If the world’s population lived like…

Shortly after I started Per Square Mile, I produced an infographic that showed how big a city would have to be to house the world’s 7 billion people. There was a wrinkle, though—the city’s limits changed drastically depending on which real city it was modeled after. If we all lived like New Yorkers, for example, 7 billion people could fit into Texas. If we lived like Houstonians, though, we’d occupy much of the conterminous United States.

Here’s that infographic one more time, in case you haven’t seen it:

The world's population, concentrated

What’s missing from it is the land that it takes to support such a city. In articles and comments about my infographic, some people overlooked that aspect—either mistakenly or intentionally. They shouldn’t have. Cities’ land requirements far outstrip their immediate physical footprints. They include everything from farmland to transportation networks to forests and open space that recharge fresh water sources like rivers and aquifers. And more. Just looking at a city’s geographic extents ignores its more important ecological footprint. How much land would we really need if everyone lived like New Yorkers versus Houstonians?

It turns out that question is maddeningly difficult to answer. While some cities track resource use, most don’t. Of those that do, methodologies vary city to city, making comparisons nearly impossible. Plus, cities in most developed nations still use a shocking amount of resources, regardless of whether they are as dense as New York or as sprawling as Houston. Any comparison of the cities in my original infographic would be an exercise in futility at this point.

But what we can do is compare different countries and how many resources their people—and their lifestyles—use. For countries, the differences are far, far greater than for cities. Plus, there’s a data set that allows for reliable comparisons—the National Footprint Account from the Global Footprint Network. Their methodology is based on peer-reviewed research by Mathias Wackernagel, the organization’s founder. It’s consistent and comprehensive. Each country’s footprint is assembled from sub-footprints, ranging from cropland to carbon to urbanization to fishing grounds. For my purposes, I used only terrestrial sub-footprints. I’ll let the results speak for themselves.

If the world's population lived like...

Sources:

Global Footprint Network. 2011. National Footprint Accounts, 2011 Edition.

Wackernagel, M., Kitzes, J., Moran, D., Goldfinger, S. & Thomas, M. (2006). The Ecological Footprint of cities and regions: comparing resource availability with resource demand, Environment and Urbanization, 18 (1) 112. DOI: 10.1177/0956247806063978

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  1. That is very telling, isn’t it? I can assume the differences between, say, the UAE and the USA, but I don’t understand the difference between Uganda and India. Assuming that the standard of living in India is better than Uganda, would that point to a better resource utilization in India than Uganda? I guess I need to understand what goes into determining a country’s footprint. Could you do a post about that?

    1. about 2/3 of india eats none or very limited animal/fish-mainly a plant/rice and pulse based diet-hence a lower carbon footprint/per capita consumption-long live the hippies!

  2. About half of the footprint is from CO2 emissions, and almost all of the footprint growth since 1960 has been CO2 emissions. If we can stop CO2 pollution, our global footprint will be within the world’s boicapacity.

    1. Easy fix replace the trees and plants that asphalt and cement replaced and all tbe rainforest that has been destroyed because the so called brillant people and politicians are impotentt. By the way CO2 is a very stable gas.

  3. Awesome analysis, but I’m disappointed by the graphics for the earth usage once it is greater than 1. Maybe start filling in the oceans? Or show 5.4 maps? Something needs to be done to make the graphics more comparable and not start using numbers. People respond viscerally to figures better than numbers. Show 1.1 globes and they’ll better appreciate the differences…

    1. No, reason #1 we need to get real about resource use. How many million Earth’s resources would it take to launch us all to Mars? Then we’d screw that one up too.

  4. Here is a further eye-opening population infographic called “‘Too-late’ population conditions in environments that remain 99.998% unoccupied” The tiny white dot in the image depicts, in a proportionally-correct way, three actual, classical, real-world examples of population climb-and-collapse die-offs (and/or even worse mass mortalities) in environments that are approximately 2/1000ths of 1% occupied, and which, visually-speaking, appear to remain almost entirely empty.

