Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Special Guest: George Goodfellow

To celebrate the start of a new school year, we have a question from a very special guest. In addition to being Rhode Island's 2008 teacher of the year, George Goodfellow was also my high school chemistry teacher and one of the main reasons I became a scientist.1  Mr. Goodfellow writes,

At what point in the equilibrium that is a balance of living plant organisms, living animal species and the total available energy on Earth will the ratio of Animal/Plant Species become so large as to create a collapse of the human population?

Leave it to Mr. G to start us off with a light topic. The question reminds me of Trantor, the fictional city-world in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. To support Trantor, tens of thousands of ships from twenty agricultural worlds had to be flown in just to supply enough food.

Trantor would look a lot like Star Wars's Coruscant if you got rid of all those pesky Jedi.
If we ignore help from other worlds, the collapse should happen much more quickly. At present, the world population sits around seven billion and is constantly growing. Given Earth's land area is roughly 150 million square kilometers, each person would own about 5.3 acres if the land were divided equally. How much land does one person need to survive? This homesteading infographic provides a good starting point:

How much land is enough to live off? (Click to expand) 
According to the infographic, you need at least 0.5 acres of land per person to survive. This would imply Earth could support, at the very most, about 70 billion people before collapse would occur. Note that we haven't accounted for the fact that not all land is farmable. Given the large swaths of land in desert, mountain, and other inhospitable regions, we're probably significantly closer to carrying capacity. If only half the land were farmable, we could support 35 billion people, meaning we'd already be at 20% of the maximum carrying capacity.

Are there any ways to expand this limit? I've written previously about skyscraper farms. While the maximum number of people that could be fed by one of these farms is greatly exaggerated by the farms' proponents, the farms may still significantly increase Earth's maximum carrying capacity. Furthermore, food scientists are constantly finding ways to feed the growing population... scientists like Norman Borlaug. Note: Never try to be as cool as Norman Borlaug. Unless you can save over a billion people from starvation, you're not going to come anywhere close. And to think, this probably the first time you've heard of the man.
Short of coming up with more efficient ways to develop food, our most realistic solution seems to be pumping NASA full of money so they can supply us with tens of thousands of ships that will travel back and forth between twenty terraformed agricultural worlds in order to supply Earth with its daily food needs. Or, you know, people could start using birth control and have fewer kids. Either way would work.

Thanks for a great question, Mr. G!

Aaron Santos is a physicist and author of the books How Many Licks? Or How to Estimate Damn Near Anything and Ballparking: Practical Math for Impractical Sports Questions. Follow him on Twitter at @aarontsantos.

[1] Admittedly, there were a few nights when I cursed him for bestowing this fate on me, but for the most part it's been pretty good.

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