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How Many People Can Long Island Support

Just a quick thought on Jared Diamond's odd contention that Australia can only support half its current population. In total, Long Island in New York (which is to say the geographical island -- Kings, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties -- not the sociological island) currently contains 7.5 million people according to the US census department. Obviously, Long Island's natural resources cannot support anything close to that number of people. Nevertheless, we get by. Similarly, Manhattan's 1.5 million residents are not starving to death, notwithstanding the island's total lack of arable land or supplies of potable water.

January 6, 2005 | Permalink

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Tracked on Jan 6, 2005 11:52:43 PM

Comments

I assume the contention in either case would revolve around food production.

That's an ok assumption if you are a macrobiotic and don't think one should eat food outside one's immediate biome. Or it's an ok assumtion if for other reasons you don't believe in global trade in foodstuffs .

But for the rest of us, you make a good point.

Posted by: David Sucher | Jan 6, 2005 4:56:03 PM

"Similarly, Manhattan's 1.5 million residents are not starving to death, notwithstanding the island's total lack of arable land or supplies of potable water."

What the hell are you talking about? There's plenty of potable water in Manhattan.

The corner convenience store has 5 or 6 different brands of flat water alone.

Of course, personally I'm willing to schlep to D'Agostino's for Gerolsteiner. Now that's some potable water.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 6, 2005 5:01:49 PM

Um, you've got bridges and tunnels connecting Long Island and Manhattan to the rest of the US. Trucks bringing lots of stuff from Florida and Illinois can get there over the Whitestone Bridge or Midtown Tunnel, ya know?

And the bridge connecting Australia to anything else at all would be where exactly, Matthew?

I get Matthew's point, but, really, the comparison of Australia to Long Island is quite dumb.

Posted by: Al | Jan 6, 2005 5:02:11 PM

Also, why does Matthew exclude potable water that happens to come to Manhattan in a manmade tunnel? Why is that any different than potable water that comes in a nature-made river?

Posted by: Al | Jan 6, 2005 5:04:41 PM

Diamond seems to be of the opinion [1] that it's unwise for a nation to be dependent on global trade in order to supply its food (or, for that matter, timber.) The grounds would be that (1) a disruption in that trade or your trading partners would then put you in a very bad place and (2) the people you're getting it from probably aren't producing it sustainably, so such a disruption will eventually happen.

This argument makes considerably more sense in the distant-past setting of the first half of his book, when trade networks resemble long daisy-chains, than the modern age where they're approaching fully connected graphs.

[1] Not explictly stated so far; I've the last two chapters yet to go in reading the book, though.

Posted by: Jeff R. | Jan 6, 2005 5:07:44 PM

Matt,

I am an ecologist and population biologist with some familiarity with Australia. I agree with you that Diamond is probably underestimating the continent's carrying capacity. But not as much as you might imagine. Australia is dry (which is hard to fix) with very poor soils (not enough volcanoes). Over very long times, the soil fertility can be improved artificially.

Jared Diamond is a very highly respected biogeographer of birds around New Guinea. His Australia K claim may be wrong, but it is not uninformed. The most informed survey on the subject may be Table 11.1 in Joel Cohen's 1995 "How many People can the World Support". This table includes estimates from 10 Million to 480 million with a median of about 40 million. Diamond probably should have addressed this table if he wanted to follow the usual peer-review approach to science (in which you really are supposed to address real or potential problems with your theories rather than just pundit them out).

Posted by: patrick204 | Jan 6, 2005 5:09:29 PM

"Also, why does Matthew exclude potable water that happens to come to Manhattan in a manmade tunnel?"

The irony, of course, is that Manhattan is one of the few places on the planet where you can happily drink tap water even if you have enough money for bottled.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 6, 2005 5:10:53 PM

And both Australia and Manhattan will be fine as long as they can continue to import the things which support their otherwise unsupportable populations.

... The really scary implication comes when we scale the argument up one more level and start looking at the whole planet.

Posted by: JoXn Costello | Jan 6, 2005 5:16:30 PM

just so long as Manhattanites don't develop terminal goat scorn, they won't go the way of the Greenland Norse

Posted by: TJ | Jan 6, 2005 5:25:08 PM

"And both Australia and Manhattan will be fine as long as they can continue to import the things which support their otherwise unsupportable populations."

