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700 Billion?

Week of 6 Oct 08

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Here in the US, and I suspect around the world, there has been much discussion recently in the news about 700 billion. I thought we perhaps should spend our time together this week wrapping our minds around a few numbers, starting with this one. If we think of $1 million houses, for instance, it would take 700,000 million dollar houses to equal $700 billion dollars. That is obviously 7,000 in each of the top 100 US cities by population. The 100th city by population, by the way, is Modesto, California (some notables not in the top 100: Richmond, Virginia; Kansas City, Kansas; Naperville, Illinois; Eugene, Oregon).

It would take 3.5 million $20,000 automobiles (a bad year in the US automobile business is 15 million new cars) to equal $700 billion.

Think the world is densely populated? You can fit everyone in the world into Jacksonville, Florida. They will each have a space 1' 11" x 1' 11" (58.5 cm x 58.5 cm) in which to stand (if you have a choice, I recommend being near the edge). This is not much smaller than one's space allocation in coach class on a jetliner. When I started using this little fact as a dinner conversation topic a number of years ago, the number was 2 feet by 2 feet--the population has grown but Jacksonville has not.

US presidential elections (we will ignore the complication of the Electoral College here) are usually decided by just a few million votes. We'll use 5 million for our example. How many votes is this, really? Roughly one for every 453 acres of land in the country (for you metric-centric youngsters, this ought to send you to the web for conversion factors). Manhattan, by the way, is 21,612 acres, if you want an easy reference. The floor of the New York Stock Exchange is approximately 1 acre. While we are on acres, the area in Alaska's ANWR region being so hotly debated as to whether to drill or not is roughly 2,000 acres, or less than 10% the size of Manhattan (roughly the area south of Houston Street for you Gotham City dwellers).

Despite integration, despite women moving into the workforce, despite higher overall levels of education, the percentage of the US population in the workforce has only moved from 57.2% in 1942 to 66.0% in 2007. This includes those classified as unemployed. Stated another way, in 1942, 42.8% of the population was not in the workforce and in 2007, 34% of the population was not in the workforce. On any given day, 2/3 of Americans are supporting the other third. And these numbers, from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, do not include anyone in the population under age 16 or anyone institutionalized.

When I first heard that automobiles emit roughly a pound of carbon dioxide for every mile driven, that number seemed high. However, my own back-of-the-envelope calculations, verified by Dr. Ron Rousseau, Chair of the School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering at Georgia Tech (The good doctor's calculation was also back-of-the-envelope, but I trust him over me on this subject), says this is true.

Let's look at garbage. They say we produce a lot of it here in the United States--about 230 million tons per year before recycling. Various sources put the density of uncompacted garbage at about 1,500 pounds per cubic yard. Do the math, and you will find that if we hauled all the garbage generated in the United States in one year to Manhattan, it would fill the island to a depth of only 297 feet (90.5 meters). Now if you take into account that half of all garbage is recycled, and make some adjustments for density as the pile gets deeper, it is conceivable to imagine one year's actual landfilled garbage for the entire United States would, when spread out over the surface of Manhattan, not exceed the average building height on the island, which is only six stories. If you are more of the outdoors type, it has been estimated by others that it would take roughly 400 years to fill the Grand Canyon with our annual discards.

Getting a tad closer to our business: how many trees are there in the United States? Well, there are 750 million acres of forestlands, and at 100 trees per acre, that is 75 billion. It's not 700 billion, but it is impressive. One acre of trees absorbs 4 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Thus our 750 million acres of forestlands will absorb the carbon dioxide emitted in 6 trillion miles of auto driving each year. In round numbers, there are 250 million registered vehicles in the US. Thus if they average 24,000 miles annually or less, the trees have a tad bit more capacity for other carbon dioxide absorption. In fact, if you run the numbers from the US Department of Transportation, it looks like the average annual mileage per vehicle is 19,600.

So if you and I put everyone else in Jacksonville, all the garbage in Manhattan and take bicycles to say, Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we ought to have a pretty good life in an abandoned million dollar home or two. Oops, now I sound like someone from the "me first" generation--baby boomers. Scratch that idea. Oh, by the way, I happen to like Manhattan very, very much--you islanders just made a good reference point this week.

I would cite my sources for this week's information, but that list would be longer than the column.

In safety we want numbers, too: zero incidents, zero accidents and zero reportables--every day.

Be safe and we will talk next week.

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