Worth remembering (when comparing ‘the US’ to ‘Europe’)

People often note that it’s a bad idea to compare small European countries with a country that is so big that it is comparable in size to the continent that the small country is a part of. I’ll go into a bit more detail about the differences in this post.

So, in a comment I left over at MR I noted that:

‘The United States is 3 times as big as EU-15 used to be, and EU-15 included pretty much all of the countries in Western Europe that people from the US like to compare to their own country (Italy, Germany, Spain, France, UK, Sweden…)’

Here’s the map:

It’s not ‘completely true’, but it’s very close – the area of EU-15 was 3,367,154 km^2 (link). The area of the United States is 9.83 million km^2.

Some more random numbers, I used wikipedia’s numbers and I couldn’t be bothered to add links because it would have taken forever and nobody would follow them anyway – you can look it up if something sounds really wrong. Texas: 696,200 km^2. France: 674,843 km^2. (Metropolitan France – i.e. ‘France-France (+Corsica)’: 551,695 km^2). Spain: 504,030 km^2. California: 423,970 km^2. Germany: 357,021 km^2. Denmark: 43,075 km^2. Netherlands: 41,543 km^2.

The red bit in the picture below is larger than any country in Europe which is not Russia (or another way to visualize it: That bit is actually significantly larger than the Iberian Peninsula in the map above). Maybe the scales aren’t completely similar, but they’re actually not really that far off:

If you take a trip in Europe from Venezia, Italy to Amsterdam, Netherlands, you’ll travel ~1200-1300 kilometers depending on the route. The lenght and width of Texas are both in the neighbourhood of ~1,250 km.

Now, Arizona is another southern US state with an area of 295,254 km^2 and a population of 6,4 million people. The Netherlands’ population is estimated at 16.85 million. If you combine the populations of Netherlands (16,85), Denmark (5,5) and Belgium (11 mill), those 33 million people are distributed over an area of ~115.000 km^2. The (smaller) combined populations of Texas (25,1) and Arizona (6,4) have roughly a million square kilometers to deal with.

Does it make better sense to compare Texas with France? And those small countries with, say, the state of New York? It probably would. But it’s really hard to find good matches here, in particular due to the problem with population density differences. If you do find areas that match on this metric, odds are they don’t exactly match on other key metrics. The population density of the United States as a whole is 33,7/km^2. If you scale that up by a factor of ten, you get to the third most densely populated state, Massachusetts (324.1 /km^2). The population density of Massachusetts is somewhat lower than both Belgium’s (354.7/km^2) and Netherlands’ (403/km^2). The population density of Germany (229/km^2) is comparable to that of Maryland (229.7/km^2), which is in the US top five – Germany is almost 7 times as densely populated as ‘the US as a whole’. The population density of Great Britain is 277/km^2, comparable to Connecticut’s (285.0/km^2) – the state of Connecticut is btw. #4 on the US list. Italy is at 201.2/km^2, between Delaware and Maryland – it would be on the top 6 if it was a US state. Americans like to use the expression ‘France and Germany’, but at least in terms of population density, there’s a huge difference between these two countries that I’m not sure they’re aware of: The population density of France is much lower (116/km^2) than that of Germany, and rather more comparable to that of Spain (93/km^2). All US states outside the top ten have population densities well below 100/km^2, so note that even though Spain and France are relatively sparcely populated in a Western European context, France would be well within the top 10 and Spain just outside top 10 if the two countries were US states. The average population density of the entire European Union, including a lot of Eastern European countries most Americans couldn’t find on a map, is about the same as that of France, 116.2/km^2; 3.5 times as high as the US average.

The population density of Iceland is 3.1/km^2. As mentioned, the US average is 33.7/km^2 and Belgium’s density is 354.7/km^2. Remember these magnitudes. And yes, I know that the US population density is not homogenous and that a lot of it is almost empty. The population density of Europe isn’t homogenous either – to take an example, approximately one eighth of the German population – 10 million people – live in the very small Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (7,110 square kilometers, or less than 2% of the area). A fifth (12+ mill) of the French population live in the Paris metropolitan area. On the other hand, the population density of Norway, which even though she is a bit of an outlier is still very much a part of Western Europe, is 12,5/km^2, comparable on that metric to, say, Nevada (9.02/km^2) in the US.

If you look at differences in the US internally, when it comes to the 10 most densely populated states the one that is situated the most to the west of these is Ohio (the state border of which is still within 500 km of the Atlantic Ocean). Here’s a map:

Remember here that these numbers are people/sq mile, so to compare the numbers there with the rest of the numbers in this post you need to divide by ~2,6 or so. I found this comparable map of Europe convenient both because it gives density limits in sq. miles and because it’s a lot more fine grained than just data on the national level:

Last of all: Languages! Here’s the European map:

Let’s just say that a map of the US would look different. Yeah, a lot has been written about the Spanish/English-thing going on in the US. Well, intranational language barriers and -linguistic diversity aren’t exactly unknown phenomena in Europe either, despite the small size of the countries involved. A thing worth remembering here is also that in many of the bilingual regions of Europe highlighted here, English is the third language. If you’re a US tourist visiting some European bilingual region and you’re annoyed people don’t speak much English, ask yourself how many areas of the US you can think of where people can hold conversations in, say, English, Spanish and French.

