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Willie Maartens

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A problem of sustainability.


“Amazing as it may seem, the entire population of the world can be housed in the US state of Texas,” reports Vitality magazine (in 2001). According to the article, the United Nations’ estimate of the world’s current population is about six billion people (6 x 109), and Texas has a land area of some 62.000 square miles [680.000 sq km]. The amount of living space per person would therefore be more than 1,217 square feet [113 sq m]. “A family of 5 would thus occupy more than 6,085 square feet [565 sq m] of living space. Even in Texas, that’s a mansion,” says Vitality. “Meanwhile, the rest of the world would be completely empty, available for all of mankind’s agricultural, manufacturing, educational, and recreational activities!”


Fair enough, Vitality magazine makes the valid point that there should be enough land to go around if it is distributed fairly amongst everybody. That is, 695.622 km2 ÷ (6 x 109 people) = 115,94 m2/person (or 10,77 x 10,77 metre).


Obviously, this is unrealistic because land (living space) is not the only issue here. We also have to consider the air we breathe, the energy we consume, and the water we need just to survive – I am not even mentioning our quality of life. Then there is also our waste to consider. Furthermore, there is our real need to work – and not too far from where we stay either. Transport is expensive.


We only need to look at our present overpopulated urban areas with its smog, energy consumption/waste, and water quality degradation. Consider the filth too – our waste!


Humans also need very expensive ancillary services to live, e.g. medical services, education, security, etc. Moreover, as our needs are met, they keep on increasing (Maslow’s hypothesis).


To return to our Texas example again, let us consider seabirds (say gannets). Now, gannets return to some islands every year to procreate – the rest of the year they survive precariously out at sea.


Gannets are packed in on their islands like our world population in Texas. Luckily they need no transport and therefore also no roads – they fly. They also need no other services; it is only the bare necessities – food and water for them. They also never ask for more.


But still, these gannets have to go and get food everyday and Sunday to survive. The food sources (fish) must therefore be sufficient and also near enough.


If the island reaches its maximum capacity the excess birds need to look for another island near an adequate food supply. If the food supply dwindle, or get depleted, the gannets must move or die. If there is no satisfactory alternative the gannets’ population will quickly decrease to a level that is sustainable.


Predators will also take the sick, the weak, the indigent, and so help to keep the gannet population firmly in check.


This is the way that nature manages its resources and ensures the long-term survival of all species. When we, humans, were still primitive hunter-gatherers, we lived exactly the same way – within nature's strictly set margins.


We have no natural predators and we have big brains. So we ‘improved’ our situation to the detriment of all other wild creatures. Domesticated pets are excluded – they have other serious problems.


I can but echo some of Chief Seattle’s (circa 1786 –1866), he was a leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Native American tribes in what is now the US state of Washington, famous words:


“Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.


“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.


“One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.


“Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone!


“Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.” 


If these things do not matter to us, we each deserve to life in two cubic metre containers with pipes pumping sustenance into our very bodies and tubes carrying our wastes away – maybe something like in the movie The Matrix (1999)!

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Reviewed by Regis Auffray 2/20/2009
If these things do not matter to us, we each deserve to life in two cubic metre containers with pipes pumping sustenance into our very bodies and tubes carrying our wastes away – maybe something like in the movie The Matrix (1999)!

You make some powerfully apt and timely points in this article, Willie. Thank you. Love and peace,

Reviewed by Regino Gonzales, Jr. 5/5/2008
A splendid presentation indeed. The point, "What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered?" is relevant in my country (Philippines) where the water buffalo is slaughtered for its meat after having served as farm beast of burden.

Many thanks for the write Willie.


Reviewed by Irina Karstein 9/10/2007
Great article.

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