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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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African optimism

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 quote.

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 well.