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.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

"Of course, Kunsig is in no way advocating some kind of sci-fi removal of the Earth's population to Texas."


It's a good thing. The thought of Rick Perry governing all those people is downright frightening. I mean, he's already threatened secession repeatedly and burned down the governor's mansion.

I'm afraid many newcomers moving into all those skyscrapers would find Texans inhospitable. Locals would surely crack under the strain of having to upscale their burgeoning prison industry to handle all the billions of dark-skinned "other" types, general riff-raff and furners, on top of all the actual criminals.

The real deal killer, though, has to do with gas, oil and guns. With everything paved over and built on, Texans' God-given, constitutional right to drill, frack and pollute the countryside with toxic refining byproducts would be seriously interfered with, maybe even impossible. That wouldn't do.

And, in the SRO concrete canyons, where could a man take his semiautomatic weapon out and empty a few clips without getting a lot of grief for having inadvertently reduced the overcrowding a tad?

No, it just wouldn't work.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous ImadK said...

interesting points, but a few of them had little relevance to the theory. On a few of the points, you don't talk about the area being the size of Texas, but about living IN Texas instead.

I'm looking in particular at Point 2, the issue of water. What about having the human population living in the American Northwest covering 268,000 square miles - roughly the area the size of texas. You wouldn't have a problem with arid lands there, would you? And you don't need to worry about heat that much.

But most of the other points are pretty good. If I was to add another point, it may be that there would be much higher crime rates of all kinds. It can be safely speculated that a Texas-sized mega-city will have enormous ghettos, and riots will occurs a lot more frequently.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

ImadK, changing to the Northwest would only introduce other problems. First, how would you drain all the water from the rains if everything is basically cement and asphalt? Secondly, an area the size of Texas in the Northwest would expose the entire human population to three volcanoes that may eventually blow, Mt. St. Helens being the last to do so.

But thanks for the comment.

12:28 PM  

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