The Times decided it had been a good few months since it last sounded a Malthusian warning against population growth in Africa. So they said, let's pick on Nigeria! That's always fun. When I read the good Dr. Blattman asking for additional opinions, I knew it was time for me to break radio silence again.
Nigeria defies a lot of the overpopulation stories. I spend a lecture with my development students on Malthus and overpopulation, and I've got to say, I find the evidence very non-Malthusian.
Nigeria as a whole is less densely populated than New York State (or 6 other US states). Actually, NYS is a very good comparison: there's a large mass of population in one teeny corner, and the rest of the state is vast tracts of underpopulated farmland with a couple rust-belt cities "not living up to their potential," as we recite in far too many student papers over here. In the last governor's election, the top debate topics were the brain drain out of NYS and corruption. They had to put the capitol city outside of NYC to keep it away from the big city politicking, crime, and corruption, just like Abuja. But I digress:
Check out the map for Nigeria's population density. The density in Lagos is 2000/square mile - 1/5 the density of Washington DC; 1/9 the density of Singapore. A couple other states in the south are also fairly well packed. Altogether, 15% of the population lives in high-density states. The vast majority of the country is in the 40-150 per square mile category. If anything, that is underpopulated. By comparison, NY city is up around 5000 per square mile, there are few pockets of high population (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, from west to east) and everything else is in the 1-250 range. At 250/square mile in Ithaca, deer ate all my garden vegetables and raccoons regularly sacked garbage cans without locks on them.
Then we have the difficulty that the overpopulation is higher in areas that have higher GDP/capita. Lagos and Port Harcourt are not the poverty-stricken areas, but the wealthy ones. It's the underpopulated north that has the higher poverty rate.
Because really, the Times (and family) only discover there are actual cities in Africa when it wants to trot out its tired Malthusian stuff. Notice they only talk about fertility rates (6 kids per woman!), not population growth rates (2% last year, because 2 of those kids died before age 5 and the life expectancy is still under 50). Notice they don't mention that food production has kept up with population growth for over 50 years. Notice they don't mention that birth rates have been falling for 30 years, right in line with standard population transition models.
You could make a reasonable story out of all this based on the Harris-Todaro model: the way to solve the overcrowding in Lagos is to provide a little more development in the rural areas. But then the problem isn't too many people, but not enough development shared unequally.
Among my favorite comments on the subject, however, are still Fengler's and Dickens':
Fengler: Many think this is a big problem. ... I am less certain that the rapid population growth in Africa, especially in Kenya, is the fundamental development challenge: ... despite Africa’s rapid population growth and Europe’s stagnation (even decline in few countries) the old continent remains much more densely populated than Africa. If we look at Western Europe – where I come from – there are on average 170 people living on each square km. In Sub-Saharan Africa there are only 70 today. This gap will narrow in the next decades but even by 2050, Western Europe is expected to be more densely populated than Africa. I am following the population debates in Europe, especially in my (densely populated) home country Germany. I have never heard anyone argue that there are too many people in Europe.Ever and again, I hear the immortal words:
``If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,'' returned the Ghost, ``will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.''
Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
``Man,'' said the Ghost, ``if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!''