The “Silent Lie” in Coverage of Madagascar’s Famine

Graphic media coverage of the current hunger in southern Madagascar is not wasting the opportunity to advocate climate justice. But nobody mentions there are now seven Madagascan mouths to feed for each one present in 1950. This denialism is not in the interests of the hungry, nor Madagascar’s disappearing wildlife, argues Madeline Weld.

Madagascar’s Food Crisis

Against the backdrop of the COP26 climate change meetings being held in Glasgow, we are informed by the United Nations’ World Food Programme that the world’s first climate change famine could be unfolding in Madagascar.

“Severe hunger has touched over 1.1 million people with 14,000 of them one step away from famine,” its report of November 2nd tells us. And the number of people in famine-like conditions is expected to double, it says. The report also mentions the exceptionally warm temperatures, deficits in rainfall, droughts, and poor harvests of recent decades.

What the report fails to mention is the spectacular growth of Madagascar’s population during the last five decades. While it lists some long-term resilience-building activities that are being implemented to help the island nation adapt to climate change, such as access to water, reforestation, sand dune stabilization, and microinsurance schemes for crop failure, population stabilization is given a miss.

How Fast is Madagascar’s Population Growing?

Over the fifty years from 1970 to 2020, Madagascar’s population increased from 6.6 million to 27.6 million. Could an increase of 21 million people living primarily on subsistence farming have an impact on food security? You wouldn’t know it from the World Food Programme’s report.

And it’s not just the WFP. In a recent article, the World Wildlife Fund describes the “perfect storm” of conditions afflicting Madagascar, but the word “population” is mentioned only to say that 75 percent of Madagascar’s people live on less than two dollars a day. The article does not ask if the Malagasy would be doing better if their island were not under such extreme population pressure.

Madagascar has lost about 80% of its original forests where 90% of its endemic species live. Slash-and-burn agriculture, the production of fuelwood and charcoal for cooking fires, overgrazing, and ranching, as well as illegal logging and gem mining are threatening its unique natural heritage. Yet the UN’s DESA tells us that Madagascar’s population, 25.6 million in 2017, is projected to be 35.6 million in 2030; 53.8 million in 2050; and 98.0 million in 2100. Is anyone asking what further population growth will do on an island already water-stressed and largely deforested? Will we still be blaming climate change and ignoring population growth in 2100? Or will Madagascar have been subjected to one of Nature’s reality checks before such numbers are reached?

Population Growth and Climate Change

There are climate sceptics who say that the focus on climate change is just a tool for socialists and their allies to attack Western capitalism. The lion’s share of attention given to climate change relative to all other environmental problems is grist for their mill. We know that climate has been changing ever since there was a planet Earth, long before our species Homo sapiens mislabelled itself as “wise.” Some of the non-anthropogenic factors affecting climate include solar activity, volcanic activity, Earth’s eccentric orbit and changes in its rotational axis (Milankovitch cycles). We also know that humans have lived through a changing climate more than once in the past.

But never before have 8 billion humans lived through a changing climate. Never before have 8 billion humans competed for land and resources amongst themselves and with other living things. Never before has the Earth had to endure the disruptions and absorb the wastes of 8 billion humans. And given that we 8 billion humans are deforesting, overfishing, overhunting, overgrazing, drawing down aquifers; diverting, damming, and extracting water from rivers; polluting the air, land, and water, and mutilating the surface of Earth through resource extraction, can we even assert that climate change is our biggest problem?

In an article called “Climate refugees or overpopulation escapees,” Philip Cafaro argues that the majority of projected “climate refugees” are in fact “overpopulation escapees.”  As countries and regions become enormously overpopulated, people are pushed to migrate. The Philippines, Egypt, and Haiti, for example, have all “exported” about 10 percent of their people. Canada has for decades been a leader in terms of per capita intake of immigrants and is also among the leaders in per capita GHG emissions. High energy consumption is partly “baked in” due to Canada’s cold climate and long distances. On average, immigrants to Canada, mostly from countries that are warmer and poorer than Canada, increase their greenhouse gas emissions by a factor of four. Which raises the following question: If a person from Madagascar were to immigrate to Canada as an “overpopulation escapee” and increase his or her GHG emissions from 0.12 to 18.6 tons per year, should these vastly increased emissions be added to Canada’s total, or to Madagascar’s total?

The Silent Lie

Climate activists also ignore the contribution of overpopulation to climate change in other ways. Agriculture causes approximately 80% of tropical deforestation, often, as in Madagascar, through slash-and-burn. Trees are highly efficient sequesters of CO2 and their loss to agricultural or other uses reduces the world’s capacity to sequester carbon. If we are asking the rich to cut back on their emissions, is it also fair to ask the poor world to cut back on family size? It is often said that it is not the actual number of poor that are contributing to climate change, but the number of people who are increasing their consumption as they become wealthier. That is a disingenuous argument, because there is no way for the poor whose basic needs are not being met to improve their lot other than by consuming more. The greater the number of people escaping poverty, the greater their consumption of energy and resources.

Humanity’s impact on climate change is only one of the many symptoms of too many people consuming too many resources and producing too many wastes. Madagascar is one of the world’s eight `hottest’ biodiversity hotspots but less than 10% of its forests remain intact and its coral reefs are degraded from overharvesting. Most of its species are found nowhere else, but many of these are threatened with extinction due to ever-encroaching agriculture, firewood collecting and poaching of wildlife. This damage can’t be blamed on profligate overconsumption, but on sheer numbers of poor people trying to survive.

But nearly all of our focus is on this one symptom, climate change, and not on the underlying cause: the almost 8 billion of us who are growing by more than 80 million each year. This is what the late Al Bartlett, borrowing from Mark Twain, called the “silent lie.” The silent lie prevailed at the COP26 summit, at most international conferences, by the World Food Programme, by governments, and by most environmental organizations.

The World Food Programme warns of a climate-driven famine in Madagascar but has never talked about a population-driven famine, not for Madagascar and not for any of the food crises of recent decades. It is time to revisit what the much-maligned Malthus had to say long ago, about “the power of population” overwhelming “the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”


Madeline Weld is President of Population Institute Canada. This article first appeared in a Population Institute Canada update.

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