Wednesday, 13 February 2019
The other day, I tweeted, in reply to another tweet about humans and climate change : “A smaller and more cohesive population, better using resources, with increased productivity could enjoy great prosperity and actively SHRINK its economy and thus its impact.” After all, if we are the cause, fewer of us can only be a good thing. On the same basis if the cause of wars, as it so often is, is dispute over territory, then fewer challengers must, logically, reduce the pressure to compete for space.
From a mass migration perspective, too, the invaded indigenous people of advanced nations are justifiably worried by what they see as an invasive horde with disparate beliefs, disrupting the balance of society and sparking off more conflict. Wherever you look, more people than a landscape can comfortably support leads to strife, which is why people of means often move out to less densely populated areas to de-stress, recover their sanity and, well, just breathe more easily.
No matter how you assess the Earth’s resources, they are undeniably finite and so there must come a time, unless you somehow curb the proliferation of humanity, when there simply isn’t enough. Unfortunately, there are some who will repeat the old trope that the whole world population will fit into Texas/Wales/Isle of Wight, etc. Sure, yeah, right... if they stand quietly and don’t move around too much. It’s a stupid argument, trotted out by the sort of person who believes that the world will end the day after Brexit; repeated by the sort of mind which accepts without question something they overheard in the pub.
When I suggested that this notion was a crock, ignoring as it does, the need for roads and fields and schools and businesses and houses and ... the simple sanity of being able to get away from the throng, the response was: “Rubbish....do the maths...the whole world easily fits into Texas...stop believing the lies and propaganda...it’s all designed to control us and have us infighting.” Wow, that level of tinfoil-hattery needs a response. So, I did the maths:
The area of Texas is 695,662 km² and a square kilometre contains a million square metres, so we have 695,662,000000 m2 to share among 7.7 billion people as of the end of 2018 (and that number is growing daily). That gives us 90 m2 per person, which equates to a square of side 9.5 metres for us each to stand in, or about the floor area of a small three-bedroomed British town house. Of course, at least half of Texas is desert, so that’s an issue. And deserts are notoriously short of water and fertile soil, but I’m sure all of this can be solved by exploiting all of the rest of the planet to support us. (Although it is going to be one hell of an ambitious engineering project to shift all that water.)
Is 90 m2 enough? Well, it turns out that studies by organisations like the Global Footprint Network estimate that, globally, it takes 2.7 hectares to support the average world citizen. That is 27,000 m2 or 300 times the space you’ll get in Texas. And that is a global average. If you look at western lifestyles, we need twice or three times that to live as we do. A lot of people have concluded that we are already consuming more than the planet can reasonably provide and this can only be obtained by further reducing the life chances of the majority.
Where's Wally? In Texas... with everybody else.
Of course, this raises all sorts of issues about how we intend to carry on in the future. We should certainly get better at food production, but there are already fears that soil fertility is decreasing. We could maybe shift away from meat eating. And as robotics and artificial intelligence improves we can probably do more with less space. But the voracious appetite of humans for, well, stuff, means that demand for land is unlikely to reduce significantly.
Nobody who is serious doubts that the size of the human population places huge demands on the planet and as our numbers increase those demands become more injurious. Yes, we can get better and yes we could impose limits on what people can expect from their lives, but isn’t this limitation exactly what drives third world migrants to seek the excesses of the first? I mean, you may wish to stand shoulder to shoulder with the whole world in Texas... but you would have to be mad to want to.