3 x 108 Americans

By Phil Plait | October 17, 2006 3:45 pm

Back in December I wrote that we’d be hitting 300 million American sometime in September 2006. I was off by a few weeks (to be fair, I was basing it on a formula which was only as good as the Census numbers I had at the time), but here we are: the 300 millionth American was born this week. Well, maybe; we don’t know how many people are in the country, exactly. But close enough.

I saw a brief newscast about this on some local station yesterday, and they’re using it — of course! — to talk about how we can’t support this many people, etc. etc. That may or may not be true; I think the Earth is capable of supporting a lot more people, if we’d just be smart about it instead of raping the planet like it’ll heal in a day or two (and no, I’m not saying we should have more people, just that we could if we did it correctly). I suppose if it gets people at least thinking about what this many people means, then that’s a good thing (we all know how big a supporter of thinking I am… which also makes me wonder how many people will understand this entry’s title above).

I have nothing deeply thoughtful to add to this. Discuss it among yourselves if you see fit.


Comments (30)

  1. BB

    *discusses* *comes to a conclusion amongst himself*

    what? you want to hear the conclusion? maybe next time you’ll participate in the discussion then!

  2. Kebsis

    I don’t think we’ll have much trouble supporting people for the next few generations at least. Especially with the advances in crop engineering we’re seeing. The US isn’t even that densely populated; coastal areas are, but most of the country is pretty sparse, especially in comparison to many other parts of the world. And even if worse comes to worse, we can always start brewing up some Soylent Green.

  3. Apparently everyone on earth – that’s 6 BILLION people – could theoretically stand on the Isle of Wight simultaneously (the tiny island that the U.K. sits on top of – I don’t know what a U.S. equivalent would be.) That makes me think of an obscure Pink Floyd song – “If you are stout you will have to breathe out while the people around you breathe in…”

  4. Supernova

    At least now I’ll have an easier time remembering the US population.

  5. I wonder what sizes they use for “packing.” Assuming an average width of 18″ (46 cm) and depth of 12″ (30 cm) then the population of the USA would cover just over 16 square miles (almost 42 square km) and the population of the world would cover

  6. (Rats – hit the wrong key)
    323 square miles (836 square km).


  7. I just looked up the Isle of Wight. Maybe I shouldn’t have used myself as a representative sample of packing space requirements! The Isle of Wight has an area of 380 square km and I’m requiring 900 square km (updated to world population of 6.5e9). That would require a 60% reduction of space used to pack us!


  8. (Note to Phil: need to be able to edit our own entires so I wouldn’t have four entries in a row 😉

    I looked up the data for Elwood – the quote about the Isle of Wight comes from a time (early 1900’s) when the Earth’s human population stood near 2,000,000,000. We’re over three times that now. In the 1960’s, John Brunner, who wrote “Stand on Zanzibar,” said they’d need to use the Isle of Man instead (because the population had grown so much since the original quote). So I’m going to revise my revised opinion and stand by my original 900 square kilometer estimate. Of course we’d have to hope no one sneezes.


  9. ABR

    3 x 10E8 Americans…would that be from c to shining c?

  10. So if all 300 million Americans jump up and down at the same time will they knock the earth off its orbit?


  11. For engineers:

    300 x10^6 Americans

  12. Shawn S.

    Most Americans are mega.

    Let’s all give thanks to Norman Borlaug. Without his efforts we wouldn’t be able to feed as many people as we do! Yay for genmod food!

  13. Bored Huge Krill

    well, in terms of packing for living space alone, without taking into account sustainability of crops and so on, the US clearly has a *very* long way to go.

    Sticking with the example of the UK for a minute, IIRC the UK population is of the order of 20% that of the US, but fit into a land area slightly smaller than the state of Oregon (where I now live, having vacated the UK a few years ago…).

    Of course, I don’t think Oregon would be quite the pleasant place to live that it is now if the population was multiplied by a factor of 20 or so…

  14. Berkeley

    Perhaps the US too needs to start a one-child-policy soon?

