How Many Square Feet in a Square Mile?

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I was in my junior year of physics, and one of my professors laughed as he shared an old article in his thick, Eastern European accent. It was one of those articles  talking about how we are all going to run out of space if the population keeps increasing.

The article read something like this.

There are 200 million square miles on the earth. There are 4 billion people on the planet. That means there is only 250 square feet per person!

This is shocking! 250 square feet isn’t enough to even build a house. If you have an average household of 4 people, then those who have houses larger than 1,000 square feet are taking more than their fair share.

Of course, their math was wrong. There are 5,280 feet per mile, or 5,280 × 5,280 square feet per square mile. That’s 27,878,400 square feet per mile. If there are 200 million square miles, then there are 6,000,000,000,000,000 square feet of land on the earth. That leaves about 1,000,000 square feet or land per person on the earth.

A similar mistake is made by Scientific American, of all places. (link) Trying to predict when we will run out of things, they make such bold prophecies. The problem is that none of this can possible be true. Thanks to the power of free markets, we are all but guaranteed an inexhaustible supply of resources. Provided, of course, that we allow the free market to work.

The way it works is this. If there is a shortage of a useful commodity, then the price will rise according to the shortage. As the price rises, people stockpile and protect the supply in hopes of future profits. This alone will ensure that we’ll always have the commodity available in one form or another to those who truly need it.

But something else happens, something that Adam Smith underestimated. That thing is innovation. As the prices rise, the incentive to find a replacement commodity or reduce our dependence on the commodity increases. Eventually, innovation will come to bear on the problem, and we’ll find ways to either more efficiently use the limited resource or find something else that solves the same problem.

Let’s suppose that we really are running out of oil. Forget, for a moment, whether or not the earth is creating oil and whether or not there is any oil yet to be discovered, and ignore all the oil that we know about but don’t want to spend the money to extract yet. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend oil is actually being used up and we’ll actually run out.

One thing that will happen immediately is the real price of oil will increase. This will cause people all over the world to use less of it. If some government wants to subsidize the oil in their country, that is fine, the country will simply have to find a place to fig up the cash to do so—likely from the same people who buy the oil.

The commodities market will react by stockpiling reserves. If we know for certain that oil is going to run out, then whoever has oil when it runs out will be a very, very rich man. This will further deplete the amount of oil available for consumption today, but will make oil available in the future. This will further drive the price up.

With the price of oil shooting through the roof, people who rely on oil will begin investing their time and resources into finding real alternatives. Whoever discovers a way to replace oil will make a handsome profit from it. And with the innovation, we won’t need oil anymore.

Unfortunately for alarmists, the earth has enough and to spare. This is because it is a creation of a loving God and not a random event. All the resources of the earth are there for us to use wisely for our benefit. And there is plenty for everyone, as long as we are willing to live according to the laws of Nature and not of man. There is enough land, water, food, and minerals for everything we need.

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11 Responses to “How Many Square Feet in a Square Mile?”

  1. demo kid Says:

    There are 200 million square miles on the earth. There are 4 billion people on the planet. That means there is only 250 square feet per person!</blockquote?

    What is the source of this Scientific American quote? Seems like the problem isn't just your conversion trick, since only 57 million square miles of the Earth is land.

    Likewise, this straw-man distraction takes away from some very serious concerns about overpopulation, urban development, etc. I severely doubt that many people would care to live in the mountains, or in the middle of deserts, in Antarctica / north of the Arctic Circle, and so forth. Population growth also doesn't just require a 1,000 square foot house; it requires the supporting land for agriculture, infrastructure, commerce, etc. Further, the places where humans are inclined to build are also the places which are of the most use for ecological / environmental systems: along rivers and coastlines, within floodplains, in valleys, etc.

    A similar mistake is made by Scientific American, of all places. (link) Trying to predict when we will run out of things, they make such bold prophecies. The problem is that none of this can possible be true. Thanks to the power of free markets, we are all but guaranteed an inexhaustible supply of resources. Provided, of course, that we allow the free market to work.

    The ludicrous belief that God just happened to provide for all of the oil needs of human civilization is amusing, but not worthy of debate. With respect to worshipping at the altar of free markets… I don’t disagree that the free markets are a powerful motivator and can come up with good solutions, but assuming that it will ALWAYS come up with a good solution to avoid chaos and disruption is insanely optimistic.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      The ludicrous belief that God just happened to provide for all of the oil needs of human civilization is amusing, but not worthy of debate.

      Then why are you debating it?

