Posted by: josephsiry | November 5, 2013

Where do we put an additional third of our residents?

Beneath the tinted glasses how bright is your future?

Joseph V. Siry


” Over the next 40 years, demographers estimate that the U.S. population will surge by an additional 100 million people, to 400 million over all.”

“Relax, We’ll Be Fine,” By DAVID BROOKS.

New York Times, Published: April 5, 2010


Paul Ehrlich, Stanford biologist, criticizes the sentiment expressed by columnist David Brooks some three years ago in the midst of the worst recession the nation ever experienced. I say worst because of the numbers affected and the wealth lost when compared to a much smaller nation in 1930. With just over 41 people per square mile the nation’s population was about 120 million people during the start of the “Great Depression.” Currently 308 million people exist here at more than double the density of 88 people per square mile. The current economic stall has adversely affected, as many people or more than in the “dirty thirties.” But is there more beneath the surface of how much land we occupy or labor we use or to meet our country’s growing needs?


I am struck by what eighty to ninety-five million more Americans would mean for the nation. Many novices will look at states like Texas, Florida, Georgia and Arizona to suggest we have plenty of room. They of course disregard the water needed for those people, their hygiene, electricity and nutrition. While it does not all come down to water, I am struck by how many people just think of do we have the space for fifty more Manhattans or thirty more San Diegos. New York already needs the Catskill Mountains for its watershed to provide sufficient water and California drains the Colorado River and parts of the Sierra Nevada mountains. More people will mean the necessity for more forested mountains.


If the nation switched to geothermal energy sources, more folks could migrate to the arid western states, but water would have to be re-used several times over since the west is in the worst drought in centuries. But water is only a piece of the problem. Certainly adding more people means changing our dietary habits. Currently many American children receive insufficient food calories on a daily basis. Do we propose to feed the additional population as we have our existing residents? That too takes water, but food also requires fossil fuels to grow, transport, refrigerate, package and get to our tables. Some studies show ten calories of energy are needed to put one calorie of food into your diet. Can we sustain that sort of deficit for another forty-five years? Still there are people who think we have enough space for ninety million more neglecting the area needed for transportation, energy, watershed, and disposal of our un-recycled wastes.


Land fills the size of mountains exist in many American cities to collect and store our refuse. Some regions make parks, golf courses, and even school sites out of these mounds. Additional people will require that sort of creative re-use of structures, places and dumps. Some Americans may be able to live at the density of existence that Japanese families take for granted. But our consumption of acres for roads, public institutions, and homes will have to change radically if water, food, and electricity will be sufficient for even fifty million more people. Critics will say that the Dutch use greenhouses for growing food and decorative plants, they build walls to keep out the flooding sea, and they preserve their farmland, orchards and fields. But there are few American regions that match the density of the Netherlands or Japan, we do not even match those nation’s transportation systems, let alone copy their regulations for land-use and water conservation.


When you hear people ignorantly suggest population growth is good remind them of what we need. Ask them are they prepared to live on the water use levels that Israel consumes where every new construction is required to have solar thermal installed? Ask if they are ready to set aside forests, fields, and sacred areas, as have the Japanese. And ask them if they will live as do the Dutch with very high levels of re-use of scarce materials and strict zoning for protecting agricultural and flood lands. I think you will find that–as we in America need a quarter of the world’s resources to sustain only four percent of the world’s population; and we borrow already more money than we produce to live as we do– we are not prepared to have forty, fifty, or sixty million more people in our already exhausted countryside. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, for example in one study, “The productivity of some lands has declined by 50% due to soil erosion and desertification.” In a comparative study, evidence that topsoil loss was occurring at a declining rate compared to 1982, but “In 2007, 99 million acres (28% of all cropland) were eroding above soil loss tolerance (T) rates. This compares to 169 million acres (40% of cropland) in 1982.” Thus before the great financial collapse we were still dangerously degrading nearly 100 million acres representing over a quarter of our arable land. 

Image Rice terraces in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

If more people are going to be here, ought we not do better to conserve our cropland, energy sources, and watersheds?

828 words. – comment-11585


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