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The Overpopulation Myth PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 19 August 2009 10:30

As many have come to expect, I typically deal with financials and numbers.  I am not an economist or CPA or even MBA by trade; I am an engineer, so I actually understand numbers, rather than merely pushing them around.  And most of the last editorials have been about finances, but I felt it was time to take a short respite and address a different topic for today.


Recently, as I prepared for another jaunt to my second home in Shanghai, China, a friend of mine asked about the population of that nation.  I answered it was somewhere beyond 1.3 billion people at the time, and that China, India, and Southeast Asia together combine for just over 3 billion people.



This was apocalyptic and frightening, my friend replied, for clearly there is no way the Earth can support 3 billion people, let alone the nearly 7 billion living and breathing on the face of planet today.  So I sat down and - as a good engineer is led to do by some inate, twisted drive buried deep within, whipping our minds unmercilessly - plunged into the straightforward facts of the situation.



According to the US Census Department, the World population is shy of 6.8 billion; for purposes of this editorial and to keep things relevant for the next few years, I will round up to 7 billion.  And in the interest (or tortured masochism) of fellow mathematical-leaning folks, I will include the relevant calculations as entered on my trusty Hewlett Packard HP-28S calculator (a true beauty of a computing device) I will show the appropriate RPN keystrokes as well.



The population of the world we will define as 7 billion.  What is the density of a large US city, say New York City as a whole?  Well, New York City is 790 square kilometers, and has a population around 8.3 million people, giving us a density of (8.3<EEX>6<ENTER> 790 ÷) about 10,500 people per square kilometer.  Now granted, NYC is not the wide-open spaces, but it is a density that millions live with in a space-loving nation like the US, so it shouldn't be considered too packed.


So how much land would we need to house all 7 billion of us if we lived in such density?  Well, we would need (7<EEX>9<ENTER> 8.3<EEX>6<ENTER> 790 ÷ ÷) 666,265 square kilometers.  A big area, no?  Well, let's look further...


Upon examining the US, we find out that Texas fits the bill nicely.  In fact, Texas has 261,797.12 square miles of land, and that is (261792.12<ENTER> 1.602<ENTER> 1.602 × ×) 671,877.17 square kilometers!  Which is, in fact, more than the area we need to house all 7 billion of us at typical New York City densities.  Meaning every man, woman, and child living and breathing on the face of the Earth could fit in relative comfort within the land territory of the State of Texas.


The other 49 states: empty.  Canada?  A wasteland as empty as the northern extremes of Nunavut.  Europe?  Empty.  Asia?  Nobody home.  Africa, Australia, South and Central America, all the islands?  None left.  The entire world outside of Texas contains not a single living, breathing person.


But how realistic is that?  Surely water would be a problem wouldn't it?  Well, let's find out...  It is recommended that 50 liters per person, per day, be used as an adequate amount for consumption, sanitation, and cooking.  That works out to (7<EEX>9<ENTER> 50 × 1<EEX>9 ÷) 350 billion liters of fresh water, per day, to keep all of us properly hydrated.  That's a lot of water!  Given  there are 1000 liters per cubic meter, we need 350 million cubic meters of fresh water, every day.  Yes, a large volume!  But is it really?


Take the Columbia River, the 4th largest in the US, and the main division between the States of Washington and Oregon.  The average outflow of water is 7,500 cubic meters per second.  How long would it take the Columbia to give us our 350 million cubic meters of fresh water?  Well, it would take (350<EEX>6<ENTER> 7500 ÷) 46,667 seconds.  Or (46667<ENTER> 60 ÷) 777.8 minutes.  Or (777.8<ENTER> 60 ÷) just under 13 hours.


With just over half the daily average outflow of the Columbia River, we could meet the freshwater needs of the entire world's population.  Now, that is a big pipeline to Texas, but if we could get everyone there in the first place, the pipeline is child's play!


To recap: so far, we can put every living person on the planet within the land territory of Texas, with density about equal to New York City (not just Manhattan; all 5 boroughs).  And we can give them all adequate water with just over half the water from the Columbia River.


But what about food?  Clearly that is of concern!  Well, apparently 300 square meters will feed one person for one year.  Since a kilometer is 1000 meters, we could feed (1000<ENTER> 1000 × 300 ÷) 3333 people per square kilometer.  We'll call it 3000 people per square kilometer to make things even.  And that means (7<EEX>9 <ENTER> 3000 ÷) 2,333,333 square kilometers to feed everyone.