No need to import. Even if Gerolsteiner were no longer available, you could still buy domestic water like Poland Spring.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 6, 2005 5:33:45 PM

Has Diamond heard of oil? I understand its a blackish, liquedy kind of stuff that's extracted from the ground and used to power cars, trucks, boats, and planes, which I understand can be used to transport basic necessities to places that might otherwise be uninhabitable. Australia can comfortably support tens of millions more people than currently live there as long as there is a cheap source of energy to power the vehicles needed to resupply the place. The real question is how long we have before peak oil, and whether or not we can find a source or sources of energy cheap enough to replace oil before we plunge back into the stone age.

Posted by: Green Dem | Jan 6, 2005 5:34:04 PM

The average annual rainfall across the continent is only 10 inches a year. 90% of that falls within 50 k of the coast. The Murray-Darling river system, the largest in the country, is in crisis because of unsustainable levels of irrigation. The water supply for Sydney (not the worst effected city) is now down to 43.1% of capacity. Rainfall in Perth has declined by 26% since 1970.

Diamond's estimate is at the lower end of the range but there is certainly a consensus that water is a major long term problem.

Australia has an acute and chronic water shortage. There are no current plans to cure the problem by building a pipeline to either Manhattan or Long Island.

Posted by: Alan | Jan 6, 2005 6:04:23 PM

The irony, of course, is that Manhattan is one of the few places on the planet where you can happily drink tap water even if you have enough money for bottled. Posted by: Petey

You go first, and the rest of us will watch.

I lived in Manhattan for three years. Love the city, hate the water. This is when I first started using a Brita pitcher. Only the poor or stupid (or those without the sense of taste, I guess) drink NYC tap water. In fact, that's pretty much the case for the tap water in most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. because most sources of tap water are badly compromised by pollution and therefore must be, at a minimum, heavily clorinated to be potable.

Posted by: Jeff I | Jan 6, 2005 6:19:30 PM

"Only the poor or stupid (or those without the sense of taste, I guess) drink NYC tap water. In fact, that's pretty much the case for the tap water in most major metropolitan areas in the U.S. because most sources of tap water are badly compromised by pollution and therefore must be, at a minimum, heavily clorinated to be potable."

Ummm...

Due to the wonderful foresight of NYC's city fathers, the city gets unpolluted water from upstate piped directly to taps. Not only did the city buy the water source itself, but they also bought all the land around the watershed to preserve it from development.

While a Brita is quite useful for taste filtering, unlike almost every other city on the planet, NYC tap water is completely healthy to drink.

The reason the Brita is such a quintessential NYC appliance is precisely because NYC tap water is so atypically drinkable.

Posted by: Petey | Jan 6, 2005 6:42:41 PM

Due to the wonderful foresight of NYC's city fathers, the city gets unpolluted water from upstate piped directly to taps.

There is no such thing as "unpolluted" water within the continental U.S., perhaps the world. There are only levels of relative contamination.

Posted by: Jeff I | Jan 6, 2005 7:11:58 PM

"(1) a disruption in that trade or your trading partners would then put you in a very bad place and (2) the people you're getting it from probably aren't producing it sustainably"

Hmm, Red States/Blue States. Manhattan cannot support its population without hegemony over Iowa, providing indispensable services in exchange for food and bright young immigrants.

And much of Red State economy is unsustainable without cheap oil.

Dallas declares war.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 6, 2005 7:33:26 PM

From an environmental impact point of view, cities and dense urban areas like Long Island are superior to exurban and rural development. Urban life provides many environmentally sustainable efficiencies. People who live in cities use less energy, generate less waste, drive fewer miles (especially in NY, thanks to America's only world-class mass transit system) and live in smaller homes than their compatriots in the suburbs. For a demonstration of the ecological impact of urban and rural life, visit http://www.myfootprint.org/ .

