Sunday, January 23, 2011

If All the Earth's Population Could Fit into Texas...

Sometime this year, according to National Geographic, the number of humans on our planet is expected to reach 7 billion. The prediction, of course, assumes it hasn't already happened. Now I'm perfectly aware that when one drives across Nevada or eastern Oregon or west Texas, it sure doesn't feel like a crowded planet. But I'm also aware that 7 billion people are a lot for a planet to absorb, particularly as more and more societies try for an American lifestyle, as China is so quickly learning to do. One obviously cannot object to such lifestyles if one has been personally benefiting from such economic ascendancy for a number of decades. But one can notice trends, and increasing difficulties that are dangerous to ignore.

In National Geographic, writer Robert Kunzig doesn't exactly ignore population issues but one could argue that he may be a little too much on the optimistic side. Given predictions since the time of Malthus, the odd are actually in Kunsig's favor. To ease the reader's mind, however, he offers an illustration that supposedly puts things into perspective (pg. 61-62; January 2011):
At the PAA [Population Association of America] meeting, in the Dallas Hyatt Regency, I learned that the current population of the planet could fit into the state of Texas, if Texas were settled as densely as New York City. The comparison made me start thinking.... If in 2045 there are 9 billion people living on the six habitable continents, the world population density will be a little more than half that of France today.

The part about France is a bit warm and fuzzy but it's complicated to explain why it's so wrong. So let's stick with the Texas side of it. Of course, Kunsig is in no way advocating some kind of sci-fi removal of the Earth's population to Texas. But to see what the image means or doesn't mean, let's take it seriously and have some fun with it.

In our sci-fi depiction of the world of humans, we'll skip the absurdity of how to talk 7 billion people into jamming themselves into a mega-mega city in Texas with the density of New York City. First, let's look quickly at New York. No farms and very few manufacturing plants can be found these days in New York City. Everything is virtually brought in. And every night tons and tons of material is taken out, including everything such as waste products from shredded Wall Street documents and wrappings for hot dogs sold by street vendors. No major power plant within city limits fuels the heat, air conditioning and electricity for the city. And by the way, I don't know how true it is of other cities but a number of books have been written about how New York would literally fall apart within days if the infrastructure were not constantly repaired, maintained and in some cases fueled. If the power goes on the blink in some suburbs around the U.S. for a week a two, it's very inconvenient but the suburbs wouldn't necessarily fall apart. Unfortunately, without backup generators and significant technological help, New York would.

And then there's Texas. The western third is mostly desert. The middle third has some rain but is mostly on the dry side. The eastern third is wet (see a rain map here). And no matter where you are in the summer, it gets hot. New York City already has a knack for being hot in the summer despite being somewhat in the north. Imagine what a citified Texas would be! Now the fact is, no matter where you put a Texas-sized home for the human population, no location is likely to be perfect. But keep some of these factors in mind as we imagine some serious problems:

1. Where is all the steel and cement going to come from for all those skyscrapers? China is currently in the middle of a big building boom but even the Chinese could never find the cement and steel to cover all of Texas. And you can't take that material from existing buildings. Not all that many people on Earth live in high rises.

2. Where is the water going to come from? Particularly in west Texas, there isn't that much water for the population that already lives there. In fact, no place on Earth has enough water closeby to slake the thirst of 7 billion people in a place the size of Texas. Alas, you need pipelines—lots of them. And that still might not be enough. Special shipping ports would have to be built on the coast of Texas just to accommodate the tanker ships filled with water.

3. Farmers are going to have one hell of a commute. Somebody has got to grow the food. I suppose in our sci-fi adventure we could invent some robots but—except in the movies—robots are not that cheap to make or run, and not that good. And oh, by the way, where do we get all the extra metal and parts for them? Once again, special ports will have to be built along the Texas coast to accommodate all the food shipments. I suppose some fresh truck farm produce can be grown in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Kansas, New Mexico, Missouri, and maybe a dozen other states (and maybe part of Mexico) and put on trains to the mega-mega city, but one faces the same problem all over again: how are humans going to get to all the truck farms and back home in one night? And where are the refrigerator cars going to come from and how are you going to get them in that big city of Texas?

