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Spreading The Wealth In A Post-Oil World

By Peter Goodchild

14 February, 2011

“Spreading the wealth” is not much of a solution for anything. The unequal distribution of resources is real, admittedly: the average inhabitant of the US consumes far more than the average inhabitant of India or China. Nevertheless, if all the world’s resources were evenly distributed, the result would only be universal poverty. In particular, if all of the world’s arable land were distributed evenly, in the absence of mechanized agriculture each person on the planet would still have an inadequate amount of farmland for survival: distribution would have accomplished very little. Quite obviously, inadequate farmland in turn means inadequate food.

The basic arithmetic is as follows. A hard-working (i.e. farming) adult burns about 1 million kilocalories (“calories”) per year. The food energy from a hectare of corn grown with “low technology” (i.e., the near-future world of declining fossil fuels) is about 9 million kilocalories (Pimentel, 1984). Under primitive conditions, then, 1 hectare of corn would support only 9 people. Those figures are rather idealistic, however. We are assuming that people will follow a largely vegetarian diet; if not, they will need much more land. We need to allow for fallow land, cover crops, and green manure, for inevitable inequities in distribution, and for other uses of the land. We must account for any rise in population. Finally, most other crops require more land than corn in order to produce the same yield. On a global scale, a far more realistic ratio would be 4 people to each hectare of arable land.

In the entire world there are now about 15 million km2 of arable land (Bot, Nachtergaele, & Young, 2000; CIA, 2010). This is about 10 percent of the world’s total land area. The present world population (in 2010) is approaching 7 billion. Dividing the figure for population by that for arable land, we see that there are about 470 people per km2 of arable land. On a smaller scale that means about 5 people per hectare, more than the above-mentioned ideal ratio of 4:1. In fact, most of the world’s 200-odd countries have more than 7 people per hectare; these countries, in other words, are already beyond the limits of the number of people who can be supported by non-mechanized agriculture. Even the UK, for example, has a population-to-arable ratio of slightly more than 10 people per hectare; what exactly is going to happen to the 6 people who will not fit onto the hectare? But many countries have far worse ratios.


Bot, A. J., Nachtergaele, F.O., & Young, A. (2000). Land resource potential and constraints at regional and country levels. World Soil Resources Reports 90. Rome: Land and Water Development Division, FAO. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/ag/agl/agll/terrastat/

CIA. World factbook. (2010). US Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook

Pimentel, D. (1984). Energy flows in agricultural and natural ecosystems. CIHEAM (International Centre for Advanced Mediterranean Agronomic Studies). Retrieved from http://www.ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/s07/c10841.pdf

Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians, published by Chicago Review Press. His email address is odonatus {at} live.com.




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