      I don’t disagree that the free markets are a powerful motivator and can come up with good solutions, but assuming that it will ALWAYS come up with a good solution to avoid chaos and disruption is insanely optimistic.

      What are the limiting factors? That is, when do free markets fail? I can’t seem to find any indication of human freedom being a bad thing, as long as it is tempered with personal morality.

  2. demo kid Says:

    What are the limiting factors? That is, when do free markets fail? I can’t seem to find any indication of human freedom being a bad thing, as long as it is tempered with personal morality.

    You yourself have pointed out that the free market is BASED on greed and self-interest, and not on any sort of personal morality. In fact, one can argue that any economic actor in the market that exercises “personal morality” is at a disadvantage. For many business relationships, this may even violate fiduciary responsibilities.

    Likewise, externalities and disequilibria are great examples of where markets fail. Care to get into that discussion?

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I’d gladly get into that discussion. Warren Buffet, the top investor in the history of the world, has pointed out that unless individuals within the free market act with honesty, there can be no free market. Others have pointed out how personal morality is a critical factor for the existence of free markets. Those who engage in activities that exemplify personal morality and eschew personal corruption are always rewarded in free markets, in the long or short term.

      Externalities are addressed through free markets. That’s why markets agree to self-regulation. One of the greatest experiments in self-regulation, the United States federal government, has been a dramatic example of that success. In the software world, it is a tremendous statement to the benefit of free markets in how free (as in freedom) software is developed, distributed, and maintained. Linux could not exist were it not for a free market where people could buy and sell software at whatever price they choose–even if that price is zero dollars.

      Disequilibria is a temporary problem that is naturally solved through the free markets. It is amazing that you would use this as an example of failure of the free market, when it is the driving reason behind Adam Smith’s advocacy of the free market. After all, you cannot have an equilibrium between buyers and sellers unless they are free to buy and sell at any price they choose.

  3. tensor Says:

    Those who engage in activities that exemplify personal morality and eschew personal corruption are always rewarded in free markets, in the long or short term.

    Mr. Buffet invested in tobacco companies because, he said, an addictive drug would tend to have customers. He eagerly profited from the pain, suffering, misery, and premature deaths of thousands upon thousands of his fellow human beings. He quit only when the Clinton Administration (and the Democrats who then controlled Congress) began to examine the tobacco industry, with an eye toward saving American lives.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      Not everyone is perfect. Over time, I am sure Warren Buffet grew as a person and has come to understand that by profiting off of other’s addictions he was really hurting himself. If he hadn’t supported those tobacco companies, then there would be many more people alive today contributing in our economy.

  4. ib Says:

    there are way more than 5280 feet in a mile that is foolish for you to think this think again durrrrrrrr

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I surely hope you realize you are ignorant of basic facts. I’ll allow you to look up how many feet are in a mile by yourself, and when you realize your mistake, I’ll allow you to be a gentlemen and apologize for insinuating I am retarded. When you do so, I’ll think much more highly of you than I do now. I know I am capable of making basic mistakes. My strength is that I am willing to learn, not that I am perfect, because I am not.

  5. STEVE KNEALE Says:

    Can you tell me how many square miles would be needed to fit 7 billion people if each person had 4 square feet of space ?

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      5,280 feet in mile means 5,280*5,280 square feet in a square mile. Each square mile would hold 6,969,600 people at 4 square feet per person. There are about 7 billion people on earth, so only 1,000 square miles would be needed. That is, an area of 100 miles x 100 miles.

      For comparison, the surface area of the earth is 196,940,000 sq mi of which 57,510,000 is land. You could give everyone about 230,000 square feet and that’s just land.

      Finally, I wish to impress upon your mind the significance of a number like 230,000. You may be able to conceptualize 10, or maybe even 100. At about 1,000, our mind can’t do it anymore. 1,000 might as well be infinite to our minds. So we invent an abstraction — 1,000 is just 10 of these 100 blocks, for instance. 10,000 is far beyond our ability to comprehend without abstraction, and 100,000 is ten times that. When you start multiplying numbers like these, our minds simply cannot appreciate it anymore.

      A good example of this is the fact that we don’t log forests along highways anymore. People think that we’ve stopped logging altogether because they can drive all over our beautiful state and never, ever see a logging area. What they don’t realize is that we’re logging more than ever, because between the highways are vast tracts of lands that are almost impossible to conceptualize. And that’s just in Washington State.

  6. Sandyb Says:

    Say it simply. Every human on earth, given four square feet to stand in, would fit into Rhode Island, which is about 100 square miles. And that is enough people to change the climate, absurd.

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