This year we celebrated the crossing of our population count into a brand new shiny domain that starts with a 7 and is followed by 9 zeros. Not that 6.9 billion was so much different from 7, but we humans like to give significance to nice round numbers. It’s fun, it calls for celebration. But this year’s event sounded more like an obituary than a celebration: 7 billion is a number that frightens any sane economist and for good reason. All these mouths need to be fed, to do that they all need jobs, and with an economy that is already limping, based on natural resources that are running out and a natural environment that is about to cave in, the outlook is not bright.
There are too many of us. We are constantly faced with this statement in all sorts of information channels: scientific, political or economical, yet we often miss an aspect of it which only sometimes is highlighted, that there are too many of us, considering the way we live. This slight nuance is often overlooked or given little importance, the emphasis always being the number: 7 billion. It is indeed big but size is relative and if we put this number and the given statement in context, we will see that it is not the number that weighs more in the balance, but rather the part that is being overlooked. We might even see that if we could change that part of our existence, the number would gain a positive twist.
Earth is big. Very, very big. Even compared to the staggering 7 billion is still very, very big. Needless to say, it is an astronomical body, an object with dimensions that we can’t really relate to. We understand big, within the realm of human dimensions, like a truck, a ship, a business building, a mountain, but beyond that, big fades into something obscure, something out there with no clear shape or limits.
For a matter of comparison let us consider the Sahara desert. With a surface of 9.4 Million square kilometers (around 6.3 Million square miles), it is the biggest hot desert in the world, but it is still quite small compared to all the dry land in the world. A square kilometer has 1000×1000 square meters, which means that if all 7 billions of us would one day decide to move into the Sahara desert, then each and every one of us, be that child or adult, could be assigned (9,400,000 x 1000 x 1000) / 7,000,000,000 = 1,340 square meters (around 14,423 square feet) of land. That is actually not a bad real estate.
According to various studies (see here) the absolute minimum land to feed a person is around 5,000 square feet (465 square meters). This would be a very strict vegetarian died with not much to spear, but still, the Sahara desert alone has enough land to provide three times that much. So maybe it is even possible to throw in an occasional hamburger and a cafe latte, and so far we have only considered the surface of the land, altough we already have technologies for vertical farming.
To sum it all up, all 7 billions of us would fit in the Sahara desert, together with our agriculture and all the rest of the world can stay wild. The rest of Africa all the other continents together with the oceans would be untouched.
Of course it would be unfeasible for all of us to move into the Sahara desert, imagine the traffic in the morning, but in essence, should we apply current scientific knowledge and a more environmentally conscious way of life, the effects would be the same or even better: we would still only occupy the same amount of land, but being spread out evenly the local impact would be negligible.
More Number Fun
This is not all however. 7 billion people are not 7 billion young birds waiting with their mouths open to be fed by mama bird. According to index mundi at the last census, 3.5 billion of them are between age 18 and 65. The numbers are not presented in exactly this way, but for the purpose of this discussion, a rough estimate would suffice. Should all of us be working on the same goal, this would mean, 3.5 billion days of work packed in a single day. Let’s put that into perspective.
According to this resource, the great wall of China has 6,000 Km and employed approximately 500,000 people for its construction. If we consider that none of those man could have worked more than 20 years at the wall (the average lifespan being 30 – 35 years) than this means that it took 500,000 x 20 x 365 = 182 million days of work total, to build the wall. With 3.5 billion man at work, we could build 19 times that much in a single day. As big as the world is, that is almost three times round the equator, with no excavators, no trucks, no cranes and some really extreme terrain. So think of all the magnificent things we could do if we augmented those 3.5 billion days of work in a day with all the wonders of current technology. It is really hard to conceive the limits.
So why don’t we see structures like the great wall of China rising up three times around the world each day. Well, our way of life is no so much based on cooperation but rather on competition: we like to build little walls of ourselves to see whose is better and then we sell them to each other. There is undoubtedly progress in it, but there is also a lot of waste.