    Of course, there is a lot of space in the Antarctic: just wait a few years, and people will actually be able to live there.

  15. Wait a few years and people will HAVE to live there!

  16. GAZZA

    Well, the thing is that most of the first world actually has negative population growth if you factor out immigration. (Certainly the case in Oz; don’t know about you Yanks).

    It is a potential problem, though. Any advances in food growing technology typically scale only linearly; maybe we can feed 20% more people, or 100% more, or whatever. But because the new generation will itself have more kids, population growth scales exponentially – and in the long run no possible linear growth can outpace exponentially growth.

    It is of course a self correcting problem – but we really don’t want that to happen.

  17. Melusine

    BA said: I think the Earth is capable of supporting a lot more people, if we’d just be smart about it instead of raping the planet like it’ll heal in a day or two.

    Or simply trashing the planet. That’s ~300 million people and counting who are creating ~4 lbs. of solid waste a day in the US. (The UK and Japan exceeds 4 lbs. per person.) Trash is a sore point with me because I’m constantly picking it up around my apartment (yes, the maintenance people do it every morning, but can’t keep up with it). It boggles my mind that people can throw down fast-food bags and such within 10 feet of the dumpster. Houston, the 4th largest city in the US, has no mandatory recycling program, and I’ve noticed ads recently imploring people not to throw trash in the sewers since that goes right out to waterways and is not treated. Pictures in National Geographic of trash-hauling in bays in California makes you want to cry like the Indian in that early 70s public service commercial about littering (remember that one?). I see more and more littering in parks. I’ve also read that recycling has plateaued and is actually down from a few years ago despite many communities making valiant efforts to deal with the problem. So, 300 million people makes me think of more trash!

    While looking for a particular trash photo in National Geographic, I came across this 2002 article because of the title line: “Ocean Litter Gives Alien Species an Easy Ride”:

    Barnes found that the amount of garbage, particularly plastic, floating in the ocean has enabled travel by marine species to roughly double in the subtropics and more than triple at high latitudes. The findings of the ten-year study are published in the April 25th issue of the journal Nature.

    It’s just another thing to remind us of how trash impacts the environment. And here’s a sad note:

    “Even in the remotest parts of the planet, we see garbage, plastic bottles, cigarette lighters,” said Iain Kerr, a member of the Odyssey team, a five-year research effort to collect data on whales in the world’s oceans. “Albatrosses are feeding their chicks cigarette lighters because they resemble the pumice they eat to help digestion. So you have chicks dying from over-consumption of cigarette lighters. The plastic is everywhere.”

    Ok, trash rant over. I doubt the people who visit this blog are trashy people…in more ways than one! Wish I could pick and choose the 300 million. :-)

  18. PK

    Somehow I think the birth of the 299 792 458th American is more significant, or is that too nerdy?

  19. Gary Ansorge

    75 percent of the earths population live in cities, towns,ie urban areas. But it takes a BUNCH of land to support that population. I read one eco sheet that calculated the world bio replacement level of nutrients as sufficient to supply only about 2.5 billion. The implication being that we are draining the planets biological “capital” to feed, cloth, etc our human population. IF that analyses is anywhere near correct, we should have our world bio systems completely exhausted by 2100. Since it appears I will not live much beyond 120 years, I’ll probably miss the dog eat dog world resulting from this profligacy. I really wish humanity would seriously consider building High Orbit Mini Earths. One Ceres sized asteroid could easily house several times the current world population. Ask me how,,,

    Gary 7

  20. The Unitied Nations publishes a PAT (population-affluence-technology) number for all nations, which reflects approximate how many acres of land each person in that country requires to sustain their lifestyle. America tops off the list at 4.7 acres per person (last I heard). That number drops down to less than 1.0 for those near the bottom of the list.

    The catch is, there is only so much usable space for resources. If *everyone* on earth lived as well off as an American, it would require approximately 2.5 empty planets doing nothing but supplying resources.

    Western European nations and Canads have similarly high PAT numbers.