The total farmland in the US is about 922,000,000 acres.  There are 247.1 acres per square kilometer, so that is (922<EEX>6<ENTER> 247.1 ÷) 3,731,282 square kilometers.  Hey, that's more than 2,333,333!  In other words, the farmland in the US could feed everyone!


So what have we ended up with?  Well, every person in the world could live inside of Texas without overcrowding.  We could all have water with just the Columbia River alone.  And we could easily feed ourselves with just the farmland within the US as it exists.


Canada.  Mexico.  Alaska.  Central America.  South America.  Europe.  Asia.  Africa.  Australia.  Greenland.  All the islands.  All the oceans.  The Great Lakes.  All empty, devoid of people.  No need to farm or live there.


Now that we have the numbers, are we really overpopulated?  I would argue a resounding "NO" and I think any who say otherwise are simply not adding it up.


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Anonymous   |203.122.240.xxx |2009-11-16 19:27:10
sunshineplur   |69.156.104.xxx |2010-10-18 04:09:03
This is really smart and really stupid at the same time. point is made, though.
W Krebs   |71.132.136.xxx |2011-01-04 10:21:31
World population = 7*10^9 people

Area of island of Zanzibar = 2600 km^2

(2600 km^2)/(7*10^9
...*(1*10^6 m^2/km^2)
...*(1550 in^2/m^2)
= 575.7 in^2/person.

575.7 in^2 is the area of a
circle with a diameter of 27 inches.

So, the earth's population will still be able to stand on
Zanzibar, although I hope they all wear deodorant.
bfwebster   |71.208.213.xxx |2011-01-06 10:41:40
Yep, "Stand on Zanzibar" immediately flashed through my mind as I started to read the post,
Mike Marsh  - Exactly   |94.15.120.xxx |2011-01-06 04:20:40
The world's population, at the current density of England, would fit in the continental US.
RussRamey6  - Density of England   |74.5.56.xxx |2011-01-14 06:11:04
That's why we left England in 1776, their density...
Roger Zimmerman   |72.74.92.xxx |2011-01-06 06:50:15
And, why is New York city so dense? Because, lots of people _like_ to live in crowded cities so
close to their neighbors, shops, dining, arts, etc. Indeed, my guess is that at least 50% of the
world's population currently lives in similarly dense environs. The technical aspects of making that
possible have been solved completely.

So, as you say, there is no overpopulation problem. And,
this is clearly evident from a few minutes of critical thought. Which, makes you wonder about the
motives of the intelligent people that are constantly fretting about this "problem".
Another engineer  - none   |173.73.160.xxx |2011-01-06 07:00:07
I think you need to take into account waste disposal in a high density area like this.

As well as
power requirements, manufacturing and retail.

But I think it safe to say a country as large as
the US could sustain the world population.
Liz  - U.S. can't even sustain ourselves now   |74.244.126.xxx |2011-08-05 08:14:31
We might sustain the world's population if we started consuming at the level of people in Burundi,
but hardly at the level we are now!
Brian Clendinen  - Fresh water for Farming   |204.15.137.xxx |2011-01-06 11:28:52
The biggest issue would be Fresh water from Farming. That is the biggest user of fresh water. I
think Manufactoring would take a large amount of land. Power, if it was all Nuke would not be to
Jim Farley  - Manufacturing   |214.15.218.xxx |2011-01-13 22:43:48
Manufacturing doesn't take up much space at all. Most manufacturing already happens in densely
populated areas because that is where access to shipping is. Visit Japan and Hong Kong. The
biggest issue is (sanitary) waste disposal (see again: Hong Kong).
Allen  - Vital Considerations   |199.43.32.xxx |2011-01-06 11:38:03
Before doing ANYTHING of this sort, there better be detailed contingency plans for carefully
increased production of beer in Shiner Texas, as well as the laying in of stockpiles of Dr Pepper,
Bluebell icecream, and the fixin's for making Chicken Fried Steak!
Old Submariner  - Chicken Fried Steak   |71.195.211.xxx |2011-02-23 14:13:44
Nobody makes chicken fried steak like a good west Texas cafe - especially if they have the old
fashion naugahide booths. You just have to make sure that you choose the right church, otherwise you
will be at the end of a long line on Sundays because your preacher is too long winded.
Drumwaster   |75.82.153.xxx |2011-01-06 12:17:20
Isn't it amazing that the overpopulation problem usually seems to be phrased as "Too much of
thee, but just enough of me"?
voted against carter  - waste disposal   |76.112.211.xxx |2011-01-06 13:06:21
As far as waste goes, let me make a suggestion. You do the math. Dig a BIG hole a mile by a mile
square, fill it with ALL the wast, compost it. When that gets full do it again. I would venture to
guess you wouldn't have to do this more than once every 2 generations or so.
minicooper  - compost   |196.211.17.xxx |2011-02-09 05:28:12
Compost it? Do you mean: 'let it rot'? There are a lot of things that don't rot.
macaddicted  - The left coast...   |76.237.10.xxx |2011-01-06 13:43:17
I love these intellectual exercises. But why not just put everyone on the left coast. California,
Oregon and Washington total up to 318,558 sq. mi. Don't have to move the water so far. Nuclear
plants (close to Yucca Mtn) in Nevada for power. Manufacturing and "dirty" industries on the
west slope of the Rockies.

