Overpopulation: Living Space 2

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Since we posted our original Living Space article, we have received a number of objections to it. These objections can be summarized as two main points:

  1. It is unrealistic to compare the available land per person to a typical housing plot, as people use land for many things besides a simple house and backyard. Some portion of the world's land is being used to grow food for any given person, to mine the metals he uses, etc etc.
  2. Not all of the world's land is suitable for habitation. For example, we should have excluded deserts, mountains, and other uninhabitable areas from our calculation.
In reply to the first argument: this is absolutely true. A complete analysis of the maximum "carrying capacity" of the world would certainly have to take more into account than simply whether or not people had enough space to have a nice-sized yard. (See, for example, our articles on The Food Crisis and The Energy Crisis.) Nevertheless, population limitation advocates frequently argue that the world is becoming too crowded by a "standing room" test, and our point here was to rebut that argument. We freely admit that those three short paragraphs did not rebut every conceivable argument for population limitation that one could make.

A little thought will show that the second argument contradicts the first. That is, how can people criticize us for failing to account for all uses of land, and in the next breath criticize us for failing to exclude land from our counts not being used for one particular purpose? Deserts, mountains, and so forth are not by any means "useless": The most obvious example is the Arabian Desert, which supplies a sizable percentage of the world's oil. And people do live in "uninhabitable" areas, like the Eskimos and oil workers who live in Alaska.

But let's accept this criticism for the sake of argument and revise our calculation.

World population is about 5 billion. Total land area of the earth, excluding Antartica, is about 34 billion acres. That gives the 7 acres per person that we stated in the original article.

If we eliminate land classified as "polar" other than Antartica, mostly some islands and the northern fringes of Asia and North America, that would take out 1.3 billion acres. The world's deserts total about 4.7 billion acres. I wasn't able to find any figures on the area taken up by all the world's mountains. Clearly the most sprawling mountain range in the world is the Himalayas, which occupy about 300 million acres. Suppose for the sake of argument that the Rockies, Andies and miscellaneous other peaks total another 300 million. (Probably a very generous estimate.)

Add all that together and we come up with 6.6 billion acres. Lets be even more generous and round up to 7 billion. Subtract that from our original 34 billion leaves 27 billion, or still about 5 1/2 acres of reasonably pleasant, habitable land per person, or 22 acres for a family of four.

Okay, some land is used for purposes other than back yards. 4 billion acres are used for farming. I am hard-pressed to come up with any other major use of land. Roads and parking lots take up less than 1% of the United States -- probably much less in the rest of the world. Stores and offices? Surely less than the roads and parking lots that surround them. So let's be wildly pessimistic and assume that all economic uses take up as much land as farms, another 4 billion acres. Subtract 8 billion from the 27 billion of our previous paragraph leaves 19 billion acres, or still almost 4 acres per person, or 16 acres for a family of four. Even making all these concessions, the world still looks pretty roomy.

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Posted 10 Sep 2000.

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