“If every member of the United States lived in an area with the population density of Brooklyn, New York, all 327 million of us could fit into New Hampshire,” wrote Jennifer Wright in a recent article in Harper’s Bazaar. (The current U.S. population actually is 330 million.)
Similar nonsensical pieces have made similar claims – everyone could fit in Texas or the Grand Canyon. These statements are so naive they leave me practically speechless. Are the authors of these comments, including Bazaar’s Wright, who has the seemingly impressive-sounding title of “Political Editor at Large,” so incapable of conceptualizing what actually is required to maintain human life? Besides the physical space that one occupies, vastly larger amounts of space are required to support life! Anyone who believes that the entire U.S. population could live in New Hampshire must never leave New York City and believe everything they eat and use is made by fairies off planet.
According to a 1998 study by Mathis Wackernagel and J. David Yount, of the total space on Earth, 71 percent is ocean, 16 percent is biologically productive land and 13 percent is desert, ice caps and barren land. However, the amount of available biologically productive land would drop dramatically if the availability of energy significantly decreased. Energy is needed to move water to otherwise uninhabitable areas (Los Angeles), pump water from the ground (Ogallala Aquifer) and make the water suitable for human consumption. In addition, energy is required to heat (New Hampshire) and cool (Phoenix) homes and transport food supplies to less temperate climates.
According to the same Wackernagel/Yount study, the space required to support a lifestyle is called an ecological footprint. The ecological footprint (which varies by location) does not include just the space where you are actually living, but includes everything for a steady supply of the basic requirements for life, including energy for warmth and mobility; wood for housing, furniture and paper; materials for clothing and products; food and water, and ecological sinks for waste absorption and other nonconsumptive life support activities. There should also be included in the footprint space for biodiversity preservation. According to this study, the average 1998 U.S. citizen style of life required 21 acres of biological productive space (BPS) per person.
There were only approximately 19 acres of BPS per person available in the U.S., according to the study. That means there was only sufficient space for approximately 91.5 percent of the U.S. population to live the lifestyle of the average U.S. citizen in 1998.
Since 1998 the population of the United States has increased 19.5 percent which means that only approximately 73.7 percent of the current U.S. population can currently live what was previously thought as the average citizen’s style of life in 1998. If every person on Earth in 1998 had the U.S. lifestyle requiring 21 acres of BPS per person, it would have required an area the size of six Earths, and for the current world population, eight Earths.
Since Texas is much larger than New Hampshire (and approximately 25 percent of New Hampshire consists of the White Mountains which are uninhabitable), let’s limit our calculations to how much BPS Texas acreage would be available to each individual on Earth.
White Mountains, New Hampshire
To do this, we calculate the number of acres in Texas every person on Earth would receive if we divided the total acres in Texas by current total world population.
This calculation yields .02 acres, or approximately 960 square feet (the size of a small apartment), per every person on Earth. It should be noted that this is total acres, not BPS Texas acres per person. Estimates range that up to half of Texas is uninhabitable, but if we just exclude the 12 percent of Texas which is desert to calculate the Texas BPS acres, it would reduce the space to 844 square feet per person, and this space includes no space for biodiversity. The ecological footprint of the average Japanese, who are some of the most efficient people ecologically in the world, is approximately 441,000 square feet, or approximately 522 times the size of the calculated Texas BPS acres.
Accordingly, the argument that we could put all families in the world in the state of Texas is true, but as we can see from the footprint needed in Japan all of these people would be dead within a week from starvation, lack of water or poisoned from no waste disposal.
And in New Hampshire, they’d just be put out of their misery sooner.