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.

By 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 PhilippinesEgypt, 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.

Deforestation is a major threat to Madagascar’s forests. Photo: Jonathan Talbot

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

    1. How true, David, but migration prevents population density stress from overproducing the stress hormones ‘CORTISOL” and “CRH”, which turn off the reproductive drive in a crowded animal population and this physiological fact has been long known to population biologists. In John Calhoun’s oft mentioned crowded animal researches and many others since his 1962 Sci Am paper and later, the crowded populations reached a plateau, such as humans on earth are entering, and then the entire crowded population crashes and goes extinct. it’s all in my free online e-book, “Stress R Us”, available as a PDF at Many thanks to my friend Madeline Weld for this excellent and spot on article!

      1. Epidemiologists, Doctors, & Politicians aren’t looking at the Big Picture,
        but Ecologists ARE! And Ecologists called for Zero Population Growth
        50 years ago for good reasons! They were measuring our eco-footprint
        & projecting into the future, & nobody else was! Nothing was debunked;
        it was ignored!

      2. Thanks for mentioning John Calhoun – I only discovered him just the other day, in a wiki article that came up when I put “overcrowding and stress” into a well-known search engine. His work seems to have been buried – not surprisingly. It should be resurrected. And others should continue it (he has died I think) – but of course, I suppose there is no income from such research, as everything including research depends on more consumers.
        This even applies to vocational professions – where would prison officers be wihout criminals, or doctors without patients? Or vaccine labs without pandemics?! (I have had two jabs, because my daughter begged me to, and I also I am not ready to transit yet to the next world – but I am sceptical about this global industry, and especially about its continuous addition to the waste disposal problems that threaten to engulf us all).

      3. Direct link for those not so willing/able to follow the rabbit hole given. Looks good, and looking forward to reading it. I suspect ‘the mouse eutopia’ will play a large part in it, and I feel that has huge explanatory power for the malaise found in western civilisation currently.

    2. Thanks, David, for your reply 12-8 regarding the prescience of ecologists, but, sadly, the biologists doing crowded animal studies (Calhoun was attempting to model urban human environments!) have largely been ignored/made fun of by environmentalists and overpopulation alarmists. We are on the exact same trajectory of unbridled population growth (3,000 times since the agricultural revolution 8-14 kya) that Calhoun, Southwick, and others documented 70 yrs ago. Reductionist “academic” science ignores the big picture, except the ecologists, stress researchers, and animal crowding pioneers. “Stress R Us” brings them all together along with the personal medical consequences of population density stress. Best wishes, Gregg

      1. Over the last 25 years, I’ve heard 4 doctors in recovery tell
        their stories from the podium, & each one said that the medical
        schools don’t teach about the 12-step spiritual recovery program.
        One of the greatest achievements of the 20th century and
        most people are oblivious about it!

  1. Simply outstanding! Ms. Weld’s piece should be reprinted in every possible place and she and her clear explanation of the “silent lie” should be promoted in every possible venue.

  2. Overpopulation has been denied for Avery long time.

    The answer has always been technology will prevail to provide for the very increasing numbers. And it is technology that is continually adding to g local emissions and hence drastic climate change for the 8+,billion persons on the planet.

    Even :renewables” require massive energy inputs to
    make the technology that harvest “renewables”. Add to that the waste disposal of “renewable,” technology st the end of its life.
    We need to address population problems as well as technological issues, now.

  3. Will this article reach the parts many similar articles over the years could not and cannot reach? Yes, it might. Because it does that daring and dangerous thing – it uses an actual ongoing famine to open out into Philip Cafaro’s heart-stoppingly accurate term “Overpopulation Refugees” in its true global scale.
    It is unusual to say of famine victims that their forebears are responsible because they had too many children and infant mortality has become too low. It sounds absolutely awful – so no-one will say it. All the same, it is the truth.
    Of course there is no solution within our control. Nature will provide the harsh solution, as usual – when we can no longer even attempt to exercise our fantasies of complete control over Nature.
    Paradoxically, easy birth control seems to have made matters worse, not better – because having fewer babies simply enables families to consume more “goods” and thus more raw materials. The article does not address this second Silent Lie – but one thing at a time …… All the same, without a parallel “mea culpa” from smug Consumerists with 2 children or less, the truth is not the WHOLE truth.

    1. Agreed Edith! The problem is excessive human economic demands, within nations and globally, a function of too many people and excessive per capita consumption.

