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Jonathon Porritt versus Jonathan Dimbleby

In my book I quote the English environmentalist Jonathon Porritt
as follows: ‘It’s blindingly obvious [that] completely
unsustainable population growth in most of Africa will keep it
permanently, hopelessly, stuck in deepest, darkest poverty.’

At first I had assumed that the quote, which I had found in
another book, must be out of context. Surely nobody would say
anything so foolish or so heartless. Surely he was caricaturing
some blimpish view from a reactionary? So I looked up the original
article, in The Ecologist in 2007, to be sure I was not being
unfair to quote him thus. You can read the whole article here. Here’s the longer context of the

Yet the facts speak for themselves: the
fewer there are of us, the greater our personal carbon budgets –
and just remember we’re starting from a baseline here in the UK of
around 12½ tonnes of CO2 per person!
I can’t
tell you how politically incorrect it is to spell things out in
those terms. Even those who are getting more and more
enthusiastic about the idea of personal carbon budgets (including
Environment Secretary David Miliband) wouldn’t dream of giving
voice to such a crass calculation. Leaders of our
ever-so-right-on environment movement can barely bring themselves
to utter the dreaded “p” word. The Millennium Development
Goals don’t mention population. Tony Blair’s Commission for
Africa ignored it entirely, even though it’s blindingly obvious
that completely unsustainable population growth in most of Africa
will keep it permanently, hopelessly stuck in deepest, darkest
poverty. Our very own Department for International Development
grits its teeth and reluctantly doles out little bits of money for
family planning projects, but the idea that it should be the
Department’s No 1 priority – if it was remotely realistic about its
poverty alleviation aspirations – remains anathema to most
officials and ministers.

This was the main thrust of the report on
global population growth (albeit articulated somewhat less
intemperately!) from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on
Population at the beginning of February. On the basis of
official hearings involving a vast range of national and
international organizations, it comes to the simple but devastating
conclusion that it will be “difficult or impossible” to deliver
most of the Millennium Development Goals if population continues to
grow at current rates, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the
Middle East and parts of Asia.

Today another green English Jonathan, Dimbleby, has an article in the Telegraph about Africa that
puts the continent in a rather different light. Dimblebdy’s
analysis is very much the same as my unfashionably optimistic one:
Africa is beginning to prosper and has a bright future thanks to
Chinese trade, retreating AIDS, improving demographics and
returning entrepreneurial talent:

The Africans I met on my 7,000-mile
journey through nine countries resent the pitying and patronising
attitudes that are so often adopted towards them by a Western world
which – from their perspective – doles out aid with one hand while
nicking the oil and minerals (by which the continent is blessed in
super-abundance) with the other. Again and again, at every level,
people told me: “Don’t give us aid – trade with us fairly. Stop
ripping us off.”…

Even accounting for the global financial
crisis, many African countries have enjoyed growth rates of between
6 per cent and 10 per cent a year through much of the first decade
of this millennium…

Imagine that in the decades ahead,
Nigeria, Congo, Zimbabwe, Kenya and South Africa emerge from their
various predicaments to unlock their huge potential as both
producers and consumers. Africa is strategically located between
East and West; it is rich in resources and talent. Given a fair
breeze, it may well become the continent to reckon with in the 21st
century. While never forgetting the other Africa with which we have
long been painfully familiar, we should wake up to this Africa as

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist