When Christopher Columbus landed by mistake in the Bahamas on October 12, 1492, I'm sure he had no notion of Columbus Day being "observed" more than five hundred years later - no notion of the sales, the bank and post office closings and general inconveniences that would be visited on his remote descendants, just because of his bad navigation.
Columbus was not doing anything new. He was another in a long line of warlords, explorers, colonizers and real estate developers who, from the dawn of history to the present day, have set out to look for land, territory, living space. When Germany annexed Poland in 1939, the invasion was justified as a search for living space, lebensraum, and we all know what that little adventure led to.
It seems that we can never have enough living space. Even back in 1492 when the planet was, by modern standards, virtually uninhabited, every king, princeling and adventurer was engaged in a passionate search for new territory. The trouble with territory is that you have to occupy it before somebody else does. So, as territory has expanded, population has kept pace. This was all very well until just about every square foot of land on the planet had been discovered, mapped and legally claimed. Now we are well on the way to filling up the last empty spaces of the world with people, buildings, roads and strip malls.
Just to focus our attention the demographers (the people who count people) have decided that October 31, 2013 will be date when the world's population will have reached seven billion people (Repeat). When Columbus sailed the ocean blue it was well under one billion. So the population grows, and grows, and the planet remains the same size. The distinguished natural historian David Attenborough just created a stir by saying out loud that there are simply far too many of us for the planet to support, although he used less polite language. Somebody had to say it, politely or not. Back in the 1960s, watching the heroic old science fiction movies, we dreamed about moving out to other planets, boldly going where no man or woman had gone before. But that future is history now, and we have to do the best we can with the territory we have.
In one sense we have a lot of empty territory available: the great deserts of the world, the steppes of central Asia, the whole middle part of Australia, Antarctica, and of course Kansas. The trouble is that nobody wants to live there, they want to live here, in the few safe and comfortable corners of the earth, and that’s the problem.
Columbus discovered, or almost discovered, the last really desirable piece of real estate on this planet. He won the jackpot, although he never knew it. Seven million square miles of living space, not even counting South America, a whole new world, and entirely empty, except for the people who happened to be living here at the time. But just as work expands to fill the time available, so people expand to fill all the desirable space available, with one-acre lots, two acre lots, gigantic houses, golf courses, super-highways, fast food outlets, big box stores, and car parks.
Columbus made all this possible. The question is: what shall we do for an encore, and where shall we do it?
Copyright: David Bouchier