By Donella Meadows
–February 10, 1994–
It is unacceptable to be terminally pessimistic in public. The media like to picture a bright future of global trade and information superhighways, and that’s what many of us want to hear. But Robert D. Kaplan, a reporter who travels by bus and bush-taxi in the seamier parts of the world, cannot contain his pessimism. He wrote a long, unrelenting description of a future of squalor and global disorder, and the Atlantic Monthly, in its February issue, actually printed it.
“The Coming Anarchy,” the article is called. It describes miles of corrugated metal shacks teeming with children and crime; cities where even the police stay home behind barred windows after dark; bands of young men roaming the streets “like loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid … clearly on the verge of igniting;” AIDS, malaria, hunger, drugs, refugees, growing deserts and shrinking forests, a man in an Abidjan shantytown with four wives and 32 children, “not one of whom has made it to high school.” None of this is the coming anarchy — it’s what Kaplan sees on his beat right now.
If you found yourself running on fast-forward through that dismal list, you may not get through Kaplan’s article, but you, we, all of us, should try. We who are privileged not to live in the rotting parts of the world would rather not be reminded of them, though some of them are no farther away than the inner cities of America. We’d like to believe we can steer around or wall off the sink-holes. Kaplan says we can’t. They are the future.
Much of his article is about West Africa, where the map is a lie, because the spaces labelled Sierra Leone, Liberia, Benin, Nigeria are not operational countries. There are 280,000 Sierra Leonian refugees in Liberia and 400,000 Liberian refugees in Sierra Leone. “The borders dividing these … countries have become largely meaningless,” says Kaplan. “None of the governments … maintains the schools, bridges, roads, and police forces in a manner necessary for functional sovereignty.”
The economies and resources of West Africa are declining. The populations are growing. Nigeria has 95 million people this year, and will have 98 million next year, 162 million in 2010 and 246 million in 2025, barring catastrophe.
Kaplan predicts catastrophe. He looks at the bursting slums, the export of timber and oil, the erosion of soil and civil order, and sees Nigeria breaking into ethnic violence a la Bosnia. He sees Somalia-like chaos engulfing the whole of West Africa.
He looks at India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh — 1130 million people now, 28 million more next year, 1865 million expected by the year 2025 — and sees “ecological time bombs.”
He looks at China — 1540 million people by 2025 — and sees “large-scale population movements … from inland China to coastal China and from villages to cities, leading to a crime surge like the one in Africa and to growing regional disparities … in a land with a strong tradition of warlordism.”
One could see more hopeful things — dropping birth rates, budding environmental awareness, a few concerned leaders, some determined communities. But Kaplan is not making up the “surging populations, environmental degradation, and ethnic conflict.” They are there, and they feed on each other. Kaplan is probably right when he calls water “the most important fluid of the twenty-first century.” It is true that “a large number of people on this planet, to whom the comfort and stability of a middle-class life is utterly unknown, find war … a step up rather than a step down.” Given that those people are multiplying, it is not unreasonable to project “a jagged-glass pattern of city-states, shanty-states, nebulous and anarchic regionalisms.”
I could argue against this bleak vision by saying that a person who spends his time in the dregs of West Africa has as biased a world view as do upper-class media magnates of New York, who see the future as 500 channels of shopping. I have gone to the world’s poorest places and seen more hope than Kaplan sees. But I also see what he does. It is all there. His account of the present and his vision of the future cannot be dismissed.
Because he believes in no future other than anarchy, Kaplan offers only a sentence and a half of prescription. He says, “It is time to understand ‘the environment’ for what it is: THE national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.” And speaking of Africa, he says, “We ignore this dying region at our own risk.”
Ignore it we do. A week ago, with the news dominated by Bobbitts and Hardings, I heard on the radio a quick report on the recent GATT trade agreement. Increased global trade will benefit every part of the world, said the announcer brightly, except Africa, which will lose $2 billion a year. Without missing a beat, he went on to Bobby Ray Inman.
“Future wars will be those of communal survival,” says Kaplan, “aggravated or, in many cases, caused by environmental scarcity. These wars will be subnational, meaning that it will be hard for states and local governments to protect their own citizens…. This is how many states will ultimately die.”
Kaplan believes in that future, because he assumes we will go on ignoring the dying regions, we will not accept the environment as a national security issue. But he wouldn’t have bothered to write his article if he didn’t harbor a small spark of hope that he is wrong, not about the rising tide of poverty and anarchy, but about our indifference.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994