Monday, October 31, 2011

7,000,000,000 People, More or Less: Why I'm Not Alarmed

Depending on who you listen to, the 7,000,000,000th member of humanity was born at two minutes past midnight today. Or, not. Since we don't have absolutely accurate, up-to-date, and verifiable statistics for everyone, that 'seven billionth' person is an educated guess.1

Still, 7,000,000,000 is a whole lot more folks than live here in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Or in Minnesota's Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area, for that matter.

I did a little checking, and found out that everybody's going to die horribly in maybe a month or so: If I make a few assumptions. Here's the data I started with. To the best of my knowledge, it's accurate:2

Area required for one human: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Ideal conditions 7 18 18,129,916
Not-so-ideal conditions 500 1,295 1,294,994,000

That's what it takes to support one homo sapiens sapiens.

Here's how much land - and water - we've got to work with:

Earth: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Total area 196,949,971 510,098,061 510,098,061,490,348
Land area 58,552,330 151,649,832 151,649,832,072,040
Land area, excluding Antarctica 53,452,330 138,440,893 138,440,893,272,040

After a few simple calculations, I had the number of individual human beings Earth could support. Making, as I said, a few assumptions.

'Absolute maximum sustainable human population' for Earth, under ideal conditions, using:
  • All land, including Antarctica
    • 8,364,000
  • All land, and water
    • 28,135,000
  • Current world population (estimate)
    • 7,000,000,000
'Obviously,' we're doomed!

'What is Wrong With This Picture?'

If that crazy conclusion I gave was accurate, humanity would have starved to death a long time ago.3 I made it look like we were about 1,000 times over Earth's 'carrying capacity' by leaving out some important information.

Those "ideal conditions" are for folks who get their food by hunting and gathering. Nothing wrong with that, from an ethical point of view: but most of us stopped living that way thousands of years back.

Here's a somewhat more complete set of data:2

Area required for one human: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Hunting and gathering (ideal) 7 18 18,129,916
Hunting and gathering (not-so-ideal) 500 1,295 1,294,994,000
Today (cultivated land) 0.0008 0.0022 2,175.50
1975 NASA study [tiny value] [tiny value] 61.00

What made the difference was agriculture: a technology we've been developing for maybe ten thousand years. Give or take a millennium. On average, around the world, we're able to support about a thousand people on one square mile of farmland.

So, why were people starving in Sudan? In that case, the 'civilized' folks in the northern half of the country were keeping food from getting to the 'natives' in the south. Folks in the Darfur area recently won independence from their former masters, and that's another topic.

At the Utter Pinnacle of Human Achievement?!

I know that folks in some parts of the world have trouble getting enough to eat. I think it's a matter of inefficient and/or corrupt supply systems and old-school agricultural technology, more than humanity having hit a physical limit for food production.

One reason for my cautious optimism is that I ran into a design study in 1975 that involved pushing agricultural production to the limits of what was possible at the time. The numbers were, I think, probably optimistic: but they were also far beyond what we're doing today.

We are not even close to using all the knowledge and techniques we have today. And I do not think that human beings have reached the end of our inventiveness.

What? No Anguished Hand-Wringing?!

I know that some people lack food and other necessities. I think that's wrong.

I also think the answer is not seeing to it that there are fewer people in impoverished areas.

People have a remarkable track record for finding solutions to problems. The solutions haven't been perfect: but they often work well enough.

I see little indication that humanity has suddenly become bereft of imagination: incapable of improving on whatever technology we're using.

The job at hand, I think, is to meet the immediate needs of folks who need food, shelter, clothing, or medical help. It's the 'neighborly' thing to do.

Somewhat-related posts:
In the news:

1 Excerpt from the news:
"7 Billionth Person Born (Or Maybe More. Or Less. Who Knows?)" (October 31, 2011)

"With the birth of Danica May Camacho in Manila at two minutes before midnight, the United Nations Population Fund announced that the world's population had hit a new landmark: 7 billion people now fill the blue spinning globe we call home.

"Or maybe not.

"The U.S. Census Bureau comes to a very different conclusion, pegging the world's current population at 6,971,933,858 -- a difference of more than 28 million people. In other words, the U.S. Census Bureau guesses that the U.N. has overcounted by more than twice the current population of California. It argues that the world's population won't reach 7 billion until sometime in March of 2012.

"Other estimates are even further off.

"The International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, an Austrian group that studies world population, argues that the world's 7 billionth person might not be born until July 2014.

"The U.N.'s number has many scratching their heads, and asking how the agency counts people. Just how did the U.N. reach its conclusion?

"The U.N. admits the number is only an estimate.

"Amid the millions of births and deaths around the world each day -- and the poor demographic information currently being gathered -- it's impossible to pinpoint the arrival of the globe's 7 billionth occupant with any sort of accuracy.

" 'All demographic projections suffer from two kinds of potential errors," wrote Sergei Scherbov, director of demographic analysis at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, in a recent paper. He argues that uncertain projections and incorrect data about the current population make it a challenge to precisely pin down an exact number...."
2 The data I'm using is accurate enough. Some of the assumptions are silly. Here's the data I've been using, and where I got it:
Earth: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Total area 196,949,971 510,098,061 510,098,061,490,348
Land area 58,552,330 151,649,832 151,649,832,072,040
Land area, excluding Antarctica 53,452,330 138,440,893 138,440,893,272,040
Land under cultivation, 11% of land surface 5,879,756 15,228,498 15,228,498,259,924
Potential cultivatible land, 20% of landing surface
27,688,179 27,688,178,654,408
Area required for one human: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Hunting and gathering (ideal) 7 18 18,129,916
Hunting and gathering (not-so-ideal) 500 1,295 1,294,994,000
Today (cultivated land) 0.0008 0.0022 2,175.50
1975 NASA study [tiny value] [tiny value] 61.00
Today: Square miles Square kilometers Square meters
Population 7,000,000,000 (more or less)
Cultivated land 5,879,756 510,098,061 510,098,061,490,348
People/unit of cultivated land 1,191 460 0.0005
  • Encyclopedia Britannica (1966)
    • Earth
      P. 947, vol. 7
    • Hunting and Gathering
      P. 895, vol. 11
  • "Space Settlements: A Design Study"
    Richard D. Johnson, NASA Ames Research Center; Charles Holbrow, Colgate University; Scientific and Technical Information Service, NASA (1975)
  • "Reader's Digest Atlas of the World
    Project Editor Joseph L. Gardner (1987)
3 Looks like it takes a month or two to die of starvation:


Brigid said...

A little... grammar problem? "incapable of improving on flint knapping, wood carving, or farming technology is in use at the moment."

There's also the one-sentence paragraph before that which takes a couple reads to figure out.

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...


I *think* I've sorted that out. Thanks!

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