The Big Squeeze: Can Cities Save The Earth?

Article author: 
Robert Krulwich
Article publisher: 
Article date: 
8 April 2013
Article category: 
Our American Future
Article Body: 

"Remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, and every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball. — Brian Greene"

...people, it seems, are willing to try. In the last century, all over the planet, billions of us have moved from villages and farms to squeeze into tighter and tighter, ever denser spaces... [see original article for photos of high density Hong Kong housing]...

...if all 7 billion of us had to live side-by-side in two story ranch houses, or yurts — no towers allowed — we'd overrun the planet; we'd strangle the forests, the meadows, the plains. So until we learn to have fewer babies, cities may be our salvation, no?...

Tim de Chant has a wonderfully creative blog called per square mile, where he thinks about population density. Last summer, he decided to try a little experiment. He asked himself: Suppose I could move everybody on Earth into a single city. How much space would that city occupy?...

Obviously, it depends on which city we choose as our model. Different cities have different densities. Hong Kong, as we've just seen, is very dense. Houston, much less so. Seven billion people living like Houstonians would occupy a lot more space than 7 billion people living like Manhattanites. But how much more? Tim did the numbers, and came up with this. [See original article for illuminating images. One shows all of the people of earth fitting in to Texas.]

But... You can't take 7 billion people, dump them into Texas and assume that the rest of the Earth will be left alone. Even if nobody lived in the other 49 states, Mexico, Canada, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and South America, we would still need to use some of that space.

People in the Enormous City still need food, furniture, clothing, water, electricity, building materials, still need a place to store their waste. They still need water systems, farms, ranches, electricity grids, dumps, lakes, even if they never leave their city...

In a very rough way, he calculated that if everybody agreed to live like the average Bangladeshi, the world could exist largely people-free.

But as soon as we get richer — even as rich as the average Chinese — the world can't carry all 7 billion of us. We need more planet. If we all want to live American-style, we'd need four more planets.




Mass immigration is driving US population to double within the lifetimes of children born today. Doubling America's population will mean twice the demand for housing and twice the overcrowding. Doubling America's population will doubly diminish the natural ecosystems upon which we depend, including natural resources we draw down - such as water, farmland, and overseas petroleum. 

Squeezing twice as many people into the United States raises the issue of carrying capacity - the maximum population of a given species that can be supported indefinitely in a defined habitat without permanently impairing the productivity and functioning of that habitat. As shown in the article, if everyone on the planet lived at the United States standard of living, we would require over four earths to sustain us.