4. The same problem goes for fisherman, loggers, miners, oil riggers, etc., etc. Mind you, it's cheating the illustration if everybody lives near where they work. If coal miners need to go to Manchuria, they're going to need supersonic jets every night. And those jets are going to need super-airports because there's going to be a lot of commuters to fly and one hell of a rush hour in the skies. Oh, wait a minutes, the states surround the mega-mega city are being used for truck farms. Where would we put the airports?

5. And exactly where would all the manufacturing plants go? And who mans them? Well, we could once again conjure those magic all-purpose robots we find in so many sci-fi movies, but where are the metals, parts, computer chips and fuel going to come from for those things? And aren't robots cheating, anyway? And how would we get human workers to those plants without more supersonic jets? Or at least hi-speed rail? Maybe we need to build those manufacturing plants before we build the truck farms (not to mention all the other farms for not so fresh food).

6. Where would the energy come from for the mega-mega city and the manufacturing plants? If we use coal and natural gas, who's going to make sure the power plants get fed? And how are you going to feed the electricity from the Yangtze River energy project all the way to Texas? How do we hook up all those nuclear power plants from France? And that's an awful lot of power lines around the world zeroing in on our mega-mega city in Texas.

7. If we were to turn on 7 billion air conditioners on a hot Texas afternoon, what would that do to the grid?

8. I want to keep this polite but what would happen to all the dog poop in a city of 7 billion? And the cat and parakeet poop? And what would happen to all those flushed toilets and all that leftover food dumped into the garbage disposal? Sooner or later, it would end in the Gulf of Mexico. Would anyone along the Texas coast go into the water? Or any river more than twenty miles south of the Oklahoma or New Mexico border? Would we need sewage pipelines to California and the Great Lakes?

9. Just where would everybody go in a hurricane? Or a tornado? Or a flood? Actually, how would we keep the mega-mega city and all those asphalt streets from flooding during a spring time shower? Hey, where would we get all the asphalt for that city landscape, anyway?

10. And sometimes strange things just happen in a mega-mega city. Over the last number of years, Texas has been developing sinkholes. That brings us back to National Geographic and a story about a 600-wide sinkhole. How wide at the base is the Empire State Building again? Isn't Yankee Stadium about the size of that sinkhole? Not to be overly macabre or anything, but where exactly would the people of the mega-mega city be buried? And if 195 countries were crammed into the mega-mega city of Texas, how many countries would you have to cross before saying goodbye to your relatives? Actually, how would the living residents of 195 countries get along? Would you need a visa to take out the garbage?

The absurdities as one can see pile up. If any reader can think of other problems with 9 billion people in an area the size of Texas, feel free to add them in comments. To be honest, I don't know how much longer the Earth's population can continue to grow. But whatever carrying capacity the entire world might have for a human population with the kind of technology and affluence generally found in the west, that capacity was probably passed some time ago.

Many in the West believe technology can always find a way to keep the world population growing. Many of these same believers once talked about hover cars and fusion being just around the corner. But the task of dealing with an ever larger population is becoming more complex, and complexity carries with it a risk that is becoming more and more difficult to ignore.

Pessimistic experts have been wrong about population for decades. I hope they continue to be wrong. But the odds are not good. Actually, if the pessimists ever turn out to be right, we're going to need optimists, lots and lots of them in the times that follow.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

President Obama Has a Good Night and So Does the Nation

President Obama did an excellent job at the memorial for the victims of the Tucson shooting. Watching 26,000 people at a memorial was a little strange at first but very moving by the end. The intern, Daniel Hernandez, simply amazes me (quick, somebody get his resume!).

