By JOHN THORNTON BANNERMAN
Band Aid will not stop millions of Africans from starving to death
THE recent Band Aid concert raised over ￡40 million around the World "to fight the famine in Ethiopia". Those who gave did so, no doubt, through the highest motives of charity and compassion, moved by a desire to save life and relieve suffering. However, the harsh realities of demography and ecology dictate that their actions may in fact destroy more life and cause more suffering in Ethiopia in the long run.
For the root of the problem in Ethiopia, as it is in the whole Sahel belt along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, is not at root one of too little food but of too many people. For many centuries, the people of this area farmed their land in harmony with nature. Natural factors ― mainly disease and high infant mortality ― kept the population down to a level the soil could support, even support well. Ethiopia, especially, was a land of prosperous peasant farmers. Then the White man came, with his Christian missionaries and his medicines, though Ethiopia, a Christian land for nearly 2000 years, accepted only the latter. Infant mortality, in particular, plumetted, and the population began to rise since the White man did not as readily distribute his techniques of birth control (Catholic missionaries would not, on principle).
A growing population for dirt farmers exhausted and overgrazed the land and cut down the forests for firewood, letting the topsoil dry up and blow away. Like some glacier of dry sand, the Sahara began its relentless march south, aided by the millenia-long cycles of the African climate, which dictate that the deserts grow as the glaciers shrink, and vice-versa. At the height of our present interglacial period, the desert would have grown anyway, as the global climate patterns withdrew the rains. But teeming hordes of humans ravaging the land were an ally it had never before known in previous interglacials.
Much of this happened two thousand years ago on the northern fringe of the Sahara, when goats and overgrazing on the heels of a population explosion turned Libya, the breadbasket of ancient Rome, into the barren desert the veterans of El Alamain remember only too well. Then, time, drought and famine reduced the number of men, as they reduced the number of rabbits, to the population the land could feed, though the cornfields never came back, for the topsoil was lost forever. This time, on the deserts other border, it is different. For, though drought and hunger seek to restore the natural balance, and in doing so save what is left of the land, Man pours more and more food in, allowing more and more people to live and breed whom the land still cannot feed.
The Sahel has some of the poorest land in Africa. For 17 years there has been drought. Yet it has the highest rate of population growth in the world. Since 1950, the population of the region has trebled. In Ethiopia, ten years ago, the population was 27 million. Today it is 41 million and still growing. But food production has by no means kept pace with population. Thanks to the drought, the reverse. In the last 12 months, the population of the Sahel belt has risen by over 3%. Food production fell by 15%. Even without drought, food production was only rising by 1.5% per year. So the number of people is increasing twice as fast as the amount of food produced to feed them. Result: famine. Only ever more spectacular shipments of food from the developed World, where the population is not growing, culminating in the Band Aid shipments, has staved off disaster. So far.
But the population is still growing faster than its food supply. Every baby's life saved now means five babies to feed twenty years from now. By then, there will simply not be enough grain to ship. Bob Geldof may be able to get food for forty million hungry Ethiopians today. Can he get food for a hundred million a generation from now? Or must they starve? For if Ethiopia can feed twenty million Ethiopians, in the long run the rest must leave ― and there is nowhere to go ― or die. That is the brutal reality. If the rest is twenty million, twenty million starve. If it is forty million, forty million starve. In effect, feeding one starving baby today means having several starving babies you cannot feed tomorrow. Worse, the growth in population itself destroys the land, making the population it can ultimately support lower.
When White medical advances led to a population explosion of our people 200 years ago, they could bring fertile land into cultivation at home ― Europe was not a semi-desert ― and they could, and did, emigrate, settling vast new lands in America and Australia. The Ethiopians can do neither. There is no fertile land for them to cultivate, and there is nowhere for them to go, the world is full up. They must stay where they are, and starve where they are, until their population has been reduced to the number their land can feed. And the more we feed them now, the more of them there will be to die when we cannot feed them any more.
Human beings are sentimental, and find it difficult to face unpleasant realities. Nature is neither. Nature is not moved by TV pictures of hungry babies, and she is coldly ruthless in pruning the numbers of any of her children who have grown beyond bounds, by they bacteria in a culture medium, rabbits in a field, or humans in Ethiopia. It is a pruning that can be delayed, but never averted: if a population is not controlled by infant mortality or birth control it will be controlled by hunger and disease ― but it will be controlled.
Yet, ruthless as Nature is, as any blind natural process must be, her balance wards the living land. Our interference destroys it. Human interference turns moderately populated wooded farmland into densely populated desert. The end result is sparsely populated desert, sooner or later. Millions die, and the fertile farmland is forever lost. Better not to have interfered in the first place. Now we can only sit and suffer on our TV screens the consequences of our previous generations' well-meaning meddling with Africa's population. Or we can meddle some more, and make things even worse. As Band Aid has done.
Eventually, all those the soil of Ethiopia cannot feed will die. We can face that fact, and let nature take her course. Or we can wrap ourselves in smug self-congratulation, put or pound notes in the Band-Aid box, and condemn millions more to die. For Band Aid has saved some from starving today, only by condemning far more to starve tomorrow. It would have been more compassionate in the long run to let nature take its course and restore the balance. Thus, it will be the nice liberals who will kill more Black babies in the end ...