Tuesday, September 17, 2013


I loved the XKCD “what if” last week.  It reinforced something that I’ve been trying to explain to city-dwellers for a lot of years, and it goes a little something like this:

We are not overpopulating the Earth.  There really aren’t that many of us, and despite the fact that you’ve lived on a 2 x 13 mile concrete island your entire life, and struggle to gain a concept of this, there are a metric shit-ton of places on Earth where the touch of human endeavor doesn’t exist at all, or is so light that you’d never notice it.  More of the worlds surface than not, in fact.  In the XKCD hypothetical, if you were to randomly teleport to coordinates on the Earth, what sign of humanity would you be able to see?

The surface of the Earth is about 70% water, so you'll usually plop down into the ocean.”

I would think it safe to assume that the vast majority of the time you plopped into the ocean you’d see no sign of man, at all.  If you did, it’s be fleeting and all about luck – a tanker or ocean vessel of some sort, or plopping down in sight of a settlement on land.  But that’s unfair, because we’re talking about overpopulation, and at least right now, mankind only lives on the surface of the Earth, so let’s narrow it down to land, only:

“Most of the points were over open ocean, out of sight of any land. Once you get away from the major ports, the odds of having a ship in view are not that good, so I continued sampling until I had 50 land coordinates.”

Fair enough?  Let’s see what he found out with his sampling of 50 random land-based coordinates:

“Based on Google Earth imagery… …would definitely see clear signs of human activity in about 10 of those 50 points.”

10 out of 50.  1/5th.  20%.  If you randomly teleport to anywhere on the land portion of Earth (which, I remind you, is only 30% of the surface!), you only have a 1 in 5 chance of seeing any sign that humans exist. 

Not feeling particularly overpopulatey, anymore, are we?  But it continues:

“that artifact (of humanity) will usually be either a field of crops or a dirt road.”

So we’re not exactly talking houses, domiciles, or even structures at all.  We’re talking dirt pathways and cropland.  So what are your chances of seeing actual structures and development?  Considerably less than 1 in 5, I can tell you that.  I’ve been in places in Kansas where all you can see are crops, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Washington where all you can see is forest, and the XKCD author discusses one site where he randomly landed in Louisiana that fit the bill, also.  So we aren’t even talking about Antarctica and Siberia, here.  There are a huge amount of places inside the most advanced and developed nation on Earth where you could land and see no sign at all, or the only sign being a crop or a dusty road. 

Our world is one of wilderness with interconnected nodes of civilization.  Because most of you never leave those nodes of civilization, you don’t quite understand what all is out there beyond the ‘burbs.  Yeah, it might feel a bit crowded in Seattle, but inside of a 2 hour drive from downtown, you can find yourself in a place that feels pretty goddamned lonely.  


  1. So we're not over populated until you can't go anywhere with out running into people? No my idea of a good thing.

    Keep in mind that there is a lot of land mass that you'd probably not want to live in - The Sahara, The Gobi, Antarctica, etc.

    It's true that people tend to concentrate - city population is growing at about 1.5% annual.
    From the WHO:

    [quote]One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people. [/quote]

    The one of the biggest issues for me, is what that urban growth means in terms of politics - Cities tend to be liberal - lots of poor voting for lots of government support. So if you want a world socialist government, continued growth is a good way to get it. Me, I'd rather we didn't. I think we reached over population a long time ago.

    From a purely numbers point of view - I'm not sure how long we can support what we have now.

    Desertification is eating up arable land at a noticeable rate. Mono culture farming has ruined the soil in a lot of places - that's recoverable but we're talking years of reduced production - the alternative is to continue to pump huge amounts of fertilizers into the environment - which I'm not convinced won't have some serious negative effects (gut feeling - no data).

    Increased urban population leads to increased crime rates (although this may be a cultural problem related more to the progressive agenda to eliminate personal responsibility, than to actual population issues.)

    In any case - I'd prefer we didn't grow any more until we have a viable path off this rock.

  2. So we’re not overpopulated until you can’t go anywhere with out running into people?

    That isn’t what I said. What I said was that 80% of the time, if you beam randomly to somewhere on the land of the planet Earth, you won’t even see any sign that humanity exists, at all, and in the remaining 20%, you won’t see anything more than a dirt track, trail, or crop more than half the time. My point was that given that, the Earth isn’t that damned populated if 90% of the random places on Earth that you go, you aren’t going to see people at all, and what evidence you see, if any, is going to be very primitive.

