. Of course, it does not take into account other factors such as migration, pandemics, infant mortality, etc. But thanks to its algorithm, you realize how small sustained changes in each indicator can have huge impacts in the future. Maybe the Musks and the GOP should try to temper their anxieties and maybe invest in the development of the Global South.
Again, it’s always about white people, Christian men being a minority, one way or another, so these ladies have to pump pink white babes. As much as they can.
There is another way birth control liberates women and people who can get pregnant, and by extension, all humans. Bringing children into the world is expensive, exhausting and daunting, but it’s also a terrifying existential dilemma. In an increasingly miserable world, where there may be a future but no expectations, in places like China, South Korea, the United States, Latin America or even Europe , not bringing children into the world is sometimes the only effective protest against a failing system. Perhaps it will provide a space for the children of the Others to have a voice.
I wonder if there is a long arc of justice working on Africa becoming the second most populous or most populous continent. In most maps, Africa is in the center after all.
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Image sources (in order of publication): Getty Images, INED