    In all three classical, quintessential, real-world examples that the image portrays, if the scholars and leaders of such populations had WAITED until the depicted 2/1000ths of 1% conditions developed, they would have already waited “too-long” – for the collapses, die-offs, and mortalities would have, by the point in time depicted, already begun.

    The image is accessible at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pali_nalu/7320694246/in/photostream

  5. Great graphic. This is why we need to talk more about resource efficiency and less about climate change. As a race, we are living beyond our means. The planet is finite and we are 7 billion and growing. It’s hard for any pressure group, however generously it is funded, to contradict those statistics. If we thought the economic crash was painful, the resource crash we face will make it look insignificant. There were some surprises here for me – Costa Rica, for example. And I wonder how many planets we’d need if we all lived like UK? Thought-provoking stuff.

  6. No doubt this type of analysis enhances our knowledge on demographic dynamism that occurring across the world. Population increase since the time of Malthus has been non-stop but there is large variation by region and of course the increase has been determined by the choice of the mothers/women they enjoy in their respective countries. There is no fault of the population or they cannot be charged for their reproductive or fertility behavior as their economic, cultural and social makeup varies by region.The 160 million population of poor Bangladesh cramped in only 56000 squire mile will not stop here tomorrow to grow but projections say that this growth will not stabilize until 2050 when the population will reach to about 250 million. The size was in 1974 was nearly 75 million. This growth cannot be compared with any DEVELOPED country or CITY STATES like Singapore, Hongkong, Macao etc. The Government of the country has little concern about this exponential size except some statements on specific Day observation. There is strong lack of political commitment and responsible efforts to execute meaningful family planning program. The only hope is the international community’s benevolent activities which again is dependent on govt policy strategies. Seventy five million lived in the same land space, 160 million living on less than that land space and 250 million will live perhaps on further reduced land space. Poverty will increase, wealth will be concentrated into few privileged group. Year after year will read statistics and express worry but of no avail. What is needed a special UN body to deal with the THIRD WORLD population prioritizing DEVELOPMENT to focus on the poor community not when people will take care of their own behavior. POVERTY IS THE FIRST OBSTACLE TO ANY PROGRESS. Without addressing poverty any other sermon or advice would go in vain. National Governments in the poor countries are less interested to work like the governments of the developed countries. If the world is a global village then why parts of the village should stay neglected. UNFPA and other organizations are now behaving like traditional institutions like all bureaucrats do. Lets work for a paradigm shift where wars between nations will transform to alleviate poverty, governments will chalkout demonstrated schemes to eradicate poverty not by simply drawing MDG for fixed term projects. POverty cannot be elevated by protecting the cause of poverty. Thanks
    Sincerely
    Khalilur Rahman
    a former USAID-funded population project staff in Dhaka Bangladesh

    1. I would like to kindly counter this claim that poverty is priority one and the first obstacle to progress, because contemporary poverty is most often the result of a population being out of balance with the carrying capacity of it’s environment, and this is most often the result of misguided caloric benevolence — First World countries pouring food into Third World areas, creating a further population imbalance.

      For my money, the priority is regaining balance between human populations and the carrying capacity of the world. The most intelligent and kindest way of doing this is to cap food production.

      But any measure intended to restore that balance would most certainly be seen as cruel by the poor, barbaric by “humanitarians” and unthinkable to those whose affluence rests on the sale of food.

      Yet, as Daniel Quinn has pointed out so many times, the Food Race is futile and will ultimately result in a level of poverty and cruelty the likes of which we are hardly capable of imagining.

      It is easy to see that a world in balance is most sustainable and offers the greatest potential for a quality of life and contentment, and it is easy to see that a paltry number of people see the importance of sacrificing for such an ideal.

      1. Don’t you think population will peak,then begin a fairly rapid decline, in or around 2050, based solely on the demographics of population change (i.e., assuming no calamitous event(s))?

        Caloric benevolence – well coined, and well analyzed.