Btw I loved my 28S. Got me out of a statistics final a half hour before
anyone else. Entered the data set into the calculator andran one of HP's programs. Hit a couple of
buttons and out popped the answer. No one else was done so I re-entered the data, hit the buttons
and got the same answer so I handed in the test.

sold it later. What does a graphic artist need
with a 28S?
John Pearson   |99.197.0.xxx |2011-01-06 16:32:14
An equally important factor is the projected decline of world population growth, with the rate
diminishing to zero around the year 2050.

Consider the current negative population growth of nearly
all of Europe, Russia, and Japan. The United States population increase is due almost entirely to
immigration. China's one-child policy will gentrify that nation as well.

Soon, we will be begging
the young to have more children. Someone's gotta keep the Social Security ponzi scheme going!
Humphrey   |209.165.164.xxx |2011-01-06 16:52:08
New York uses 11 MW of power, which means that the entire Earth's population, at New York City
density, in Texas, would need around 9,355 MW, which is a lot of power. Then again, all the
hydropower in North America generates 9,500 MW.

You could also roof over Texas with solar cells
and get the same result.

Manufacturing...hmmmm. Let me think on that. probably need a few dozen
nuclear plants as well, then use Oklahoma as industrial/warehouse space.

As to sewage - pump it
to New Jersey.
sdlfkj   |76.84.244.xxx |2011-01-06 17:45:35
I think we're forgetting something here. If everyone lived within Texas, then we'd all be a**holes.
MarkR   |71.84.249.xxx |2011-01-06 17:48:44
Great article- but who in intelligensia REALLY thinks like this- or really thinks logically and coherently at all? From Malthus
to Gore the world has had individuals who emotively lead people off cliffs of fear and
delusion and the biggie THE NEED TO CONTROL!
Greg  - HP28S   |173.72.93.xxx |2011-01-06 21:55:52
That HP28S was a dream.
Mine quit working about 10 years ago, after the second time I spilled
coffee into it. I still mourn that machine. Can't bring myself to throw it away; it's in the
drawer with my slide rule.
Michael Smith  - Thanks   |65.13.15.xxx |2011-01-07 06:58:34
Thank you for the calculations exposing the utterly preposterous claims about
"overpopulation". This is the sort of stuff that our young people need to be told -- to
make them properly skeptical of environmentalist's claims.
Tina   |74.97.223.xxx |2011-01-07 13:18:04
Now, if only intelligent, free thinkers like yourself would have lots of babies...
andrew wiggin  - expansio ad absurdum   |98.237.145.xxx |2011-01-08 00:44:03
This is a perfect example of the limits of mathematical reasoning when applied to the real world.
Perhaps you and your calculator can prove that seven billion angels can dance on the head of a pin
but I suspect the angels would object. (They would have no room to spread their wings.) Oh, and
angels presumably do not reproduce so if you could somehow induce them to stay there at least their
numbers would not grow. The same cannot be said of human beings. But hey, if you can jam them all
into Texas that's fine with me. I will be living in glorious solitude somewhere far far away
wiseguy   |98.169.44.xxx |2011-01-08 12:11:18
I wonder how many angels can dance on Andrew's head.
RussRamey6  - Angels   |74.5.56.xxx |2011-01-14 06:16:49
Substitute "Demons" in Andrews head, as "the voices in his head". Ah yes,
Solitude is fine for him, but the ma**es must live in hovels of course. IE, Queens, Brooklyn,
Harleem, Chicago, Washington DC, etc
anoter engineer   |173.73.160.xxx |2011-01-08 12:52:30
the exercise was to show the feasibility. But Mr. Wiggin seems to fail to understand that people
die as well as be born.

So much for reasoning.

