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A Lot of People

I took a trip to the beach last weekend. I didn’t take any reading material and purposefully did not connect to the internet. I had an old-fashioned, sun-drenched, lazy, do-nothing, escape. I sat under an umbrella on two of the most perfect days I’ve ever had, and wordlessly watched the waves roll into the sand while people frolicked and relaxed.  The pounding surf, constant breeze, and roasting sun kept reminding me of the enormous scale of energy that ma nature really is. The strand wasn’t crowded and people seemed so small in comparison. How can we have such an influence over this giant planet, I asked myself rhetorically.

I thought, 7 billion of us – that’s a big number. So how many could pack into a square meter, maybe a little uncomfortably, but not as bad as say, a passenger train in India? I decided 4 was a good number.  Four persons per square meter translates to 1,750 square kilometers of people on the earth. No freaking way, I thought. I did this simple calculation with a dried plant stem in the sand four times before I satisfied myself I didn’t make some stupid error with powers of ten.

Let’s just put that in perspective, I said to myself: how many square kilometers are visible looking out at the ocean? I estimated the visible distance to the horizon to be 10 km (a rough calculator for this called Young’s method actually says that with my eyes about 4 meters above the water, I should be able to see approximately 8 km), so a half a pie of ocean from my vantage point on the sand covered only about 160 square km.  That’s not even 1/10 of the 1,750. So staring out at the water, if all that undulating liquid were people scrunched together like the crowd at a music festival, I’d only be looking at 1/10 of the population of the earth?

I know there are psychological factors and perspective issues that affect my perception, but holy shit people, that is a LOT of us. I still can’t wrap my mind around it. I remember saying at a young age on one of our family trips to the beach, “So THIS is how big the earth is!” I guess I still see the ocean horizon as a measuring stick.

It is a big earth, but we’re starting to outgrow it. Is it really too much to ask that we think about such things as “how many plastic bottles do I need to use in one day,” or “how much soap, or fertilizer, or pesticide, or herbicide do I NEED to dump into our eco-system,” or “how much energy could I save if I tried?”

I asked a “conservative”-minded colleague once, why would you want to waste ANYTHING? His answer: “Because we can.” I kid you not. Aren’t we smart enough to manage our resources? Aren’t we strong enough to keep our addictive urges in check? Don’t we have a sense of propriety, respect and appreciation for the bounty that we have? Don’t we want to leave our grandkids a better world than the one we inherited?

I wish everyone could take a trip to the beach and clear her/his head of all the manufactured and real stresses of life. I wish everyone the pleasure of strolling in the soft, wet surf with only sand (not plastic waste) between your toes.

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