  7. Interesting work sir!

    I wasn’t sure, but to what extent have you taken into account “useable” land? As I understand it, India has 88% fertile land, China 24%, Australia 4% for instance.

    Just a quick note on one comment below though, there is actually no such thing as “smart growth” – this is a deceptive term that seeks to obscure the fact that it is still growth – and all growth is by definition the consumption of more and more resources – it should not be mistaken for the intention to use resources more wisely but that’s what is implied. Only with stable populations do per-capita reductions in consumption really start making in-roads – mother nature measures total impact.

    I’m not personally diametrically opposed to growth within reason – but the recognition of when we need to stop is what’s clearly lacking. The growthists are a sneaky, sneaky bunch. Keep an eye out for other nonsense demographic arguments in the guise of ageing population, skills shortages and stagnation also.

  8. very interesting indeed.
    I assume we wish every earthling a life on a western level of wealth. If we want to live like an average american, we need an other planet or four.
    So why nor try to live like the Dutch. Our average density is 5950 inhabitants per square kilometer. I get the impression this compares to a land like India.. Yet i consider myself to be a very fortunate person, like most of my fellow countrymen. On average the Dutch rate their contentment at a striking 8 out of 10.

    1. The second series of maps, to which I think you’re referring, aren’t just about population density—they’re about resource use. And by that measure, the Netherlands fares more poorly than France (about 6 ha/person, as opposed to about 5 ha/person for France). India, on the other hand, is about 0.9 ha/person.

  9. Nothing more gravely important or universally ignored than the matter of population and homo sapiens sapiens’ relationship to food.

    Blindly the world strives toward the noble goal of consuming like Americans. Foolishly, America still thinks that this will be a good thing. Fabricated, fleeting human economics trump the immutable economics of the biosphere.

    APPEAL

    Have the mountains heard my appeal?
    Will they give it consideration?
    Will they bring it to the High Counsel?
    Will they agree to act accordingly?
    Will their efforts prove victorious?
    So many questions

    I trust the wisdom of the High Counsel
    There is no greater coalition
    And only forces at their disposal
    Are great enough to turn the tide

    But will the Counsel act with swiftness?
    Their legendarily patient diplomacy may be a liability
    Since time is of the essence
    And each day brings new waves of destruction

    The Counsel has wisdom that far surpasses my own
    And if they decide to act they will decide the time
    But my wisdom says that now is the time to act
    And my wisdom says that intervention is urgent

    Further delay lessens the chances for all
    As one species works feverishly
    And in incurable oblivion
    To diminish Life’s crowning achievement;
    Diversity

  10. Can the human race behave more altruistically than selfishly? On might say, regarding the problem of a shrinking Earth, that altruism and selfishness could be the same. Most humans no longer have to kill wild animals or beat off other tribes to thrive but we still carry those genes and they still affect our behavior. Even now countries prepare for war and seek economic domination. I’m not trying to disparage y’all. I just don’t know what can be done.

  11. “Cities’ land requirements far outstrip their immediate physical footprints.” They may do, now, but who says it’s an unchanging truth? Only if one sees resources as both static and physical. Physical resources are both open to technical efficiencies – although the total amount used can still go up – and that is where resource substitution- coal for wood, uranium/deuterium for coal/gas – comes in. Both resouces ‘improvements’ require the most valueable an unlimited resouce – human beings and their ingenuity.

    With more people we have more brain power to develop physical resources and also transform the physical planet (and beyond…and with nuclear level techniques ‘at the botton’ as Feynman once said). Of course people need to have more than basic levels of material well being before some of us can be Einsteins, Watts or Newtons, but once they have it there will be many more brains to sort out any future resource problems.

    What I really object to these 1.1x,5.5x predictions even more than their simplistic reduction of future development to what we have in technological and cultural terms in 2012 – is that by far the most pressing problem is to get Uganda etc up to at least China’s level of resource use NOW (and then to the USA level asap after and then beyond. We need to get our priorities right – sort out poverty and then worry about the planet if and when a problem really exists.