    The fact is, western affluence mandates poverty in other parts of the world. There’s simply not enough resources on the planet to support everyone living at a decent level. Every additional American is hogging 4.7 acres for himself that cannot be shared by folks in other nations.

    Toss in the fact that the world popularion is continuously growing (6.5 billion earlier this year) and the picture gets more grim. There’s only so much earth to go around, so the more people out there, the smaller everyone’s portion.

    In order to have any hope of a sustainable future, people living in many countries will have to face the reality of a decline in their lifestlye.

    Most of the models I’ve seen suggest that the earth’s population will top out somewhere between 10 and 11 billion. These models are mathematical in nature, so they really state nothing about the quality of life under such conditions.

    I’m 40 now … in my lifetime the world population has celebrated passing the 3, 4, 5, and 6 billion mark. By the time I’m 80, the models suggest the earth’s population will pass the 7, 8, 9, and (*gasp*) 10 billion mark.

    That’s cutting it a little close!

    Population wise, things are going to be “very interesting” sometime around 2050.

  21. One addition thought as I reread the earlier posts …

    The exponential growth model only applies to creatures with unlimited resources … or practically unlimited resources. When a population is “small” compared to the resources available (i.e. “practically unlimited resources”) the species will exhibit exponential growth. However, as the population increases the growth becomes “less exponential like.”

    Human beings have passed well out of the phase of exponential growth. In fact the rate of growth is decreasing. That is not to say the population is decreasing, but that it is not increasing as fast as it used to. That’s to be expected as the population size approaches the theoretical maximum.

    At this point, there are two likely *mathematical* scenarios:

    a) asymptotically approaching the maximum value;

    b) a sudden “crash” in the population (the death of 70% to 90% of the population in a “short” period of time).

    In case a) the world gets “interesting” as people try to figure out how to manage resources. Case b) is “interesting” for other reasons.

  22. icemith

    Earlier Berkeley said,

    “Of course, there is a lot of space in the Antarctic: just wait a few years, and people will actually be able to live there.”

    To which Elwood Herring said,

    “Wait a few years and people will HAVE to live there!”

    But I reckon that any sizeable population down there would melt all the snow, causing a rise in the sea level, say 300 meters, about a thousand feet, wiping out all coastal cities on Earth. So the population would be in a worse pickle than before, (is this the “self regulation” hinted at by others?).

    Got any other ideas?


  23. NelC

    The Isle of Wight was used back when there were only 3 billion Homo sapiens (sapiens — Ha!) on the planet. Today the relevent island is Zanzibar, hence the title of the old SF novel set at the turn of the millennium, “Stand on Zanzibar”.

  24. JM

    “…I think the Earth is capable of supporting a lot more people, if we’d just be smart about it instead of raping the planet like it’ll heal in a day or two…”


  25. Caledonian

    We also have to face that fact that the modern farming techniques that we use to produce our excess of food aren’t sustainable. Even ignoring the nutrient depletion, monocultural population weakness, and transportation issues, those methods require a lot of fertilizers – fertilizers that are made out of oil.

  26. P_40ace

    Actually, most fertilizers come from the air. Thats right, the air. In 1908, Fritz Haber came across a process to make ammonia from the air. The first industrial use of this process was by the Germans in WW1 to make saltpeter for gunpowder. According to Wikipedia, “The Haber process now produces 500 million tons of artificial fertilizer per year, mostly in the form of anhydrous ammonia, ammonium nitrate, and urea.” Modern fertilizers aren’t made from oil, but modern agriculture is very much dependent on oil. Without it, it would be back to the fields en masse.

  27. Buzz Parsec

    Good one, ABR :-)

    But only in MKS… using cgs (which I’m partial to), we’re only 1% of c.

  28. ABR

    Thanks, Buzz Parsec. So do you think the title was MKSing fun of the “speed of heavy”? If so, I’m not sure how the unit “americans” equates to a speed unless it deals with expanding waistlines (bulging coastlines?). In any case, PK was right — Americans do have more significant figures nowadays.

  29. Prowler67

    I’m doing my part…and not having kids. Do families really need to have 6 kids?


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