Update: To the many visitors who followed Razib Khan’s link or the brownpundits link and have never seen this blog before – welcome! If you liked the post, take a look around – I’ve been blogging for 5+ years and it’s not unlikely that I’ve written other stuff that might be of interest. For instance, did you know that 90 percent of the human population lives on the Northern Hemisphere? I didn’t, before I wrote this.


November 17, 2011 - Posted by | Data, Demographics, Geography, Language, Wikipedia


  1. Fully agree. Just to aid your size comparison, instead of Texas (the largest in terms of area of the continental states), try Alaska. Also, here are maps of Australia superimposed over the US, and EU superimposed over Australia.

    Some things just are not comparable, especially when it comes to culture, GDP, population, etc.

    As for culture, I would argue (although there can be no objective criterion) that Texas and Vermont are more different than Germany and Greece, even though they speak the same language and share centuries of history. The state of Pennsylvania, where I reside, has been described (culturally) as Philadelphia on the east, Pittsburgh on the west, and Alabama in between.

    As for GDP, Russia and Spain are almost even – good luck finding any other similarities. To use the example of Pennsylvania (where I live) again, it is slightly larger than Bulgaria (where I hail from originally), and has 12x the GDP. The Netherlands is 2.6x smaller than both, and has a GDP almost 40% bigger than Pennsylvania’s.

    Population-wise things get even more ridiculous. Canada has almost the GDP of India (try comparing culture), and 1/35th of the population.

    Even statistically rigorous comparisons of such entities end up being regressions of outliers, and anecdotal comparisons are even more worthless, if that’s possible.

    Comment by Plamus | November 18, 2011 | Reply

    • Awesome maps! I knew Alaska was way bigger than the rest, but that image really puts things into perspective.

      If you go outside the standard Europe/US comparison, it’s also helpful to break up the China/US-thing. The two countries are actually almost equally large in terms of area, and in terms of population I guess it makes about as much sense to compare them as it does to compare countries like Netherlands and Germany. But if you disaggregate, problems start to pop op very fast. To take but one example, the three most populous Chinese provinces (out of 22), Guangdong, Shandong and Henan, have a combined population of ~295 million, not very different from the current US population. The total area of those 3 provinces is ~502k km^2; i.e. those 300 million people inhabit an area a little smaller than Spain – or, as it were, significantly smaller than Texas. As it happens, when Americans usually bring up China in these kinds of comparisons, it’s usually precisely what goes on in the densely populated coastal provinces (like the first two of these) that they’re most interested in. That’s where much of the economic activity related to the export driven industries are located.

      Comment by US | November 19, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] saw this link about comparing US and Europe geographically (via Razib’s pinboard) and I stumbled into this rather interesting, if well-worn map, which […]

    Pingback by { Brown Pundits } » A different way of imagining the world | November 24, 2011 | Reply

  3. […] Worth remembering (when comparing ‘the US’ to ‘Europe’). A nice post illustrating the data which supports one of my pet peeves: comparing totally different administrative units in qualitative terms on the same quantitative metrics. […]

    Pingback by Around the web – 11/26/2011 | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine | November 26, 2011 | Reply

  4. I do not know if this adds or detracts to your point. But the dialects of the westrobothnian language is not represented in the last image. It is completely impossible for a swede to understand (except the few loan words) from a swede, finn or a norwegian point of view. Both the meänkieli (tonredalian) and lappish (sami) is spoken by just a few hundred people daily. Westrobothnian is spoken and have an very active litterature by more than 100k people in the area. The linguistic area of Bothnian languages has over a million people, but the forced migrations and nationalizations and banning of the languages has not helped the proliferation for sure. Ostrobothnians speaks almost the same language (it is intelligible to the degree that you can speak fluently with only some minor misshaps) whilst finnish nationalism almost killed the bothnian language in finland, there still thrives a small, but proud minority that still can speak “old bothnian”

    Comment by Egon Ruuda | October 3, 2014 | Reply

    • The existence of dialects is a sort of ‘potential issue’ with the last image which people might argue about, and I’m aware of that variable. However the inclusion of dialects would not in my mind be likely to change the conclusion that the ‘language diversity’, or whatever you want to call it, is much higher in Europe than in the United States, which was the main point. Indeed the observation that there’s a lot of additional European language diversity not captured in that image – as your example illustrates – only to me seems to strengthen the conclusion that language diversity ‘is more important’ in Europe than it is in the United States.

      Comment by US | October 4, 2014 | Reply

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