We’re number four!

What’s the biggest country in the world?

Russia.

If you split Russia in two, the European part would be the biggest country in Europe and the Asian part would be the biggest country in Asia. Russia has just under seven million square miles of the earth’s surface.

If Antarctica were a country, it would be second. Its land mass is over five million square miles.

Canada has almost two percent of the earth’s area—almost four million square miles. It’s the second biggest nation.

China edges out the United States for third place with just over 3.7 million square miles, the U.S. just under that number. Brazil comes in fifth, Australia sixth. Australia, with not-quite three million square miles, represents one-and-one-half percent of the earth’s surface. All other countries are under one percent. India (#7), Argentina (#8), and Kazakhstan (#9) all occupy over one million square miles. After and including number ten, Algeria, all the remaining countries have less than that.

So by land area the U.S. is fifth, by nation-size it is fourth.

Does it matter? Is bigger better?

It might when it comes to mineral wealth. After all more land area means more chances of finding something useful. Like coal or oil or gold or copper or whatnot.

And there’s population density. Life in the U.S. and Canada means a only a few people per square mile. Canada, with all its vast wilderness and semi-wilderness, comes in at ten. Russia is about twice that. The U.S. is at eighty-eight. China has almost four hundred people per square mile, Bangladesh almost three thousand.

But people don’t live that way. We don’t space out eighty-eight people every square mile. Huge swaths of land in any country are uninhabitable. Here in the West most of the land is too arid to occupy. Thus most of our population resides in cities, suburbs, and exurbs. Even in a rural county the bulk of the residents live clustered into towns rather than dispersed over the countryside.

I remember traveling in Ireland and the United Kingdom and finding that they were beautiful and comfortable places to live. But from the airplane they were tiny. The immense landscape of the American West dwarfed the Isles. There were no comparable stretches of wild land that we Westerners take for granted.

I knew then I couldn’t live on an island. California is twice the size of the U.K. It is five times the size of Ireland. And that’s just California! I find the immensity of North America comforting.

But it is also worrisome. Life in a big place like the American West means food, water, fuel, and electricity all have to travel long distances. Far-flung regions are dependent on great, overlapping grids of wires, towers, roads, pipelines, and railways. We need a massive infrastructure, coupled with high energy expenditures, just to live what we think of as a normal life.

The fires and the severe drought conditions have made this a difficult summer. When our forests burn, they burn big. When our reservoirs dry up, they dry up big, too.

I guess we’ll need some big solutions going forward. We are number four, after all.

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