Sudan has a great deal in common with Afghanistan. Both countries are horrendously overpopulated relative to their carrying capacity, and have exploding populations — Sudan’s population of 40 million people is doubling every 25 years and that rate is not slowing, raising the spectre of its population topping a half billion by the end of the century. Both Sudan and Afghanistan are also desperately poor, with only 7% of Sudan’s land and 12% of Afghanistan’s capable of supporting agriculture. What’s worse, over-farming, over-grazing and global warming are producing chronic drought, which in turn causes massive famine and desertification. Encroaching desert has already halved arable land in Afghanistan since 1975, and the same phenomenon is happening in Sudan. Both countries have long legacies of brutal and repressive dictatorships, foreign occupation, savage and interminable civil war, lawlessness, genocide and, in the case of Sudan, slavery. And both countries provided safe harbour for Osama bin Laden.
What is happening now in the Western Sudanese provinces of Darfur is merely a continuation of a centuries-long legacy of misery, poverty, conflict and violence. In this week’s New Yorker Pulitzer Prize winner Samantha Power reports from Darfur, with first-person interviews with government and rebel leaders and the victims caught eternally in the middle. Some of the information she reveals in telling the agonizing story of this impoverished and hopeless nation:
What can be done? Samantha argues that, despite the danger, we have a global responsibility to bring in peacemakers and protect the people of Darfur (and, if the detente with the Southern provinces falls through, which appears likely, the people of the South as well). But, just as in Rwanda ten years ago, how can that be done over the violent opposition of the ruling government of the country? You can only make peace where there is a desire from both sides to achieve a workable peace. Without that, peace efforts will constantly be sabotaged by the side uninterested in peace, which will produce retribution and escalate into full civil war.
What about invading Sudan? Its government is much more popular, at least in the North, than the government of Afghanistan, and the end result of an invasion would inevitably be the same as what we see in Afghanistan: Tyranny replaced by anarchy, the retrenchment of the power of local warlords, massive resentment by the locals of the invading force’s inability to bring order or build infrastructure to allow even the promise of a normal life. Intractible civil war and strife. And quagmire for the invaders.
Should we arm the non-Arab people of Darfur so they can defend themselves? After all, the weapons used in the genocide against them came from the West and from Russia, so can two wrongs make a right? And we can’t disarm the janjaweed — in Sudan, as in Afghanistan, there are so many weapons that disarmament is an impossible objective. This was, of course, how we dealt with the earlier problem in Afghanistan — providing arms to the Taliban and other extremists to allow them to defend themselves from the invading Russians. We all know how successful that was.
Should we relocate a million or two million people to Chad, and pay Chad to take them in, and protect their borders? This was how we dealt with the persecuted Jews after World War II, helping them build a new homeland in Israel. That, too, has been a political nightmare. Why would the people of Chad, itself overpopulated and struggling, be willing to give up part of their homeland to accommodate a huge exodus of destitute foreign refugees?
The sad reality is that there is no answer. The problem is that there are too many people and not enough land, water, or resources to support them. Throughout human history, the maximum sustainable population has been 160 people per arable square mile (1 person per 4 arable acres), which would mean that Sudan should have no more than 11 million people, a quarter of its current population. By the end of the century it could have fifty times this maximum sustainable population, and if desertification isn’t halted, it will be even worse. If we think democracy, ‘free’ trade, education and technology are somehow going to prevent this situation from being catastrophic, we’re wildly deluding ourselves.
What’s happening in Sudan, now, is foreshadowing what will happen worldwide by the end of this century if we don’t address massive overpopulation, unsustainable resource consumption, and all the consequences that these two excesses produce: famine, war, destitution, lawlessness, epidemic disease, terrorism, tyranny, oppression, suffering, genocide, and ecological collapse. Sudan is a country out of control, and while we must of course provide humanitarian aid to its needy masses, and do everything we can to persuade its government to allow us to help it broker a lasting peace, this is only a stop-gap. We must convince the government and the people of Sudan that it must reduce its population and start stewarding its resources in a sustainable and responsible way. Otherwise the next war, the next genocide, the next famine, the next epidemic, the next oppressive government, will be incomparably, unimaginably worse. They say you can’t get blood from a stone, but there seems to be no limit to how much blood can be wrenched from an ocean of sand.
Photograph of a Darfur refugee camp from this remarkable online portfolio by Bruno Stevens at New Yorker online.