  12. Would be interesting to know how much land would be needed to support a world population that lived like the people of New York in 1950.

  13. A very thoughtful infographic.

    I wonder why you didn’t include developed countries that are doing it right in reducing their carbon footprint. My limited knowledge would assume Japan & Denmark fits that bill, but I’m not sure. So that we know who to model against probably?

    1. Thanks, Alia. I did calculate it for Denmark, and they come in at 3.76 Earths, or just below the United States. Ecological footprint numbers involve more than just carbon footprint, so addressing emissions will only get you so far.

  14. Great job, love the graphics. I would like to see you do this (The Graphics) going back in time, as much as is possible using available statistics. Say. USA, France, Germany, England, Switzerland in 1850, 1900, 1920,1950,1970,1980,1990 and so on, so as to show the effect of technological innovation and what effect that has on the graphics as technology progresses over time.

  15. Tracey Rawling Church

    “Great graphic. This is why we need to talk more about resource efficiency and less about climate change”.
    Response:
    “resource efficiency”, If meaning “maximizing economy” and utilizing more of a resource that would otherwise be lost.
    And if that entails beginning with market based technologies that are in existence or can be put on line in a decade or so. Say for example: An ipod app that manages irrigation use. Or an Ipod app that can be connected to ones home heating or cooling thermostat and actually save the user significant money.
    Because to me and many like me terms like “climate change” is just a new term for “Global Warming” which brings up terms like “Climate-Gate” and “East Angelica” which in-turn bring up other terms like “Hoax” and “Political Power Grab”. I know this will not likely go well with many of the posters here but I think that that proves my point which is that the left wing ideology that is connected to the above terms makes for political divisiveness which only leads to gridlock. And gridlock if your side is correct is something we all can not afford. Thankfully for us all if your right, being good stewards of our resources is not only popular with the masses as they want to save money and thus have more. If on the other-hand the whole “climate change” argument is as I suspect a hoax made up by the politically and corporally well positioned(Say, GE and the like which could make a killing on “carbon credits” or a similar schema.) to take advantage of the good will of smart but sometimes gullible people,than we are not worse off and perhaps we are even a bit richer for it.
    What I am trying to say is this can be like organic foods and enjoy support from right and left alike or it can be like Abortion, Fractional Reserve Banking, or Food Stamps. That is up to us.

  16. Chris Koch

    “For my money, the priority is regaining balance between human populations and the carrying capacity of the world. The most intelligent and kindest way of doing this is to cap food production.”

    By “kindest” you of course mean letting poor people starve to death. That is evil!

  17. I did a similar calculation a couple years ago to see if everyone could live naturally, that is, outdoors, in the tropics eating a frugivorous diet. It turns out that the world’s population could live very well in 1/10 of the area of Brazil.

    So much for the population crisis. As your NYC/Houston distinction indicates, our crisis lies in our *way of life*.

  18. I’m a little confused by this one. I guess I don’t understand what you’re basing it on & how “terrestrial sub-footprints” take up space (mostly because I don’t understand exactly what that is).

    My take away is this: we need the whole world in order to successfully hold the whole world. And I’m fine with that.

  19. I’m a bit surprised by Nepal’s position in that ranking. It’s a tiny country, not nearly as developed as India and yet your infographic indicates that if we all lived like the Nepalese did, we’d have a bigger footprint than that of India?

