Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Fighting in Khartoum

Rebel forces about 3,000 strong, entered Khartoum, the capital of Sudan yesterday. They were repulsed after fierce fighting with better-armed government forces. There were heavy casualties on both sides. The Sudanese government broke relations with Chad, claiming the Chadian government had sheltered the rebel forces on its territory. There were rumors of the arrests of many mid-ranking officers in the Sudanese army on suspicion of their supporting the rebels.

To Western eyes it is an inexplicable outbreak of horrifying violence among primitives over issues to us both obscure and trivial. Why did it happen?

There are the immediate causes that each side had in mind. Government brutality toward Darfuris, government brutality generally, opportunism, clan and regional rivalry, corruption, and a list of specifics of no interest to anyone outside Sudan. In a larger sense it is caused by Islam's preaching of violence. (Those who claim Islam does not preach violence have not read the Koran and are unaware of Muslim history, or they are pulling your leg.) In a larger sense it is caused by poverty. It is not the poor who are fighting, certainly not on the government side. Poor people in places like Sudan are concerned about getting enough to eat, today, right now, to invest much effort in politics. But poverty is the precondition for the fighting.

Switzerland is German and Catholic in the east, French and Calvinist in the west, Italian and pagan in the south. The Swiss federal government has little power. Even the cantons haven't much power over their citizens. Yet with so much to fight about and so little to restrain them, the Swiss don't even consider fighting among themselves. But it isn't just Swiss prosperity versus Sudanese poverty. There is something deeper.

I suspect that poverty, as important as it is, is only one large symptom of population growth. Population growth leads to social misery and instability directly. Even extreme poverty doesn't necessarily lead to instability. Population growth leads to social instability and to poverty separately. The poverty exacerbates the social instability but doesn't cause it. It seems like a fine distinction, but it is one that is useful to make where we find poverty and instability not matching exactly.

I haven't done it yet, but I think that birthrate and per capita income would line up with a pretty strong negative correlation. Rich countries like Japan and Finland have low birth rates and high incomes. Even more strikingly, countries that reduce their birth rates, like China and India, find their incomes rising and their societies more stable. High birth rate, expansionist, militarist, 1930's Japan was not especially poor. It has become peaceful, low birth rate, modern Japan. The correlation is really between stability and birth rate, not just wealth.

Growing 18th and 19th Century European society experienced prolonged wars and revolutions, and relieved its population pressure with mass immigration to the empires its instability and aggression had won, and to the United States. The high birth rate 19th century United States exported its growing population across a vast continent.

A low birth rate does not necessarily cause wealth, but it does cause stability. The most dramatic example is the Soviet Union and its successor states. The European parts of the Soviet Union had among the lowest birthrates in Europe. Here an enormous country of more than 300 million people, had its government collapse. It satellites spun off from it. It was then partitioned into 16 smaller countries. Its entire social system was revamped and changed from a parody of socialism to a parody of capitalism in a few short years. There were well-known abuses and large-scale corruption in the process. Then the new capitalist economy collapsed and the ruble lost almost all its value. Living standards fell sharply and have only lately begun to recover. With all those gut-wrenching changes, there has been very little violence anywhere in the European successor republics, Russia, the Ukraine, Belarus, and so on, the ones with low birth rates. Imagine if those changes had happened in, say, Pakistan. Or Sudan.

The countries in the world with the highest birthrates are often the ones with the highest population growth rates but not necessarily. Sadly in many African countries, the infant and child mortality rates are so high that there is not much population growth in spite of extraordinarily high birth rates. As infant and child mortality has been brought in check in many of these countries, population growth has led to growing instability. One has only to think of the endless civil war in Angola, the fighting in what is again called the Congo, in Uganda, Rwanda, the civil wars in Nigeria, Liberia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, now in Sudan, and so on.

Much to no one's surprise, the highest birth rate outside Africa is in Afghanistan, then Gaza, then the West Bank. Before the war with the Russians for the Afghans, and the Intifadas for the Palestinians, neither were notably poorer than other less developed countries. Indeed, the Palestinians, with access to Israeli social and economic assets, were among the more prosperous.

One of the many lies and libels the Palestinians have invented against Israel was the charge of genocide. The Israelis pointed out that Palestinian numbers had quadrupled and joked that "This is what happens when you put Jews in charge of a genocide." The Jewish secret weapon, laughter, silenced that particular Palestinian canard.

Applying the same logic to the world at large, we can expect that the current four or five centuries of population growth and corresponding instability should begin to abate as world population reaches a predicted peak around 2050. There will continue to be regions of continued growth and instability for a long time afterward. But even those shoud eventually abate. The problem one forsees is that the areas of growth and instability will expand into the shrinking areas of wealth and stability. This is already evident in the Muslim settlement of Europe.

If my theory is correct the world will continue to change rapidly and in unexpected ways. So what else is new?

1 comment:

  1. I deserve a medal. I actually read this whole thing. And your conclusion was brilliant. "If my theory is correct the world will continue to change rapidly and in unexpected ways" How does he do it!