And then there's Sarah Palin and her strange video. The Duchess of Wasilla, with her 20-foot scorpion tail and her $14 million yearly income, is claiming victimhood. Meanwhile, six people are dead, a number of others are wounded, and Rep. Giffords has suffered major injuries that will impact her for the rest of her life. Sarah has a strange definition of what a victim is.

On the far right, a great many people in the last two and a half years have engaged in rhetoric that goes far beyond arguing a point. There have also been deliberate attempts by conservative leaders to stir up the anger, fear and hate of their followers. It is no accident that violent, threatening imagery has been part of the package. It is clear that many on the right, not just Palin, do not understand the real concerns many Americans, including liberals, have about the kind of rhetoric that keeps surfacing. In a comment on his blog to a commenter named Paine, S.W. Anderson of Oh!Pinion makes those concerns quite clear:
We’re bleeding-heart liberals over here, Paine. We really do care about people who’ve been killed and injured. We really do want to see to it more aren’t hurt and killed. We’re not insisting the radical right go away or sit in the corner being quiet from now on. This isn’t an election year, and when the next one rolls around the most strident on the far right will have trotted out two years’ worth of fearmongering and distractions, so that this horrible incident will have faded to the background.

What we want, for everyone’s sake, is for those who allude to using guns, to using force; those who depict our government and leaders as devious, dishonest, without conscience or a shred of decency, to cut it out. Just stop it. If your position is strong, your ideas worthy, your candidates suitably attractive and persuasive, you can win elections without doing those things. Your side always gets plenty of money for that purpose, no matter what else is true. So, your side doesn’t need to keep dishing out the red meat, the angry, resentful tirades, the racism and the hate talk.

Give S.W. a read. He's been around awhile and knows what he's talking about. By all means, there should be vigorous debate, but violence and the rhetoric of violence has no place in a democracy.

Labels: ,

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Shooting of U.S. Rep. Giffords

If Rep. Giffords survives her injuries, and hopefully she will, it will be because of the brave actions of her staff. Democratic aides around the country have been concerned for over two years about the violent rhetoric that has been coming from the Republican right wing. There have been acts of violence and even Giffords' office was attacked early last year. And yet I notice three things:

1. Many members of the media are somewhat whitewashing the violent rhetoric and calling it just 'normal' politics.
2. A number of Republicans, though with significant exceptions, are also denying a relationship between the rhetoric coming from the right and the violence in Tucson.
3. A number of Tea Party people are saying they will continue using the same rhetoric.

Of course, a fourth thing is going on. The attacker, Jared Lee Loughner, is painted as mentally unstable, meaning somehow that he's not really responding to the violent rhetoric of the last two years. And yet, why should anyone be surprised when those who first respond to violent rhetoric are mentally unstable? Certainly millions of Americans are not surprised. Certainly the hundreds of Democratic aides around the country are not surprised. Certainly law enforcement officials are not surprised.

Look, there's a brutal truth about violent rhetoric in this country: the rhetoric of fear and anger, which is just a step short of violent rhetoric, has always worked well for Republicans. Fear and anger pushes many moderates and independents to the right, and it pushes conservatives even harder to the right. Hardball Republicans like Lee Atwater knew this. Today, Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich know this.

In the case of Gingrich, have people so easily forgotten the militias of the 1990s? And of course, there are fools like Sarah Palin who cranks up the rhetoric more than most. People like Gingrich appreciate the Palins of the Republican Party since they make him look so much more, well, statemanslike?

In days like these, we need more Edward R. Murrows who can state the plain truth and not worry so much about their careers.

One of our smartest journalists is E. J. Dionne Jr. of The Washington Post. Here's what he has to say:
In an interview last March, the Arizona Democrat anticipated almost everything being said now and explained why what happened on Saturday is a violation of our national self-image as "a beacon." Our pride, she said, is that "we effect change at the ballot box" and not through "outbursts of violence."

Read the whole article.