  20. Thanks,
    First for the straight forward presentation of the message you intend to convey,
    And secondly for being awake as well as thoughtfully alert. This nation and world is in desperate need while most, seem tone either asleep or have buried their heads in the sand in order they might not see or hear what they obviously know and fear. The, later, chicken shit spineless cowards I haven’t the time or patience to bother with. If ever they get mad enough to face the real world I hope they can catch up, but for those men and women in blissful slumber I feel a moral responsibility requiring these, to be awakened, thereby giving each, the , to decide weather,they wish to be responsible adults, or continue as the ,selfish children, the majority seemingly, wishes left ignorant, unknowing, unconcerned, and in plesent perfect slumber, as is to be. I wonder how long it will take before, this slumbering condition, is no longer possible, is inevatably , by an earthquake from the real world, haveing givin rise to a sunomi, washing houses, couches, families, and ourselves into oblivion, as this will be, forever late, for resonable actions and answers, and dog eat dog , be ultimately, in affect. awake all humanity, will ultimittly be as reality, takes a bite, out of the ass of mankind. Let me stop before steping up onto the soapbox in unending tirade , only anouther thanks to you is due. Bryan Bowlin

  21. It’s time to drain the oceans. Just think of all that land down there waiting for us to start farming. Not to mention we’d finally find Amelia Earhart and Atlantis.

  22. Thanks for such a compelling illustration of population vs. land – and then consumption vs. planet(s). I’ve taught Environmental Citizenship and watched students’ reactions after calculating their ecological footprints – including shock, horror, and enormous frustration at not knowing how to reduce their North American footprints to something more sustainable. What we’re not discussing here is our globalized consumer culture which, even as we ponder these maps of our way-beyond-carrying-capacity lifestyles, compels us to shop, acquire, live on credit, assume debt for shopping is normal, upgrade everything as often as possible….and still not consider sustainable living to be a basic of what we need to learn. British filmmaker Adam Curtis calls our collective awareness while doing nothing about things, “Oh Dearism” – hand-wringing, and carrying on as usual. Meanwhile, the news tells us how well we’re doing at keeping up GDP and economic growth. Richard Heinberg wrote a good piece on the business of consumption-promotion on his blog which is an important reminder that we are not self-styled “consumers” – we were strongly acculturated into letting ourselves think of ourselves this way. http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/1786882-the-brief-tragic-reign-of-consumerism-and Changing our consumption patterns is what we need to do. Of fossil fuels, of meat-heavy diets, of endless stuff we don’t need, of made-to-break widgets, of food from far away, of all the many things we might consider enjoying doing for outselves (if only we weren’t so pressed to work, pay for things on credit, watch TV, and buy things that are “fast and easy” and make more time for TV-watching and shopping). Heinberg only gets as far as an alternative to GDP (inviting readers to consider “happiness” indices of well-being rather than money-spending ones) in this particular piece. But can we use these maps to see and understand (and maybe educate next generations about) what needs to change – and how to get changing things?
    Thanks again for making a part of our predicament more visual!

  23. Hahahahaha my efficient Bangladeshi ppl ▬ champions as always.

    It’s so true that we are the kindest to the earth, even with such a high population density.

    Everyone could learn a thing or two about being efficient from us.

  24. The thing you’re missing from your “if the world lived like” argument is that you’re only assuming they consume as much as the given country. What about production? The United States PRODUCES far more than most other countries. If “the world” was also as productive as the United States, it would have far more to consume as well.

  25. The world’s population, however, will decline by 2020, and rapidly. This will bring about it’s own upheaval and economic crises. No worries, you don’t have control over any of it, even though we try

  26. Isn’t this inherently biased if the country you’re comparing happens to be in an area with low resource density? It also doesn’t seem to take into account any kind of interconnectivity and resource sharing between nations that would necessarily reduce the “sub-footprint”. I’m not criticizing the source, I’m questioning your application of the data. For example the UAE occupies a desert land, and probably requires large areas to produce what could be produced in a much smaller area elsewhere. Does this map take that into account at all? Because the model theorizes if the human population were to use the UAE’s footprint, but perhaps their footprint is out of necessity and should they occupy more fertile land (as projected) they wouldn’t need nearly as much. Rendering the map useless for such a projection.

    The next obvious variable is resource consumption vs. trade. The U.S. consumes a lot, but it also produces more than it consumes in several industries. Does this map at all take into account excess production? It would have to be subtracted from overall need for supply since that over production is necessarily going to those people you claim need 3 more Earths to fit on.

