The wheels that keep the bicycle of society in balance are effectively economic growth, alongside stuff like population control and the minimisation of diseases and famines within the population.
But this doesn’t always work out, and many societies end up collapsing. Failed states like Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Haiti and Yemen were once more or less stable states with institutions that guaranteed a modicum of democracy, human rights, individual liberties and social tolerance up to a point.
Then, one day, all this simply disappeared. The warning signs were there to be seen, but no one paid heed. Is Kenya at that point in its trajectory as a society?
Economists at the University of Maryland have published a study in which they identified two main causes of the collapse of societies: the depletion of natural resources, and extreme economic stratification.
Every ecosystem has a finite carrying capacity: the level of population that the ecosystem can sustain over a given period of time. Beyond this level, competition for resources becomes untenable, resources are used up much faster than they can be replaced, and the ecosystem collapses.
When this collapse begins, the scarcity of resources forces communities into conflict with each other, and low-level skirmishes over resources like water and grazing grounds turn into widespread civil war.
Does this sound familiar? It should: all over northern Kenya and the Rift Valley, communities are in armed conflict over water and pasture. This year, for the first time, Kenyan herders have moved into private ranches and shot the owners of those ranches in pursuit of both land and water. It will get worse.
The second cause of collapse in societies is one that Kenyans have been familiar with for some time: the extreme inequality that is manifested as economic stratification. Kenya’s women are very fertile, giving birth to an average of four children each – against a world average of just 2.5 kids per woman. This, combined with growing access to good healthcare, means that our population is growing at about 2.7 per cent per annum, easily one of the highest growth rates in the world.
Even as our population grows exponentially, however, Kenya’s political elites continue to hoard more and more of the country’s wealth and resources, particularly land, leaving almost none to the vast numbers of poor people that provide the labour that makes Kenya function.
Kenya today has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, at over 35 per cent. While this large unemployed group tries to eke out a living on ever-dwindling natural resources, our political elites grab land and steal public money with abandon. In so doing, they are setting Kenya up for a collapse that will need just one simple event – a stolen election, a severe drought – to set in motion.
Any such event would leave lots of unemployed upcountry people unable to make ends meet, discontented and desperate. Many would flock to the nearest urban centres, which themselves are already overcrowded and unstable.
Kenya would quickly become unable to support the extravagance of its political elites, who have saddled the country with astonishing wage bills even as they steal every penny they can lay their grubby hands on.
Our well-documented ethnic divisions would explode in those crowded urban centres, resulting in ever-increasing urban conflict. Our politicians would, of course, be fanning this violence with incendiary statements and barely-disguised ethnic calls to arms, and Kenya would decompose into an orgy of bloodletting.
The writer is an IT specialist and PhD student based in New Zealand