More Bin Ladens Ahead?

Reports of Osama bin Laden’s deserved demise overshadowed another breaking story that may auger many more bin Ladens in the years and decades to come.  That news item related to a study by the United Nations assessing upwards to 10.1 billion projected global population by century’s end.  Do more people mean more mean people?

The poor may not be blessed, but they shall inherit the earth: 95 percent of future population growth will occur in the world’s most impoverished countries, because of their persistently-high fertility rates.  Africa’s population, for example, is projected to expand three-fold from one billion today to 3.6 billion by 2100.  Yemen’s growth rate will even outpace that, quintupling its tally over the same stretch to 100 million (up from 25 million in 1950).  Pakistan is also a trailblazer.  Its ranks are expected to balloon over the next 15 years by 66 million people, about equivalent to the population of Iran.

That the human tsunami will envelop those places least equipped to handle it is sobering.  What’s in store for Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that already fails to educate nearly nearly 40 million of its children between five and 18 years of age, or Nigeria, a poverty-stricken basket case that will likely have another half a billion mouths to feed by 2100?

Many industrial countries, by contrast, face a “birth dearth.”  Historian Niall Ferguson writes that Europe is about to witness the greatest sustained reduction of population “since the Black Death of the fourteenth century.”  The same might be said of Japan, Russia, Italy, and other affluent states, which also confront the consequences of societal contraction, including diminished economic and therefore global heft.

Though migration from high- to low-population growth countries offers one potential means of relieving demographic pressures, the knotty politics of immigration promise to get in the way.  Significant flows would be seen as a threat to national sovereignty.  Regardless, sovereignty will be tested by a host of events originating beyond boundaries drawn on maps.  This, of course, is already happening.  Global interconnectedness is a fact.

Going forward, however, notions of First and Third Worlds, which imply that compartmentalized habitats can co-exist on the same planet, may have even less meaning.  Ecological challenges like global warming that are trans-boundary in nature are an obvious example that humanity shares a common fate.  Which brings us back to Osama bin Laden.

While direct links between poverty and terrorism, much less population growth and violent extremism, are dubious, those between persistently high fertility rates and societal underdevelopment are not.  In short: moderating fecundity may not guarantee prosperity, but unchecked fecundity does moderate prosperity.  As a result, if UN estimates are accurate and many poor countries are not likely to tame their rates of population growth anytime soon, large swaths of the world are apt to sink deeper into the penurious mire.

Some of these countries, underequipped and overwhelmed, will inevitably flirt with outright failure, or worse, and consequently risk becoming precisely the sort of anarchic places that international terrorist networks need to operate.  This is why international relations expert, Anthony Cordesman, writing about “The New ‘War on Terrorism,’” explains: “The first set of threats the US must deal with is not terrorist movements, but rather a range of failed, or potentially failing states.

Bin Laden, the scion of a rich industrialist, would not seem to fit into the narrative of violent extremism as a function of any demographic trend.  But his story does offer relevant lessons.  Though from a privileged background, he and his closest followers, many of whom also hail from well-to-do backgrounds, found and continue to find sanctuary in impoverished countries, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sudan with weak central governments, poor or non-existent institutions, and little or no civil society.  Without such bases for his “base,” i.e., al-Qaeda, his ambitions for global jihad would have been severely restricted, if not impossible, as international terrorist networks, like viruses, require hosts.

Consider, then, the world of tomorrow.  As the number of failed states grows at least in part as a result of their inability to stem their own growing numbers at home, so, too, will the number of inviting safe havens for international terrorist networks.  And we know what that entails.  So as we celebrate the passing of one extremist with a retrograde ideology harkening from the distant past, it is worth pausing to contemplate what a planet with 10 billion people may harken for the future.

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