World Population: A Big Dip?

Posted on June 21, 2010


The population of the world is approaching seven billion. We may have even passed that figure. Who really knows? It’s hard to get everyone to stand still long enough for an accurate count.

Most discussions about this topic are pretty gloomy. They’re usually accompanied by pictures of cities teeming with masses of people, traffic backed up for miles, and clusters of apartment buildings that are home to thousands. And depending where you happen to be, these images may seem accurate. Try to make your way through a downtown Tokyo subway station or the Long Island Expressway at rush hour. Ask someone about their trip to London or Mexico City or Shanghai. Head for Disney World on a sunny day in early August. Worst of all, go to any Wal-Mart on a Saturday afternoon. In any of those places and in many more, you might get the feeling that the world is just about filled with people. There isn’t much more room.

Indeed, according to the United Nations, world population is growing by 200,000 people per day. That figure seems insane, and a little frightening. But there are many ways to look at population growth. The most basic, I think, is to consider the amount of food, water, energy, and clean air that’s available. The number of people becomes an issue only when there aren’t enough of those resources to accommodate everyone for the foreseeable future.

But wait, you’re thinking: It isn’t just about resources. What about living space? Humans need a certain amount of air around them. If we’re crammed in with too many people standing too close to us, we get cranky. (This is why bullet trains need to move so fast.) There’s only so much land area on the planet, and we can’t produce any more. Where are we going to put everyone?

Relax. Let’s go for a swim. In fact, let’s all go. All seven billion of us. Would that be possible, for everyone in the world to go for a dip at the same time? Well, how much space does each person need? I’ve been in public pools that were so densely occupied, it was impossible to put more than four feet between me and the next person. With that level of crowding, it was hard to enjoy the water. Let’s give ourselves a hundred square feet. In other words, each person would have a square of water that measured ten feet by ten feet. That would be a lot less crowded than those pools I mentioned.

If we have seven billion people and each person is going to get one hundred square feet, that means we need a body of water that has a surface area of at least 700 billion square feet. Sounds huge, doesn’t it? The math isn’t that complicated. A mile is 5,280 feet. So a square mile contains 27,878,400 square feet. If we divide that figure into 700 billion, we would know how many square miles we would need for everyone to go for a swim. The answer is 25,109. So again, we’re assembling the entire world population — seven billion men, women, and children — and giving each person a hundred square feet of water. And for that, we need at least 25,109 square miles of water surface. Is there an ocean big enough?

Actually, there’s a lake big enough. No, it isn’t the Caspian Sea, or Lake Superior. It’s Lake Victoria, located at the intersection of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. At 26,800 square miles, it’s big enough to hold every person in the world. True, we wouldn’t have room for sailboats or water-skiing, and parking would be a nightmare. But imagine it: everyplace else in the world would be empty!

Now look at the map again. Is the world really overcrowded?

Or is it that we’ve allowed too few to grab too much?

Posted in: In Over My Head