Communications consultant, writer, and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi.
1 Dec 2021
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]
The second in line to the British throne, Prince William, has once again caused an uproar by blaming population growth in Africa for the declining fortunes of the continent’s wildlife. Many have pointed out the hypocrisy of a father of three demonising African households for having too many babies.
Others have noted that the United Kingdom is much more densely populated than any part of Africa and that British hunters and colonial settlers have been responsible for the savage decimation of animals. Not to mention the effect of global warming and climate change, majorly caused by William’s ancestors, countrymen and neighbours, which may endanger between 25 and 40 percent of mammal species in national parks in Africa.
However, little has been said about the historic discomfort of white elites with Black fertility and Black babies. It was the second time William was complaining about the continent’s rising population having previously raised the issue in 2017. That same year, French President Emmanuel Macron, who also likes to talk about African birthrates, blamed the continent’s “civilisational” problems on nations that “have seven or eight children per woman”.
And of course, there were the perhaps not entirely surprising allegations last year by William’s own sister-in-law, Meghan, an African American woman, that some in the royal family were concerned about the possibility of her and Prince Harry’s son not being the desired royal colour.
The Western angst about population growth is often presented in absolutist terms: “The fundamental point of The Population Bomb is still self-evidently correct, we believe: the capacity of Earth to produce food and support people is finite” wrote Paul and Anne Ehrlich in 2009 about their influential 1968 book on the dangers of overpopulation. They reiterated their position that “there are only two kinds of solutions to the population problem. One is a ‘birthrate solution’, in which we find ways to lower the birthrate. The other is a ‘death rate solution’, in which ways to raise the death rate – war, famine, pestilence – find us.”
However, if they could collect all the infinity stones and snap their fingers – just like Thanos, the villain of Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War – it is unlikely they would, like him, erase populations equally across the globe to achieve the optimum number of people Earth could supposedly comfortably hold. It is telling that the troubling, apocalyptic descriptions in The Population Bomb are about teeming misery in non-white countries such as India, not in Europe or North America.
In the same way, the language of environmental and humanitarian concern is employed today to disguise darker fears. In contrast to Africa’s youthful and growing population, and despite William’s personal efforts, the population of Europe is ageing and stagnating. Within a century, the number of Africans could more than triple to 4.5 billion, accounting for two in every five human beings, while Europeans will likely decline by about a hundred million. By 2100, there could well be seven Africans for every European.
With the rise of Asian giants like China and India already supercharging white racist fears (and partly driving the resurgence of right-wing extremism), the prospect of Europeans taking a back seat to Africans as well is undoubtedly adding fuel to the fire.
In truth, as Kenyan ecologist, Dr Mordecai Ogada, co-author of The Big Conservation Lie, which focused on the policy problems and prejudices underlying wildlife conservation in the country, says, “the absolute numbers of people in Africa are far from being a problem for our environment more so because of the very light footprint of the people here”. He points out that many Indigenous communities have little incentive to harm the environment which they directly rely on to fulfil essential needs.
And when it comes to the environment, many Western do-gooders “look at human numbers instead of human behaviour”. It is the same flawed argument that claims African communities that have lived with wildlife for millennia are the real threat, while Westerners who have driven much of their own wildlife to extinction, have the answers.
The talk of overpopulation also feeds into a narrative that seeks to completely exonerate the West from the problems facing Africa. Africa – the tale they would like to tell goes – is poor and starving because it has too many Africans who are very bad at running their own affairs without murdering each other, and incapable of managing the natural resources and wildlife the continent is blessed with. Sound familiar? It was the justification for the “civilising mission” that was the cover for the brutal European plunder of the continent.
The legacy of colonialism and its genocides, displacements and murders; the trade and financial systems that continue to milk the continent for the benefit of outsiders and at the expense of locals; the interventions to prop up murderous, kleptocratic regimes; and the destruction of the global environment all pale into insignificance when compared with the misfortune of actually hosting Africans. Like his ancestors before him, this is what William considers the continent’s – and the planet’s – true tragedy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.