Jeffrey Sachs who leaps over tall buildings in Bolivia and Russia in a single bound and lands in Africa to solve its many problems is at it again (read article in Scientific American). Where he once promoted the power of unfettered markets, advising the Russians on the ‘shock therapy’ that left a bulk of state assets in the hands of a cabal of crooks, he is now an environmental activist urging benign state intervention in economic development. His latest campaign involves helping the environment by helping poor people in Africa and the Middle East whose numbers are rising too fast according to this descendent of Thomas Malthus.
Allowing that people in the rich countries live on about $30,000 per year, well above the global average of $10,000, which itself is substantially more than most Africans consume and earn, his suggestion is that giving birth to less poor people is the best course of action in the future. Sachs is worried not about the suffering of the unborn poor should they live like their parents in scarcity and ill health but rather that they may actually manage to fulfill their economic aspirations. At present growth rates by 2050, according to UN forecasts (not usually worth the paper they are printed on by the way), world population will be 9 billion with 2.5 billion of this number born in the poor countries. If this ‘surplus’ somehow finds a way to earn and consume today’s $10,000 average, it would by Sachs calculations cause untold environmental stresses especially due to the fact that cruel fate has chosen to locate ‘biodiversity hotspots’ among the unwashed masses. He worries of the unhappy fate of these hotspots especially since they are a critical part of the ‘Global biological heritage’ a phrase that irritates me to no end because it consigns our part of the world to a perpetual poverty only relieved by the trickle of Birkenstock wearing nature tourists and their cousins, gigolo hungry European grandmas in Mombasa. Our economies are not supposed to grow, or if they do only slowly, according to this view. The African the environmentalist would love to see come to be is a gentle soul who wants nothing more than to live in rude but serviceable shelter, to consume a little food he has grown in the small plot out back, provided it does not kill off that rare species of caterpillar, and who in all things is guided by the desire to live ‘sustainably’. Sustainability for the west to be exact. Not for that African – who thank God will never be – access to the comfort and security that comes from building of wealth. They are going to have their nature even if it requires that they get rid of the hungry, ambitious, dare-to-want-to-survive poor’ – before they are born.
Sachs appeals to American national security and economic interest. His argument in summary is that the more poor there are the angrier the number of young men willing to take up arms against prosperous America. He bewails the Bush administration’s ‘religious right’ inspired refusal to support fertility control in the poorest countries. Better to invest in fertility control now he urges: it is the best use of dollars for a more militarily and economically secure future for America. He is kind enough to stress that this should be voluntary fertility programs. Heaven forbid that under the ambit of national security women and men in Africa should be led into little hospital rooms and rendered infertile. As usual Sachs is never one to pursue his arguments to their logical ends. Couched in his kindness is a kind of neo-eugenics: rid the world of the poor by ensuring that they do not give birth to more like themselves; we are running out of room for you especially if you are from the poor nations (which I read to mean brown nations.)
If it is really a matter of national security then under the present American administration’s pre-emptive doctrine against emerging threats, surely there is a need to limit the number of children that the poor have. Yes, this might be achieved by voluntary measures. But foremost will not be the issue of helping the volunteers improve their lives, it will be as was true in all eugenics programs, an attempt to protect ‘society’ from the undesirables. It might appear to be a bit much for me to be comparing this kind of well-intentioned policy advocacy with the eugenics movement, but I believe that Sachs’ call folds neatly into those of a century ago and that once the more hysterical and less politically correct types make it, all will be much clearer to you poor, over-breeding buggers.
The humanitarians of the day are like the European missionaries of the nineteenth century, providing justifications for colonial misadventure ‘for the good of the poor, native blighter.’ They increasingly join their mission with the ‘imperial’ promotion of the west’s interests. So much so that western NGOs are now a critical tool in their military’s strategy, helping to blunt the impact of the bombs and bullets poured into a target population. It does not surprise me in the least that with the likes of Sachs running around aid agencies are increasingly being targeted as non-neutral in many battle grounds. The toothless and rudderless left to which Sachs is an honored member has become the sheep’s clothing for a hawkish, domineering constituency that needs fodder for its military adventures. What could be more convenient and humane than to save the poor from themselves while being able to pursue imperial goals clothed in the Good Samaritan’s robes?
In 1807, William Hazlit accused Malthus of making himself ‘conscience-keeper to the rich and great, especially to those of them who are not of a giving disposition, all in coining or at least popularizing for their use the magical phrase or formula ‘surplus’ or ‘redundant’ population.’ Sachs too acts to promote the interests of the rich nations but, with a perpetual nod to political correctness and disingenuousness, he would rather he appeared to be regarded as promoting the interests of the poor themselves. He therefore urges the rich to give even more, despite much of this money coming to no good whatsoever and even being harmful in a lot of cases. The animating spirit of his ideas is a restless ambition to be counted first among the rich and great by opining as an expert on regions and matters where his knowledge is thin and mostly involves advocating policies that have been tried for decades and found wanting. Joined by the other hapless musketeers, Bono and Geldof, his is a media game joining concern for poverty with the celebrity bandwagon for the selfish pursuit of personal plaudits and the conscience cooling balm of the ‘feel good factor’. To hell with the poor made to swallow his bitter medicines no matter how ill it makes them.
As Samuel L. Jackson would say of Sachs: ‘How smart can he be? He’s peeing into the wind.’