Lawrence Solomon: Can Earth handle 29 billion people? Easy

(July 18, 2014) Natural resources don’t limit our population’s ability to grow ever larger.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

At current rates of population growth, the UN’s researchers calculate, Earth’s population would reach 29 billion by the end of the century. A planet with that many people would thrive, I wrote last week to the disbelief — and horror — of many. As put by one objector, “Not only is there not enough land mass on the entire Planet Earth to accommodate 29 billion people, but there are also not enough resources to sustain them (fresh water, food, energy).”

In fact, the planet could comfortably manage 29 billion of us. To doubt the Earth can manage a mere quadrupling of today’s human population requires both a failure of imagination and a failure of arithmetic.

At 29 billion, Earth’s population density would be about 215 people per square kilometer, about the same as Switzerland’s, a country known for the Swiss Alps, a pristine environment and an economy that runs like clockwork. We humans would hardly be arrayed like sardines in a can, as another commenter ventured.

Even if the world’s population became twice 29 billion, or 58 billion, its population density of 430 people per square kilometer would still fall well short of the Netherlands’ nearly 500 people per square kilometer density. The Netherlands is likewise known for its clean environment and advanced economy, as well as for its high quality of life, as seen in its impressive art and architecture. This highly urbanized country also excels in its agriculture, which exceeds in value all that Canada produces. The Netherlands is not only self-sufficient in food, it feeds others with an abundance of fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products: The geographically small Netherlands is the world’s second largest agricultural exporter, behind only the United States.

Throughout time, people have dreamt of big city life. As they threw off serfdom and other shackles on their freedom, they increasingly made their way to cities, fulfilling their dreams and creating ever-greater efficiencies and prosperity. Today, most of the world’s population has become urban, leaving the world’s land mass mostly empty of people.

If all 29 billion people in the planet lived in the U.S., its density would be less than half of Singapore’s.

The U.S., whose sparsely inhabited interior is known as “flyover country” by many who live on the heavily populated coasts, illustrates the vast potential. If all 29 billion people in the planet lived in the U.S., its density would be 3,165 people per square kilometer, less than the District of Columbia’s 4,100 and less than half of Singapore’s 7,300. Singapore is one of the world’s healthiest and most affluent countries, with a longer lifespan and higher per capita income than the U.S. or Canada. It is also one of the world’s greenest: Through high-tech public transit and road tolling systems, its advanced economy experiences few traffic jams and high air quality.

At Singapore’s density, more than half of the U.S. could be empty of people and the rest of the U.S. could still accommodate the world’s 29 billion people at a high quality of life. In a radical environmental utopia, China, India and the rest of Asia could thus be entirely emptied of humans, but teeming with wildlife. As could Africa. And Europe, which could be repopulated with the bears, boars and wild horses that once roamed so freely there.

But radical environmentalists would not set the agenda and Earth’s 29 billion people at century’s end would not all live in the U.S. — they would be distributed among the six continents, as they are now, at below-Dutch densities. As with food, water would be abundant, thanks to desalination technology that now inexpensively meets the needs of people throughout the world. San Diego is building a desalination plant that will produce water from the Pacific Ocean for about half a cent per gallon. About one-third of Israel’s water is desalinated, from the Mediterranean Sea.

Energy will also remain abundant. At current rates of consumption, the planet has several centuries left of fossil fuel, according to official estimates. Should the estimates prove wrong, Earth has limitless amounts of renewable energy at its disposal, and nuclear, too — the order in which we tap this cornucopia of fuels depend entirely on us.

All my examples of the land, food and fuel available to us over the next century assume that global warming will not occur. If it does, all the numbers go out the window because — erring on the side of caution — I had removed Antarctica, an uninhabitable continent, from my calculations of the world’s available land mass. In the unlikely event that global warming proves real, Antarctica would provide an additional exploitable landmass that approaches South America in size.

Global warming would do more good things too — as satellite imagery is confirming, the planet is greener now than it has been since satellites first started providing us with a comprehensive picture of the global biota in 1979. Global warming doesn’t get all the credit — much of the greenery stems from increased emissions of carbon dioxide, also known as “nature’s fertilizer,” which have steadily increased crop yields per acre. For those who worry about the oceans rising, the Dutch can set their minds at ease. Their millennium-old dikes are not only tried and true, they represent an opportunity to reclaim arable land from the sea. In any event, a sea rise would be gradual — less than a metre by 2100, even in the UN’s very scariest scenario.

Much more likely than global warming, several top scientists now say, is global cooling, which would diminish food production and make an Earth of 29 billion harder to feed. In this event, we humans might do what we often have done in the face of a less inviting environment — bring fewer babies into the world. Or we might change our environment, to make it more inviting. Unlike unthinking animals, whose populations have crashed when they’ve grown beyond the capacity of the environment to sustain them, humans adapt to changing circumstances, and always when people are free, ultimately thrive.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute. Email:

For the first column in this series, click here.

Responses to this article

Suzanne York, a senior writer with the Institute for Population Studies, disagrees with Larry’s optimism on whether Earth can handle 29 million people.

Dr. Jaana Woiceshyn (author of “How to be Profitable and Moral: A Rational Egoist Approach to Business”) quotes Lawrence Solomon for her take on an environmentalist call for an end to capitalism: “As Lawrence Solomon in a recent column so clearly showed, it is human ingenuity, made possible by freedom and driven by competition and profit-seeking – a capitalist system – that helps us survive, thrive, and avert the apocalyptic future that the environmentalists are envisioning.” Read the full excerpt published by The Nassau Institute (a pro capitalism and free markets NGO) here.


About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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