Surprise! Prosperity, Not Poverty, Better Correlates with Population Density
Analysis by Suresh Chandra
Please hear me out. Here are charts of prosperity vs. population density for Europe and Asia. The data are from 2005 CIA World FactBook.
The population “explosion” theory of poverty pontificated by population pundits goes like this: “Rich nations like the U.S., Canada and Australia are all thinly populated, while countries with “exploding” populations, like India, China and Indonesia, are all poor. That just proves that poverty in the world is caused by population (density) explosion." I too used to subscribe to this view until my brother argued with me and pointed out that some of the prospering nations in Europe and Asia, in fact, were quite densely populated.
I now realize that the above mentioned logic to connect between
poverty with population is fallacious. U.S., Canada and Australia are relatively new countries,
formed as a result of takeovers of nearly empty lands by
people from high-density Europe. In order to reach a sensible conclusion
about any cause-&-effect connection between population density and
poverty, we need to (1) look at all the data, and (2) compare countries that have more in common in terms of geography and history. When
we do that, we find that prosperity, not poverty, better correlates with
higher populations density. Surprise! In Europe, The Netherlands,
Germany and Great Britain have higher population densities and higher
per capita incomes and GDP than Spain, Greece or Turkey. The same thing
is true in Asia. Taiwan, Japan and South Korea have higher population
densities than India, Mongolia or Myanmar.
All the charts are based on CIA World FactBook data on population, area, and per capita GDP downloaded in November, 2005. The data analysis is limited to 152 countries that have populations of more than one million and an area of at least 1100 sq. kilometers. (The city-state of Singapore was excluded since it is not typical of countries. Inclusion of Singapore would have only accentuated the positive correlation between population density and prosperity.) Although there is large scatter in all the plots, the trend lines are all found to be positive indicating a positive correlation between population density and prosperity.
Even when we compare the U.S., Canada, and Australia, (countries similar in size, history, culture, language) the prosperity-population trend line turns out to have a positive slope. The fact that the U.S. has 10 times the density of Canada and Australia, doesn't seem to hurt anything. But, when we plot all the new world countries together, we do find a negatively sloping trend line -- finally! Aha!
However, when we look at the total picture that includes countries from
both old and new worlds, we still find a positive correlation between
prosperity and population density.
The world chart includes all 152 countries, with a total population of 6,419,815,400, a land area of 132,544,424 square kilometers, and a GDP of $55,484,554,500. This averages out to 48.4 person/square-kilometer, shown with vertical pink line on the chart. The green horizontal line marks the average GDP of $8,643 per capita. The pink and green lines divide the chart into four quadrants:
Quadrant Q1: Represents countries that are thinly populated and poor. This quadrant is dominated by African countries and includes many Asian countries.
Quadrant Q2: Represents countries that are densely populated and poor. This quadrant is typical of Asian countries.
Quadrant Q3: Represents countries that are densely populated and prosperous. This quadrant is typical of Europe.
Quadrant Q4: Represents countries that are thinly populated and prosperous. This quadrant is typical of the Americas and Scandinavian countries.
The way the term "population explosion" has been applied, you would think that only poor and struggling countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America have large population densities. When did you about "exploding" populations of an European country or Japan? In fact, Netherlands, Japan and Germany, respectively, have population densities that are 8, 7 and 5 times the world average (of 48.4 persons per square kilometer).
The term "population explosion" is also used as a popular excuse by people of poor countries themselves for their state of economic affairs. The point of focus is often the "mouths to feed." To me, the real problem seems not so much as that of population but the work productivity. For every one "mouth to feed" there are two hands that can produce food, goods and services. The trick is to put those hands to work.
In 1960's and 1970's, when India's population was one-half of what it is today, the country India was called a hopeless basket case. Further, it was said that the country had to control “population explosion” first before there could be a hope for economic salvation. Now that the country's population is double what it was then, hardly does anybody seem concerned about any population explosion. Why? Is it because the bigger productivity "explosion" has overtaken the population "explosion"?
I believe the use of the term "population explosion" is counterproductive for two reasons. One is that the message sent creates a sense of helplessness because there is little the people can do about the perceived population explosion in the short term. Secondly it means barking up a wrong tree. The greater culprit in the equation is the poor economic productivity the countries' people. It is a simple thing: When people produce more than they consume, they are an asset. If they consume more than they produce, they are a liability.
I am not an economist or a sociologist, but that does not keep me from trying to make sense for myself the low economic productivity problem in poor countries. I view the problem in terms of what I call C5 problem: corruption, culture, communication, capital, and creativity. Some of these C's require external help but others are a matter behavior. (I will share my more detailed thoughts later in a separate article.)
Finally, I hasten to add that I am certainly not for ignoring potential problems arising out of increasing world population, but only for keeping perspective. There can be little debate that increasing world population will put strain on the world ecology. So will also prosperity.
Sources of data (accessed November 20, 2005):
Only countries with (a) population greater than one million people and (b) area bigger than 1100 square kilometer are included.
The West Bank, even though listed as a "country" in the FactBook, is not included; its inclusion would not significantly change any conclusions.