5.4 Acres Per Person

So I’ve been thinking about the whole 5.4 acres per person thing (and not 72 square feet). Strangely enough, I find population density fascinating. Now that we’ve done the math right, I wonder what that means. Is 5.4 acres enough for a person to live on?

Clearly that’s a lot of space, but it starts to feel smaller when you consider things like growing food, dealing with waste, generating power, etc. One person said that’s comparable to four football fields.

It all leads to the question what is the carrying capacity of the planet? How many people can the planet sustain? Some people think we’ve already passed that number (which, if true, would raise all sorts of scary ethical questions and push us into eerie sci-fi territory). I don’t know what that number would be, but it would surely involve plenty of math for me to screw up. Plus all sorts of variables and intricacies that gets pretty darn complicated.

While I like pondering some of those unsolvable questions, what it really comes down to for me is what are you doing with your 5.4 acres? Are you living in such a way that you’re burning up resources and space and time? Or are you conserving what you can in order to save some for the other 6,769,999,999 people on this planet (not to mention the generations to come)?

Sidebar: Time throws an interesting curve into this whole equation. It probably doesn’t account for much space, but when we divide up the surface area of the planet, we might need to consider those who have gone before. Cemetaries take up a fair amount of room (miniscule, I realize, but interesting to consider). This is part of why I’d like to be cremated.

Some people live in such a way that they grab what they can when they can. Survival of the fittest. Get as much as they can as quickly as they can. It’s kind of the American way. That’s all well and good when we’re talking about something relatively limitless (like wealth). But as we start to run into limits—finite amounts of land, water, oil, etc.—then it starts to get a little more tricky. When me taking as much as I want means someone else has less than they need, that’s not cool. Simply giving the resources to the richest or the strongest may be Darwinian, but it seems barbarian to me. Perhaps if the entire world population had equal earning potential then it might be fair, but that’s hardly the case. The world isn’t fair. Why should I get generous helpings of resources simply because I’m born in the U.S. and have had access to top notch education, health care, etc.?

With great power comes great responsibility. I think that’s going to become more and more true as the world begins to run into limits. Are we going to turn our back on our fellow man as resources get tight? This recession is a decent test of that. Do you circle the wagons in this economic time, or do you continue to help others?

And don’t tell me that we won’t reach those limits. Certainly technology will continue to push those limits further and further, but the population continues to grow. At some point you will reach a practical limit, even if you pave the ocean.

As a wealthy American, I think this can go two ways for me personally. It can either be really easy or really hard.

Easy because I have all the margin in the world. Things would have to get awful bleak before my survival was on the line. If push came to shove there is so much I could give up, so much I don’t need.

But that could also make it very difficult. I’ve grown accustomed to all these things I don’t need, to the point that maybe I do need them. And that’s a sad state of affairs. I like to think I’m not that materialistic, but start taking things away and see how I whine. Take away my laptop or my car or my hot water or my air conditioning or my soda pop (none of which are even close to necessities) and see how well I get along. I’m trying to change that, but old habits die hard.

All of this comes back to this crazy idea that we should love one another. I can’t really love my neighbor if I’m getting fat while they’re starving. Being born into poverty isn’t their fault. And if I have the power to do something about, I’m obligated to act. We can no longer blame it on distance or obliviousness.

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