By focusing development in already developed areas, like NY and Long Island, we can reduce development in other, more ecologically fragile areas. It is true that pollution is worse in urban areas than in suburban areas, but this is a health issue as well as an environmental issue. While the air tends to be healthier on the edges, and far away from urban centers, these peripheral areas are the most susceptible to degradation due to human impacts. Sprawling development in these "greenfield" areas poses a far greater threat to biodiversity than the efficient activities of cities.

Now for the parochial boasting part of this comment: In NY, as Petey points out, it's not the water itself that is poor in quality. However, many older buildings have old, leaky, or corroded piping which can adversely impact the taste of tap water. New York tap tastes far better than the tap water of every other American city I have visited - and I have been to most of the big ones, and a fair number of the medium sized ones. We can attribute this excellent tasting water to a remarkable agreement between New York's DEP (our city water authority) and the largely agricultural communities in the watershed. The agreement restricts development in the watershed and mandates responsible management of the land by watershed residents. In return, residents of the watershed are given subsidies to implement the policies. By the way, this cooperative arrangement is several times less expensive than the construction of mega-water filtration plants which would be the alternative. For more details on the arrangement see: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/watershed/home.html .

Posted by: architect66 | Jan 6, 2005 7:35:42 PM

America's only world-class mass transit system? This Chicagoan begs to differ (though I'd avoid the boosterish "world-class.") Our water does suck, though.

Posted by: john | Jan 6, 2005 8:05:47 PM

Tim Flannery, an Australian biologist, made many of the same points in his 1994 book, The Future Eaters (link is to an Australian TV series on the book). Flannery describes the prehistoric human colonization of Australia, New Guinea, and New Zealand, contrasting them each other and with the following European colonizations. Each land mass has different rainfall, soil fertility, and fauna. Each set of colonists had different food crops and technology they brought with them. The results in each situation were profoundly different. It is a fascinating book. Some of it, such as the case of Maori New Zealand will scare the hell out of you. All of it will make you think deeply about how we live in the world. I can also highly recommend Flannery's more recent The Eternal Frontier, an ecological history of North America. If Hollywood picks it up, it would make an awesome special effects blockbuster.

I haven't read Diamond's new book yet, but I will soon.

Posted by: TomB | Jan 6, 2005 8:20:20 PM

I live in Manhattan and can say my dog drinks the water, apparently without ill effect. However, if given a choice between a bowl of imported bottled water and NYC tap, he'll go for the imported water every time. :)

Posted by: sofia | Jan 6, 2005 9:13:48 PM

I drink Brita water because my roommate from LA brought his filter along with him, but the idea that there is anything wrong with Manhattan tap water is absurd.

Posted by: washerdreyer | Jan 6, 2005 10:38:22 PM

It's nice to be Diamond and get $25 g's a pop for giving this pap in public. It would be nicer to know what one was talking about.

Posted by: knut wicksell | Jan 6, 2005 11:03:40 PM

We pay through the nose for it. All the separtist movements about NYC (and LI) seceding and forming a separate state are because we give the state more money than we get back - presumably some of that difference is made up in consumable products. Same thing with sending more money to the federal government then we get back. Obviously, the two aren't completely related, but in some sort of sick way it makes sense.

Posted by: dstein | Jan 6, 2005 11:50:38 PM

Just a quick thought on Jared Diamond's odd contention that Australia can only support half its current population. In total, Long Island in New York (which is to say the geographical island -- Kings, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties -- not the sociological island) currently contains 7.5 million people according to the US census department....Similarly, Manhattan's 1.5 million residents are not starving to death...

Sheesh, can't a regular reader get a little credit now and then? (3:14 pm comment).

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Jan 7, 2005 12:20:55 AM

Just to expand on dstein's point, not only does NYC subsidize upstate, but we are hostage to it. Any split of New York State that did not place the Catskills in the "downstate" portion would be suicide for the city. Since its likely that the rural areas of Sullivan and Greene counties would want to be part of an "upstate" state, that leaves the city in a bind--can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em.

The importance of the city's access to the Catskills reservoirs can't be overstated. One of the reasons Brooklyn threw in its lot with Manhattan is that its own water supply network--a series of small reservoirs along the spine of Long Island--couldn't support the growing population. Water, water everywhere indeed.

Posted by: jlw | Jan 7, 2005 12:22:54 AM

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