George Michael: Is 7 billion too many?

November 12, 2011|By GEORGE MICHAEL

The world’s population passed the 7 billion mark last week, raising concerns and causing handwringing in some circles. While the landmark is notable, it is not the big problem that some fear.

Associated Press reporter Jon Gambrell sounded the traditional alarm in a story titled “7 billion people fuel concern over world resources” in the San Francisco Chronicle. The story used the birth ward of a crowded hospital in Lagos, Nigeria, as a backdrop. Using images of babies in a hospital in a poor nation certainly suggests the need for assessment.

Surprising as it might seem, all 7 billion people would be able to stand inside the state of Rhode Island. Granted, it would be crowded, but it is doable. Rhode Island, our smallest state, has just less than 34 billion square feet of total area, yielding 4.8 square feet per person. This would provide 26 inches of space in both directions. Since 14 percent of the state’s surface area is water, pontoons of some sort would be needed if we were to actually try getting everyone into Rhode Island for a reality show. Using only the land area would still allow 4 square feet of space per person.

If we wanted to give these 7 billion a bit of living space, we could try our experiment in Texas. In our second-biggest state, we could accommodate the entire world’s population with more than 1,000 square feet of space for each person, which works out to 32 feet in each direction. If we projected two people living in the same space, it would average 2,100 square feet per unit of two.  

Most of us live in areas of malls, large buildings and parking lots. We worry about overcrowding on the streets in our hometown. Population concerns seem threatening when we hear about 7 billion people. But it doesn’t take long to find places not far from here in central West Virginia, southern Virginia and northern Pennsylvania with wide-open spaces of mountains and forests, and few people. It’s a big country and a big world.

Back in the 1970s, The Club of Rome sounded dire warnings about the end of life on earth if population was not brought under control. At the time of its release, the 1972 study titled “The Limits to Growth” received a lot of attention. These so-called intellectual giants advocated widespread use of sterilization and eugenics to not only limit population growth but even to reduce aggregate populations. They projected a population time bomb with huge social problems by the 1990s if their policies were not implemented.

Sensational predictions of economic ruin did not materialize. Like Christian radio doomsayer Harold Camping, they just keep revising the date of impending disaster. Having cried wolf several times now, they don’t receive as much attention. They won’t give up however, and they continue their work today as advocates of eliminating sovereign, independent nations and promoting a one-world government as the only way to save the planet.

Previously, fears were all about masses of starving people in China and India. Both of these nations, while still facing challenges, are doing much better growing food and raising their standards of living, primarily by giving up collectivized farming methods. This is especially true in China, where rapid growth has brought many people out of poverty in the last 30 years. Today, about 10 percent of the Chinese population lives below the poverty line, down from 64 percent in 1978. In fact, China is beginning to export food to its neighbors.

The problem of providing enough food is not a population problem but a production problem. It is estimated that one American farmer feeds about 155 people worldwide. If the nations of the world were committed to private property and free enterprise — and allowed capital to accumulate so their citizens could save and buy better tools with which to farm — instead of to socialistic policies that keep them in endless poverty, the world would have plenty of food. As it stands, farmers in poor countries struggle to get ahead due to large disincentives placed in their path.

In addition, many hungry do without because of political corruption, a way of life in poor nations where foreign aid often is skimmed off by thugs. Or sometimes, food shortages are the result of tribal and ethnic warfare where military strategy means starving your opponents. Under such circumstances, regular farming activity is impossible. Anything grown is stolen or destroyed.

There are serious challenges facing the world. Widespread malnutrition is a significant problem. Half of the world’s population gets by on less than $2 a day. That is tragic. But if we start with faulty premises about the nature of the problem, we will produce inadequate strategies and bogus solutions.

George Michael, who lives in Williamsport, is a former principal of Grace Academy. His email address is

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