      We need a new paradigm: smaller numbers of people who rest content with a sufficiency of wealth and consumption, rather than endlessly more.

  4. Also worth bearing in mind the significant improvement in the quality of life for the women of Madagascar if they were freed from oppressive pro-natalist social norms. They would get to spend less of their lives in pregnancy and post-natal incapacity/infirmity and would experience fewer births, almost all of which without epidurals!

  5. Another factor omitted in the standard Madagascar narrative is the absence over decade after decade of anything approaching competent government or a social contract or a coherent, achievable national development plan. The population numbers and environmental damage would be a lot more manageable if this had not been so. WHY this is the case is, of course, complex but POLITICS is too often overlooked.

    1. It is not possible to manage gross overpopulaton – except via mass Emigration. England became lethallly overpopulated in the 19th century due to better health thanks to the Industrial Revolution. So did Europe and parts of Russia (not Siberia for climate reasons) – again due to their Industrial Revolutions. At the same time as the increase in human numbers, there was a rocketing increase in the need for Raw Materials and also food and water. Water not only for the growing population but for industry and processing, domestic water on tap, better plumbing, and so on.
      How did we “solve” it? Was it by our undoubted ingenuity? No. We emigrated in our millions, from all over Europe to the New World (North America and the Antipodes). If we had all stayed put, about 20 million would have died in England alone, of starvation, until the population became sustainable again (10 – 20 million, depending on consumption levels).
      Perhaps we ought to have done that, but it is no use crying over spilt milk.
      The population of Britain boomed during the 19th century. In 1801 it was about 9 million. By 1901 it had risen to about 41 million. This was despite the fact that many people emigrated to North America and Australia to escape poverty. About 15 million people left Britain between 1815 and 1914.
      Now the Third World is going through the same – but, it has nowhere relatively empty to emigrate to, only places that are already not only full, but in crippling Overshoot themselves.
      Anyone who thinks this is soluble has not grasped the full measure of the problem.
      Presumably, governments with space programmes are considering sending millions to Mars or wherever.
      Pie in the sky seems an appropriate comment. Have such governments gone mad? Yes, probably – who wouldn’t? – given the scale and insolubility of the problems they face.

      1. Thank you, Edith! I recently moved back to Ohio and my Dear Mother’s hometown of Marietta. So, I have been reading up on the pioneers who streamed across the Allegheny mountains and into the then Northwest Territory across the Ohio River. They were often Revolutionary War vets and their families, the descendants of New Englanders, which had become overpopulated and thus their emigration into the Ohio territory with all of its necessary genocide of the original Native American inhabitants and the subsequent alienation from Nature that is our progrowth, the environment be damned modern lifestyle. We are all the product of massive human overpopulation and the waves of migration that have followed ’til now. Mother Nature has built into our genes a population control mechanism, what I have coined as “population density stress” and fully described in my free online e-book, “Stress R Us”, available as a PDF at Maybe, just maybe, when we are confronted with the reality of all of medical problems, the “diseases of civilization” (the top ten killers of modern humans), then we might choose to not bring another innocent life into a dying, massively overcrowded world. Maybe. I can only pray for the sake of the yet unborn. Gregg

      2. When people have access to family planning and really good information, that is what makes the difference. This is how Bangladesh has reduced its population increase to something similar to the wealthier countries.

  6. Thank you, David, and my lifetime in medicine has forced me to realize that without all the massively expensive medical care we receive ($4T/yr and rising rapidly with COVID, etc. ,etc.), there’d only be less than 1% of us alive today. Mother Nature has been trying to rid Herself of our excess, but we just keep kicking the can down the medical road. Stress R Us

    1. “Pneumonia is the old man’s friend”
      —Sir William Osler, the “Father of Modern Medicine”

  7. Al Jazeera made one of its specials, “Start Here”, about Madagascar. I thought pretty much the same: all about the climate, nothing about population growth. It’s a classic.

      1. Unfortunately they seem to be pretty pro-Taliban, too… I guess it’s Qatar.

  8. Oh dear oh dear oh dear. A comment says Bangladesh is doing well. Its soaring population growth is levelling off. Hallo – the sustainable population for Bangladesh is at most 38 million, which it was in 1950. If all are to have westenr basic mod cons, then 20 million.
    Instead, Bangla has hit 167 million, in 2021. Hallo – wonderful educated persons with decent Maths skills (NOT) – what is 167 miillion going down to 38 million (or better still 20 million). Do you understand the minus sign? Obviously not. Yet you think you are “educated”. No, you are NOT.

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