Population Control and National Security: A Critique of 'The Coming Anarchy'

Author(s): Nalini Visvanathan
Date Published: July 15, 2006
Source: Political Environments #1, Spring 1994

The period preceding a major UN theme conference is generally marked by extensive media coverage of the themes that will come to dominate discussions and debates. As we approach ICPD '94 this September it is useful not only to note the positions taken by various editorials but the tone and trend of topics chosen by contributing writers, academics, researchers and activists who are competing for space to present their causes. Roper polls taken periodically to assess American public opinion on global problems show an increase in the public's perception of "overpopulation". In 1991 65 percent of Americans polled found overpopulation a major problem, in contrast to 49 percent who cited nuclear warfare. Interestingly, both surveys and focus groups have shown that "environmental issues are the prism through which most Americans perceive population size and growth." (US National Report for the ICPD; US Department of State; October 1993, page 32).

Journalism scholars established a long time ago that the mass media's most influential role in public discourse was its ability to tell people what to think about rather than what to think. Unarguably, the mass media can both set and shape the agenda for their readers and viewers. Without magnifying their importance, it is useful to critically examine the potential impact of articles that especially nurture the misperceptions that many Americans hold about the nature of global problems, their causes and consequences.

In the February issue of The Atlantic Monthly journalist Robert Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" presents West Africa as a region that emerged into the modern world only to slide back into chaotic conditions that reduced different political entities into a uniform expanse of fetid squalor, degrading poverty, crushing "overpopulation", rampant disease and chronic crime. In the urban areas he visited, Kaplan finds the forces of law and order have withdrawn while unemployed and antisocial young men,(symbolic of the population tide gathering momentum) engage in criminal warfare and terrorize the people. He finds the shantytowns a Dickensian nightmare that even that Victorian writer of societal decay could not have imagined. Two poorest nations of the world - Guinea and Sierra Leone - are here as is Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria. West Africa, however, is not an isolated case. Kaplan sees further decline and degradation ahead for this region, which would set the pattern for more widespread collapse of civil society in the Third World.

If readers are groping to comprehend this impending Malthusian spectacle, Kaplan is unwilling, or unable, to probe the depths. A West African Minister interviewed by the journalist attributes the rise of crime and violence in the cities to the revenge taken by the poor against those erstwhile benefactors who wield power over them. Kaplan fails to pursue this luminous lead, just as he completely ignores the current indebtedness of resource-exporting nations in a global economy controlled by the industrialized world. And these were nations whose populations were forcibly depleted over several centuries in order to provide free labor for building the capitalist economies of the Old World and the New. Instead, Kaplan brings his own assumptions that are comforting and compelling to American readers unaccustomed to class warfare. He concludes that what is happening in West Africa - as elsewhere in Africa and the Third World - is the result of man (sic) "challenging nature far beyond its limits, and nature is now beginning to take its revenge."

What global conditions does Kaplan anticipate in the world during the next 50 years? Leading the list is environmental scarcity, followed by "cultural and racial clash, geographic destiny and the transformation of war." To establish that the rapidly degrading global environment is the predominant national security issue of the times, Kaplan builds his case with testimonies from historians and commentators including an environmentalist (Thomas Fraser Homer-Dixon).

Sharing his premonition of the future with his readers, Kaplan warns of the "surging populations" who will cross all borders. Drawing on Huntington's "The Clash of Civilizations" (Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) Kaplan predicts tha the increase of refugee flows and peasant migration to the cities will lead to further dissolution of national borders through cultural and tribal wars.

These views would certainly find endorsements in a society where refugee and immigration problems dominate local and national media. Network television news shows like 60 Minutes and 20/20 have increasingly engaged in negatively biased reports on immigrants and refugees who are allegedly exploiting America's welfare system. In these tirades against America's newest residents, reporters freely generalize and often blur the distinctions between immigrant and refugee, documented and undocumented workers, leaving uninformed viewers with gross misperceptions about a heterogenous group that contributes immeasurably to the US economy.

Demographic projections of population growth and migration flows rarely provide historical data that frame these figures in an evolutionary perspective. Between 1840 and 1930, 52 million Europeans - representing a fifth of Europe's population in 1840 -voluntarily migrated to the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. If this migration did not take place, demographer Kingsley Davis informs us, the population of Europe in 1970 would have been 1.08 billion instead of 650 million (Davis, K. "The Migration of Human Population", Scientific American, 1974). Davis also points out that the movement of Europeans enabled sending countries like Italy and Ireland to maintain their high birth rates. Another important feature was the alteration in racial balance. Between 1750 an 1930, Caucasians increased 5.4 times, Asians 2.3 times and blacks less than 2 times.

Homer-Dixon, whose writings link resource scarcity to communal and global conflicts, provides Kaplan with the metaphor of the "stretch limousine" cruising in a world slowly taken over by the growing hordes of lawless southern people. Consonant with the tradition of Hardin's "lifeboat" and Ehrlich's "taxi" stranded in Old Delhi, Kaplan's stretch limo carries the affluent North soundly insulated from the desperate southern masses who would claw their way inside this sanctuary.

Kaplan's disquisition on the resurgence of Islam as a political force in the world, on the growing obsoleteness of cartography in societies where tribal loyalties transcend national responsibilities and command political loyalties, and on what he terms the growing political dysfunctionality of countries like Pakistan and India are provocative issues for a more comprehensive critique.

The readers of The Atlantic Monthly, (circ.457,343:Ulhrich's International Periodical Directory, 1993-94) were not the only people exposed to Kaplan's Malthusian vision. Noted environmentalist Donella Meadows is a syndicated columnist who reaches readers in large and small towns as well as individuals and groups pledged to environmental causes. During the spreading ripple effect, Meadows seized the Kaplan piece for her mid-February column and fulsomely endorsed his agenda.

After documenting his grim and gloomy predictions, she states she has seen more hope in such places than he has done. Nevertheless, she goes on to endorse his picture of the present and the future, "But I also see what he does. It is all there." Using terminology that intensifies the pessimism and pejoration that permeate Kaplan's visionary tale, she reminds her readers that they are privileged not to be living in the "seamier" and "rotting parts" of the world. And Meadows does not fail to convey Kaplan's thesis (she terms it "prescription") to her readers, which she fully quotes. "It is time to understand 'the environment' for what it is: the national-security issue of the early 21st century."

Environmentalists who see population growth as an enormous threat to the economic and political stability of the industrialized nations have been calling for the prioritization of population growth as a national security issue. Recent events inform us that when an issue is categorized as a national security issue, it immediately becomes eligible for a high level of funding from and so-called diplomatic intervention by the US government. National security has been the justification for covert operations, CIA-executed assassinations, the overthrow of democratically elected governments and the witchhunting of political sympathizers outside the mainstream. Kaplan's message, amplified by Meadows, exemplifies the agenda-building for Cairo and beyond. Our task is to counter this challenge by vigilantly shaping and reshaping the agenda to reflect the concerns that brought us together.