The point of the exercise was to show that
people could live in a relatively small area of the planet. So his mathematics was correct.
andrew wiggin  - math and reality   |98.237.145.xxx |2011-01-10 15:16:13
Anoter Engineer has apparently never checked the historic birth/death statistics that show births
outnumber deaths by a considerable margin. (The world's population has quadrupled in the past
century.) Some localities buck the trend, among them New York City which has lost population in
recent decades. (Yes, people 'could live' in concentration camps or in Gaza but few would do so
unless forced.)
Old Submariner  - wiggin behind times   |71.195.211.xxx |2011-02-23 14:24:53
It appears that you have not been following population trends. Another responder was correct. The
populations in most of the European countries are not being replaced at a rate sufficient to
maintain current levels. The only thing that is keeping the numbers up in many of those countries is
that many of the middle eastern immigrants have larger families - but still not enough to maintain
current levels. The U.S. is approaching that same drop. Why do you think that there are so many more
folks on Social Security than those supporting the system???
another engineer   |173.73.160.xxx |2011-01-11 06:11:33
the point is that the population of the world can fit in a relatively small area. Over population
is a myth.

here is a website on birth and death rates by country. It is rather interesting to
see the trends.

http://www.os-connect.com/pop/p3.asp?wh ichpage=1&pagesize=20&sort=Country
John  - Waste/Manufacturing/Power/etc   |71.80.238.xxx |2011-01-19 03:18:23
When discussing nuclear energy/waste my Dad always likes to say "That's why God created

And its true for this discussion as well. If you did take into account power,waste,
manufacturing etc You would still have entire desert states/locales like Nevada virtually devoid of

Power would be an easier solution between nuclear, wind, solar/etc Obviously it takes a lot
(too many imo) of windmills/solar panels to power a city but if the rest of the world was empty all
we would have is space.

Basically, this myth is debunked on so many levels it is hilarious that we
fall into the pitfall of the overpopulation myth.

(Besides the fact that wealthier nations tend to
have fewer children per family so if we could only make the rest of the world as wealthy as the
West/Japan/Korea/etc... )
xmfclick  - re: Waste/Manufacturing/Power/etc   |87.114.82.xxx |2011-03-22 03:43:05
John wrote:
(Besides the fact that wealthier nations tend to have fewer children per family so if we could
only make the rest of the world as wealthy as the West/Japan/Korea/etc... )
This is the real point. Richer people have fewer children, so if you want to do something about population
growth ... make poor people richer. This is leaving aside any moral argument as about the
wealth discrepancy between the rich and the poor. All the Greenie tree-huggers have to do
is stop whining about birth control and work on things like fighting corruption, freeing
trade and educating children better (especially girls).
m.c   |70.252.178.xxx |2011-05-18 10:24:03
there to much going on with the poulation and the world you know so many people geting sick and
dieing everyday oit say to me
Anonymous   |204.38.32.xxx |2011-05-25 06:21:07
over population isnt a myth, its real
Melissa A. Canchola  - Thanks for the great math lesson..   |76.167.47.xxx |2011-06-09 16:50:16
Also like some one mentioned as far as energy, you can use solar energy. And if all the people can
live in the size of Texas there's a lot of space where waste can go. One thing I would like to know
with all the math knowledge. About how much land is there in the whole world?
Shanghai Dan  - Land area of the world?   |68.68.39.xxx |2011-06-09 17:15:31
It is about 149 million square kilometers. The TOTAL land area of the Continental US (the lower 4
is about 5% of that.
Malthus  - The Oil We Eat   |70.112.86.xxx |2011-10-05 17:16:43
"Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant ma** created by Earth in a given
year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's “primary productivity.”
There have been two efforts to figure out how that productivity is spent, one by a group
at Stanford University, the other an independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm.
Both conclude that we humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of
Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple number may explain
why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that which existed before human
domination of the planet. We 6 billion have simply stolen the food, the rich among us a
lot more than others. "

Shanghai Dan  - OK, let's a**ume those numbers are correct   |50.47.156.xxx |2011-10-06 10:20:03
How much of the productivity of the Earth is from humans? If it's 40%, and we're consuming 40%,
what's the problem? We're consuming what we generate.

Additionally, I really don't accept the
extinction rate that is 1000 times - 3 orders of magnitude - higher than it was before humans
existed. How accurate is that count? How many new species do we find each year, even when we have
extensive scientific research? How can we make such a claim based upon fossil

Your quote sounds like a lot of hyperbole (extinction rate) to me. And it
completely ignores the input to "Earth productivity" of humans, and only talks about
consumption. Sorry, we put into it, let's take that into account as well.
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