    Another issue is population density vs. consumption. UAE and the US are both extremely low density population areas, which probably played a large factor in this graph, which would also render it inaccurate. Much of the US is quite habitable, just uninhabited and subsequently undeveloped. Does this model take into account that there is a massive amount of space and resources within the US that aren’t being utilized, purely out of economic reasons, because it’s cheaper to source elsewhere, than out of physical needs. This chart presumes physical and economic needs are the same. This is inaccurate, and many of those extra Earths could probably be sourced right out of the US and other locations that don’t fully utilize their space. The model doesn’t say if people lived as densely as the US, it’s a model about space NEEDED, and about 90% of the US isn’t currently needed and your model presumes it is.

    The final factor, which I’m sure you think is most important is wealth. Obviously more wealthy people can waste more resources. So this chart doesn’t just presume everyone is living together, it also presumes everyone is as wealthy as the average American or Arab in the Emirates. This is a completely different issue entirely unaccounted for in the model. If the whole world were this wealthy a multitude of projects could be created to vastly alter society and resource efficiency. This brings up one minor and final issue.

    The US having lots of wealth, but not a lot of people, has a massive infrastructure all across the nation, often just as draining on resources per square mile in uninhabited deserts as it is in dense urban neighborhoods, considering roads, phones, government employees, services, etc. The US does this to link the nation. It could add a massive amount of people to the interspace without needing nearly as much of an expansion of resources since main thoroughfares are already established. And I know your chart did not account for this at all, once again rendering it highly inaccurate. Since the chart is about resource consumption, and the US wastes resources in open spaces between population bodies, if you were to cram everyone together, the US’s comparative waste would massively decrease as its waste is circumstantial precisely due to population density conditions, this one variable alteration would instantly make the US (and UAE and elsewhere) far more efficient, shaving off some of those extra Earths supposedly needed.

    1. Wow…. I still think it was nice and makes people think, thats hard enuf to do now-a-days :-) I dont think you were going for your masters thesis here, so I doubt it matters if you took every single consideration out to the Nth degree….. AND the fact that you took a lot of time to put this together when the rest of us bums here are just throwing out our opinions as if they really matter….. Nice Job, it def. helps encourage/remind me to be more resourceful and less wasteful.

  27. First, very nice and informative. Definitely makes one think and appreciate what we have.

    It appears as if we humans do not live very wisely/frugally on this earth. We do take life and the earth’s and God’s abundance for granted, don’t we? It is also nice to see that unlike the current trend of always bashing America for all the worlds problems, that there are others on this earth who also waste and take for granted and need to wake up, not just us – fat, lazy, arrogant, creator of ALL the worlds problems, abusing, greedy Americans (Yes, i get tired of always hearing how terrible America is, yet every time there is a catastrophe, every one calls on or just expects the USA to be there helping ) we are ALL in this together, all contribute to the problem and can ALL contribute to the solution, finger pointing is just a waste of time and alienates everyone away from a unified solution. Anyways, i get sidetracked and vent, sorry. This should have people thinking about tomorrow and how we are in this together, like it or not and that we can create a solution….together, and enjoy life to the fullest….together, or we can just waste it all away and eliminate ourselves right off of the face of this beautiful earth….together :-)

    Look at the earth/life and appreciate it as if the glass is half full but prepare and live as if the glass is half empty.

    IDK, that is my $0.02 worth, thanks for the graphics.

  28. Interesting graphic which should make us all think, including think about what flaws there may be in it. I always remember that “there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics”.

    What this doesn’t consider is the role each country plays in the global economy. The U.S. economy uses a larger-than-average proportion of the world’s economy (to put it mildly) and it benefits more than just the US population. There is a difference between the population of the US and the population that benefits from the US economy. The US economy and its environmental footprint are supporting more people than the US population. The US is not a self-contained economy any more than the Fairfield county or Marin county is. The US is the rich, gated community of the world. It’s the world’s Silicon Valley, Marin County, Fairfield County, etc.