    I would say we’re nearing overpopulation as we get closer to 50% in this particular test. I never said we didn’t need to worry until we saw people everywhere we went.

    Keep in mind that there is a lot of land mass that you’d probably not want to live in

    Oh, it was already considered in Randall’s write-up, just sort of coincidentally. He mentions that only one of the 50 points were outside of the habitable areas on Earth. As I recall it was in the arctic somewhere. So, really, Randall’s write up already more or less excludes the Gobi, the Sahara, and all of Antarctica.

    I won’t comment on the “higher density means more libs/progs/commies” thing because I agree – it’s pretty much proven. I don’t know what to do about it though, honestly, without getting pretty authoritarian and risking some pretty nasty unintended consequences like China is currently facing. I think that the fact is, as we densify and get more prog/lib/commie, birth rates are going to drop naturally without us needing to worry about it one whit, because, well, they do. We’ve seen it over and over again.

    As to desertification and eating up arable lands, I disagree completely with your points here. We are actively paying farmers to not grow food on something like 25 to 30 percent of the arable land we have available in the US to avoid food gluts. The land that is desertifying in various places was pretty marginal to begin with, and really wasn’t providing anything by way of a surplus enough to really impact global food supply. Those lands were more or less being farmed by subsistence farmers who were farming them for their own subsitence – not contributing to the global food chain.

    As for adding fertilizers to the land, I can’t hardly think that there is some looming catastrophe coming as a result of this, since we’ve been doing it for millennia on a non-industrial scale, and about 100 years now on an industrial scale, without any real negative effects.

    When you see starvation on TV, it isn’t because of food shortages, it’s because of geopolitical issues. We have way more than enough food, and will into the foreseeable future. Earth is not overpopulating.

  3. Ladies and Gentlemen,

    Scientists warn of a rapid collapse of the Earth's ecosystem.
    The ecological balance is under threat: climate change, population growth and environmental degradation could lead even in this century an irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem.

    --> http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/

    The cardinal reason is the sudden development of human population that threatens to devour all our resources.

    Since 21 August there is therefore a petition at change.org for the introduction of global birth-controls, also in HINDI!

    If you want to support this or publish it on your website, here is the link:

    Please continue to spread the link or the petition as possible to all interested people, organisations etc.

    Thank you and best regards
    Achim Wolf, Germany

  4. Achim:

    It is very easy to say that “other people” should stop overpopulating the Earth. Super, super easy. It’s a little less easy to include yourself in that determination, isn’t it?

    And by “other people” we are very politely not saying what we really mean – “brown people.” Brown people who you’ve determined that we’d be better off without – who you’ve determined that for the good of the folks already here (read, YOU) shouldn’t have the chance to exist.

    I rarely see white folk from developed western nations talking about population control from their own perspective. For instance – do you have kids, Achim?

    What are YOU doing to fix the problem?

    What is your proposed solution?

    This issue is very charged, because the solutions to the problem start to sound pretty genocidal and pretty racist once you wash away the polite patina which guys like you use to obscure the actual goal.

    You don’t want YOUR family to be put under population restrictions. You see no reason why YOU shouldn’t be allowed to go on living and consuming. You just want to make sure that there aren’t any other folks that aren’t you and yours competing for the same resources. You just want to keep those brown folk in their place, don’t you, Achim?

    If you were truly so worried about overpopulation, you’d actually be doing something. If saving mother Earth was so goddamned important to you, you’d have killed yourself long ago. But YOU keep going on living, don’t you, Achim? YOU keep using those resources, and schlepping on down to the beach on weekends in your car or on the train, using up those resources, don’t you, Achim? The only thing worrying you about the whole mess is the fact that some day, in the future, you’re afraid that you won’t be able to schlep on down to the beach anymore, because some uppity brown dude in India used all your energy.

    If you’re so goddamned afraid that the Earth is overpopulating, then do us a favor and kill yourself. Deny YOUR family the right to reproduce. Tell YOUR nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters and children that they aren’t going to be able to fulfill their biological imperative and have kids of their own. But you don’t do that, do you Achim? Nope, your entire effort is focused on places like India and Africa, isn’t it? On places where brutal, hand to mouth existence dictates that people MUST have more children in order to survive. You don’t want to reduce the population of Germany, do you? Until you do, I don’t believe for a second that you’re worried in the slightest about the Earth. I think that you’re just worried about having to compete with them brown folk. Until then, do me the favor of staying your racist ass off my blog.