Black History

February is black history month in the United States.

Unfortunately, the month is not dedicated to actual history. It is not about understanding the past. It is about constructing and reinforcing the myth that black people were (and still are) oppressed by white people. The myth of black oppression is part of a larger myth: that white people and European civilization have oppressed the entire world for the past 500 years.

The truth is very different from the myth.

The preceding graph shows the population history of Africa from 1500 to 2000. The population grew very little over most of that time, and then it exploded in the last 100 years. This graph shows the entire African population: North Africans as well as Sub-Saharan Africans (blacks). A graph of just the black population would show an even more dramatic upward curve at the end.

It is important to understand both sides of this graph: why the population remained flat for so long, and why it grew at the end.

Let’s start with why the population was flat for most of that time. It is easy to explain, but it might be hard for some people to accept. During that time, most children born in Africa died before reaching adulthood. Many more died as young adults. The population was limited by premature death from war, disease and famine.

That is how population dynamics generally work. Excess reproduction is built into the nature of life. Every type of life can generate more offspring than are necessary to replace the parents. So, populations would grow exponentially due to excess reproduction, but normally they are limited by competition for resources. Every type of life needs resources (especially energy) to survive and reproduce, and resources are always limited. So, populations grow until they reach the carrying capacity of the environment, and then they are limited by premature death. That is true for all species.

You might think that humans are an exception to that rule, because most children live to adulthood today. That is true, but we are living in exceptional times. We discovered a new source of energy, fossil fuels, which allowed our population to expand. Also, fertility has decreased dramatically in recent history, due to modern birth control. Abundant energy and low fertility make the modern way of life possible. For most of history, people had high fertility, and resources were scarce. Human populations were either stable, or they oscillated around a natural limit that was imposed by the environment.

Occasionally, humans discover a new way of getting energy from the environment, such as agriculture or dairy farming. After such a discovery, food is plentiful for a while. Famine and its inevitable consequences, war and disease, are reduced. More children live to adulthood. There is a brief utopia. But then the human population grows until it reaches a new limit. Scarcity returns, along with war, disease and famine.

For most of history, human populations were at or near the carrying capacity of the environment. Thus, for most of history, life was nasty, brutish and short. The population was limited by premature death, mostly due to war, disease and famine. With natural levels of fertility, populations are limited by people dying before they reproduce.

That explains the flat part of the graph. The African population was limited by premature death. Most people died young, before they could reproduce.

Why did the population of Africa explode in recent times? Again, the answer is simple, but it might be hard for some people to accept. Modern civilization, brought to Africa from Europe, dramatically reduced the rate of premature death. More children lived to adulthood.

Modern civilization reduced famine with better methods of food production: new crops, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, farm machinery and global trade (including cash crops). It also reduced famine with global charity, mostly from the richer West. Modern civilization reduced disease by introducing modern medicine, such as antibiotics and vaccines, and technologies to eliminate parasites in water. Modern civilization reduced war mainly by expanding the food supply, and thus reducing competition over food. It also reduced war by introducing the modern state and suppressing tribal warfare. You might think that Africa is violent today, but it was certainly much more violent in the past.

As a result, the population of Africa multiplied by more than 10, from roughly 100 million to over 1 billion. That was the “oppression” of colonialism in Africa. The effects on sub-Saharan Africa were probably more dramatic than the effects on more civilized North Africa.

Africa’s rapid population growth cannot continue for much longer before we reach or overshoot the environmental limits of Africa and the entire planet.

Currently, the population of Africa is growing at a rate that corresponds to doubling every 30 years. I have used this rate before in thought experiments, as a very conservative estimate of the rate of human population growth without war, disease, famine or modern birth control. If Africa’s population had grown at that rate since 1715 (300 years ago), then it would have doubled 10 times, which is equivalent to multiplying by 1024. It would have grown from about 100 million to about 100 billion.

We are living at an exceptional time in human history. The past was very different from the present, and the future will also be very different. You can’t understand history if you project the conditions of modern life onto the past. For most of history, life was nasty, brutish and short. Most people died young, and if they lived to adulthood, they often had to watch their children die young.

The truth is the exact opposite of the myth. Africans as a class, including blacks, were not oppressed by Europeans as a class. They benefited enormously from Europeans. European civilization saved hundreds of millions of African children from premature death due to war, disease and famine. It allowed them to live to adulthood and have children of their own. This applies not only to Africans, but to people all over the world. The world’s population exploded as a result of modern civilization, which was created by Europeans.

We should try to maintain that civilization and make it sustainable, not destroy it because of a myth.