Sobering Thoughts on Lifeboats

By October 6, 2000 No Comments

In the 1970s, the Club of Rome and Paul Ehrlich’s book on resource depletion were leading to a disturbing “lifeboat” analogy about large sections of humanity. The thinking was that, with a poor and overcrowded planet, large numbers of people (especially in what was then the “Third World”) would have to be abandoned, as wealthier societies turned to their own survival in our increasingly grim future.

Paul Ehrlich has been dead wrong in virtually all of his prognostications, and the Club of Rome is now well off the map. The quality of apocalyptic analysis then (and now) can be guessed at by the dire predictions in the 1970s of a global ice age to be caused by pollution. The agitated chicken-littles who then predicted rampaging glaciers by 2000 AD are all currently advocates of the global warming theory. Incidentally, while global warming does seem to be underway, the hand of man is a distant second to those of nature. The world has been warmer in the past 10,000 years than it currently is, and our ancestors were not burning coal and oil in the balmy days when Stonehenge was built.

However, it might not be time to put the lifeboat away yet. Lifeboats serve two purposes… when the ship sinks, they might save the crew and passengers. Or sometimes, they might be used when the complement of a vessel became fed-up with others on the vessel. Both Henry Hudson and Captain Bligh were removed from command and floated off in lifeboats by their mutinous crews. The old and much-parodied sea shanty What Shall We do with the Drunken Sailor? includes the verse “tow him in the life-boat till he’s sober.”

The original 1970s analogy was that there might not be room on the “lifeboat” for all of desperate humanity in the future. Perhaps the current analogy might be that some of the errant humanity might have to be floated off on a lifeboat until they sort themselves out.

Uncomfortable thoughts are often triggered by events. On one recent day, the Institute received another e-mails from one of the ubiquitous West African scam artists, describing a situation in which he would need tens of thousands of dollars in order to free up his tens of millions from the country. Those who responded would then be able to reap a million or more from their investment – which was assuredly only necessary to clear some red tape out of the way. The new twist was a claim to be suffering from persecution, and so the appeal of easy money was gilded with the luster of a kind gesture. (For those unfamiliar with the scam, any cabled money to “free up” the trapped millions is gone forever.)

Naturally a blistering reply was fired back to the scam artist and a copy of his message was forwarded to interested parties in the law enforcement community.

On the same day, the news carried a story about Robert Mugabe, the apparent dictator-for-life in Zimbabwe. He pardoned his followers for terrorizing the opposition during the recent election. For the cynical abuse of power in a supposedly democratic nation, one is hard put to find its equal without reaching back to Hitler’s quasi-legalistic justifications for Nazi bullyboys in the 1930s. Mugabe was also proving to be as ugly a racist as any Klansman ever was… and much more dangerous to boot. No Klansman ever had an army of his own, or diplomatic privilege, or any of the other appurtenances of a nation.

A newsletter from a colleague in South Africa described the continuing deterioration of law, order and the public health system, in that unhappy country. For all the magnificent promise of Nelson Mandela (perhaps one of the most noteworthy human beings of the 1990s), his party is thinking of playing the race card as a way of averting popular unrest. The nation may yet dissolve in a sea of blood – much of it hopelessly contaminated by the AIDS virus.

There were other, equally hopeless stories from the seven-way Civil War in the Congo, and from the ragged cocaine-addled insurrections in several West African Countries. That afternoon added the caboose to an unsettled train of thought with a series of photos from some decrepit city in Sierra Leone. A black American doctor and his wife had come there to provide medical help. The price of his generosity was for her to be gang-raped and tossed on a garbage heap with severed leg-muscles (where the town’s starving dogs finished her off). The doctor was dragged out into a field and shot through the head by men with a fraction of his education, talent and principles.

Receiving all this news and information in one day was too much to handle and it resulted in a disturbing reverie – one where the World slung Africa into the lifeboat. We cut the continent off; severed all phone lines and communications systems, cratered their airport runways with smart bombs, tossed their diplomats out of our cities, and ignored the place for a century.

This ugly daydream concluded by imagining that a century passed before anyone tucked their heads into Freetown, Lagos or Maputo to see if the survivors were willing to give things a fresh start.

Harsh draconian policies are all right in daydreams but never work in reality. Besides, Africa’s problems are Africa’s problems, but the World is our World. We can no more turn our backs on hundreds of millions of people and the larger half of an entire continent than we could on any other portion of the planet. While Africa is the main author of its own problems, many Africans deserve our help. (Those who are inclined to blame all Africa’s problems on the West are invited to live in Sierra Leone or the Congo for a year and see if they still hold to that thesis… if they live that long.)

Abandoning Africa to the likes of Mugabe or adolescent bandits with AK-47s means abandoning the millions of decent Africans who deserve better and try to achieve it. Mugabe unleashed his thugs on his opposition (black and white alike) because they were trying to reverse the degeneration of their country. The parasitic gun-wielding savages of the West African militias killed that doctor and thousands like him because they still feel insecure in the presence of anyone who has proved that perseverance and intelligence can be successfully harnessed.

For every con-man in the corrupt stew of Nigeria or racialist demagogue in South Africa, there must be at least a hundred, or a thousand – or ten thousand, other people whose sole hope is that they can live a decent life free from fear.

There are even whole nations there that have worked hard to first stabilize and then modernize. Ghana (where Jerry Rawlings deserves careful attention) may be about to actually hold a peaceful and honest election. If Botswana hasn’t been in the news much, it is perhaps because it has not been wracked by endless crisis and violence – unlike all of its neighbors. Like a flower in a frost, these countries deserve our careful and cautious support, but support all the same.

But how do we help those who deserve to be helped?

The Western nations have already tried to help Africa. The imperial drive of the 19th Century was as much fueled by altruism as it was by greed or pride. The work of the District Commissioners only had a few years to take root and certainly often wasn’t appreciated. Then came the anti-colonialist period where dozens of new nations emerged in the hope that they would all become prosperous democratic states. They didn’t. Then came the foreign aid period coupled with the ready provision of loans and easy capital. This didn’t succeed either.

Yet there still must be a strategy that can be pursued short of casting the whole subcontinent adrift. We can’t abandon Africa, and we certainly won’t take them over again. Maybe firmness should be applied instead. If it becomes necessary for troops to restore order in Sierra Leone or elsewhere, then we should let them do whatever it takes to quell the local militias. When the likes of Mugabe or Omar Bongo come abroad, playing at being national leaders on an even footing in international forums, we should forget the niceties of protocol and reserve respect for those leaders who do try to govern fairly. We should send our money and volunteers only to support countries and leaders that do tip the hat to the rule of law.

We should find success and reward it wherever it is in Africa. Any country that does not meet simple criteria – like respecting individual rights (for everyone) and whose leaders observe the rule of law — can be ignored. Otherwise, let’s keep the lifeboat secure in its divots for now.