Is overpopulation the chicken or the egg?

A chart of world population growth rates, 1800...

A chart of world population growth rates, 1800-2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The NY Times takes us for a Malthusian ride:

LAGOS, Nigeria — 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. In this commercial hub, where the area’s population has by some estimates nearly doubled over 15 years to 21 million, living standards for many are falling.

This intro, coupled with the title of “In Nigeria, a Preview of an Overcrowded Planet”, is meant to scare us.  The Times would have us believe that lowered living standards are inevitably caused by high population growth. But some points worth considering: 1) Population growth rates never continue along their present course at any given moment in time.  For example, the US population increased 50% in the “quarter-century” from 1942 to 1967, but took another 40 years to do that again, and that includes longer life expectancy and increased immigration numbers.  Birth rates have fluctuated throughout US history.  2) Squeezing the entire US population into just three states sounds scary, but if Nigeria did go that route they’d still only equal the population density of Japan, and be at 70% of New Jersey’s, which brings us to our next section:

Lifelong residents like Peju Taofika and her three granddaughters inhabit a room in a typical apartment block known as a “Face Me, Face You” because whole families squeeze into 7-by-11-foot rooms along a narrow corridor.

Up to 50 people share a kitchen, toilet and sink — though the pipes in the neighborhood often no longer carry water. At Alapere Primary School, more than 100 students cram into most classrooms, two to a desk.

As graduates pour out of high schools and universities, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent for people in urban areas ages 15 to 24 — driving crime and discontent.

The growing upper-middle class also feels the squeeze, as commutes from even nearby suburbs can run two to three hours.

Very real problems.  But is overpopulation the cause, as the story implies, or is it actually a symptom?  “Overpopulation” only exists because of other underlying cultural flaws or government failures.  MTV has documented the Jersey Shore’s overpopulation, but the state as a whole is able to maintain reasonable unemployment rates and classroom sizes with over double Nigeria’s current population density.

The Nigerian government is rapidly building infrastructure but cannot keep up, and some experts worry that it, and other African nations, will not act forcefully enough to rein in population growth. For two decades, the Nigerian government has recommended that families limit themselves to four children, with little effect.

I “worry” about “some experts” who believe “forceful” population control is an appropriate role for government to play. Are they recommending China’s one-child policy, or a lesser but still troubling intrusion on human rights? Wouldn’t Nigerians be better served by a government focusing on the rule of law, protection of private property, and the freeing of markets; the building blocks of every successful Western society?

That transition often brings substantial economic benefits, said Eduard Bos, a population specialist at the World Bank. As the last large population group reaches working age, the number of adults in the labor force is high relative to more dependent groups — the young and the elderly — for a time. If managed well, that creates capital that can be used to improve health and education and to develop new industries.

The key words in that last paragraph are “for a time”.  Many Western societies are quickly learning the financial issues that come with an inverted family tree.  Nigeria should benefit from those lessons when shaping its social policy, instead of trying to dictate an ideal birth rate.

The story closes with the familiar recommendation of throwing contraception at the problem. One example:

But contraceptive use is rising only a fraction of a percent annually — in many sub-Saharan African nations, it is under 20 percent — and, in surveys, even well-educated women in the region often want four to six children.

That last clause is the key. Contraception isn’t a solution when people want children.

In the US, promulgation of contraception has given many couples control over their number of children.  However, it has not reduced pregnancy rates across the population, and its separation of sex from natural responsibility has led to a culture, particularly among the lower classes, marred by promiscuity and abortion.  The US is a great example for developing societies, but this is one area that Nigeria would do well not to emulate.

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