Tuesday, April 17, 2012


I was really annoyed by Elizabeth Rosenthal's article in the Sunday Times, which led with this sentence: "In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people — a population about as big as that of the present-day United States — will live in a country roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada." OMG! Can you imagine! I have visions of everyone from New York City crowded into Area 51, the population of Los Angeles stuffed into the Gila Wilderness, and the residents of New Jersey overflowing the Grand Canyon.

Nigeria's land area is 351,649 square miles. The current population is 162,471,000 for a density of 462 per square mile. If the country hits the 300,000,000 people total that Rosenthal suggests, it would have 853 people per square mile. That's a big jump, but today there are 39 countries that are denser than that. Okay, some of them are urban microstates like Macao and Monaco, or poor countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines, but there are other quite respectable First World countries where people lead a decent lifestyle and even have quiet places to go outdoors. How upset would we be if Nigeria turned into South Korea, Israel or Belgium?

To her credit, Rosenthal does acknowledge that birthrates and even populations have been declining in many countries around the world, and that the birthrate is even declining in Nigeria itself, but that seems only a small obstacle on her rush to sound the alarm. She makes no mention of the fact that there are tens of millions of people living comfortably in denser countries, and in denser areas of low-density countries like the United States and Canada.

There's even a correction to Rosenthal's article, stating that she originally said that Nigeria was only the size of New Mexico and Arizona. The fact that she chose two (and later three) of the emptiest states in the country is telling. In fairness, the biggest states are the emptiest, and to find some that add up to 352,000 square miles with higher density would require more than the magic two or three. But choosing Arizona and New Mexico creates an unnecessary contrast that can distort the emotional impact.

The bottom line is that population density isn't always bad. Whether it's good, bad or indifferent depends on how much of the land's resources are being used up. For Nigeria, Rosenthal doesn't give us much detail.

Fearmongering may seem like a good idea at the time, but it can easily backfire and put an entire campaign in jeopardy. It's dishonest, and it's too much trouble.


BruceMcF said...

OMG! The population density of Belgium! Run for the hills!

Peter said...

What is your objection to the article?

I thought it made a pretty clear case that it doesn't object to population density, but population density that could not be supported by the appropriate infrastructure.

To me, the statistics _are_ staggering.

Maybe there's nothing to worry about -- or maybe we should believe the Nigerian statistician/doctor in the video who says "we have a problem" and we need to do something "urgently...urgently."

The second line in the article states that quality of life is already falling for some. Soon after we hear of a 50% youth unemployment rate.

We read the case made that unstable population growth leads to all kinds of suffering, and ultimately, not just to the suffering of Nigerians.

I did think it was telling to see the little Lagos BRT but in the background, on the dirt road. A place with soon-to-be-stunning population density is going to try to put everyone on a bus. Smart.

Cap'n Transit said...

I thought my objection was pretty clear. Rosenthal is implying that the population density is a problem, when the problem is clearly unrelated to population density.