It is often envisioned that humans could return to a simpler, more rural way of life and thereby live a more environmentally friendly existence. This is not only unrealistic, but in examining the numbers it becomes clear just what a predicament our human population growth has put us in.

First let’s consider the raw numbers regarding human impact on the planet and see where that leaves us. There are about 57,500,000 square miles of land available on the entire surface of the earth. There are also about 6,671,226,000 people on the planet as of July 2007. A simple calculation shows that this results in about 116 people per square mile on the entire surface of the earth.

Performing various calculations will show that each person has about 240,331 square feet available to them, or a square of 490 feet on a side. To get a sense of this, the amount of space available is slightly larger than four (4) football fields (360 ft. x 160 ft.) joined together.

This may seem like a lot of room, but then we have to remember that these numbers include the entire land surface of the earth which includes Antarctica, the Sahara desert, and Mount Everest. Scaling these numbers back to address arable land, we find that only about 21%, or 12,000,000 square miles is usable at present. This would render our initial area of land to less than a single football field per person.

To avoid discussions about arable land being reclaimed, or the role of forests, or any other exceptions, let’s use the original 4+ football fields for our discussion even though it would be totally unrealistic.

Consider that this amount of land would have to provide all of our food, such as fruits and vegetables, living quarters, garbage disposal, and whatever food is required for any animals we may keep. With respect to animals, I’m not considering pets, but rather livestock animals that would also be used for food. This would be a self-contained six (6) acres of land on which to live.

Bearing in mind that this presumes that all of the land surface is usable, then this would also mean that there are no forests, deserts, mountains, etc which would be set aside to contain other types of wildlife or food.

So from the perspective of total population and total land availability, things are not looking particularly good for a “return”.

Let’s also consider that we currently share the planet with approximately:

1.5 billion cows
15.8 billion chickens
1 billion pigs
75 million horses
300 million dogs
200 million cats

These animals clearly represent a miniscule range of animals necessary to maintain life on planet Earth, but they are mentioned only to illustrate some significant values that are a direct result of human intervention. Just to reiterate, let’s remember that these animals must also live on our 6 acre parcel with us.

Let’s also consider other aspects of this “return to the land” perspective. Without getting into details, this would involve giving up most of the technology we’ve come to take for granted. You may wonder why this would be necessary, but it becomes relatively easy to see that if people were living off the land, then there wouldn’t be the means available to build nor maintain a large technological infrastructure. Who could afford to sacrifice time from growing food and taking care of themselves and their animals to work an additional 40+ hours a week at some central location miles from their home.

For those that insist that we can have both worlds, let’s consider that when we eliminate the hours for sleeping, we have approximately 112 hours available per week. If we assume 2 hours commuting time per day and 40 hours of work, then we only have 62 hours available to work at home. Since raising crops and cattle won’t occur by themselves, we have to consider how much of that remaining 62 hours would be available for such purposes.

In addition, we have to consider how much of our time would be devoted to providing for our energy needs, since without a large technical infrastructure all of our individual requirements would have to be satisfied by what we have on hand. This doesn’t address other issues such as fresh water availability, economics, national defense, etc. although each of these would present its own set of problems that must be accommodated within the structure we’ve established.

If we add to this the fact that most people lack the most fundamental knowledge to raise crops, raise animals, and live by themselves, it becomes a relatively straightforward conclusion that a “return to the land” isn’t feasible and can’t occur.

What most people forget when they imagine living off the land, is that with a significantly smaller human population there were lots of resources available and given smaller communities, the ability to trade skills and help each other was possible. The rise of the human population didn’t occur because we were self-sufficient, but rather because we developed huge technical infrastructures and support systems that allowed large populations to survive when they would have otherwise died out. This link is not accidental, but is fundamental to human survival. Getting back to a simpler way of living isn’t going to be achieved by wishing for it, but it can be approached if we begin by curtailing our reproductive proclivities and start to recognize the world is a finite place and cannot support nor sustain infinite demands.

Sources:
hyptertextbook.com/facts/2001/DanielChen.shtml
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth#Hydrosphere
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arable_land
David, Leonard “Planet’s Population Hit 6.5 Billion Saturday” Live Science, February 24, 2006
news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/12/1209_051209_crops_map.html
www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/holycow/index.html