This place is empty!

There is almost no-one here.

Scotland, the UK’s emptiest home nation, has a population density of 68 people per square kilometre; Wyoming, 2. Wyoming is thirty times more vacant than Scotland.

New York state, one of the more crowded ones, has 162 people per square kilometre; England, 413. In fact, of all fifty states, only five, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland are more human-packed than the UK as a whole. And those states are small. The USA, it seems, comprises two crowded coastlines separated by what is essentially wilderness.

I’ve always been interested to a more-than-normal degree in population density. I remember learning about Malthus in biology lessons and being concerned about world population and drawing age-distribution pyramids. For a time, worrying that the world was overcrowded was a popular pastime. Actually, though, it’s not full at all. Current estimates predict that the population will level off at around ten billion, which sounds a lot, but all those people together would fit in New Zealand and have plenty of room to walk around and take selfies (http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/01/crazy-fact-about-population-density.html).

I know resource-use is a huge issue for the planet, but we shouldn’t confuse that with thinking the planet is teeming with humans. Humans are not in a lot of it. And a lot of them aren’t in the USA. Although not as many as aren’t in Australia, which is mind-bogglingly empty. The last Australian Aboriginal people to make contact with westerners did so in 1984 and it seems they and their ancestors had been happily living their nomadic lives during 200 years of colonialism and didn’t even notice (http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30500591).

All this is on my mind because I’ve recently had cause to drive around a bit and I always love it in the USA. Once you get out of the city, which doesn’t take that long, the roads are long, wide and mostly unoccupied. A few weeks ago, we drove up to Maine and, outside NYC, didn’t hit heavy traffic once. There were stretches of four-lane highway where we could see empty tarmac to the horizon. In addition, because a lot of the roads have tolls, the standard of maintenance seems pretty high. And the views, even from roads that locals describe as boring, are breath-taking.

Another consequence of the absence of people is that the potential for getting lost and stranded is taken very seriously here. If you visit information centres or parks in Maine, there are signs everywhere advising you to stick to the path and tell someone where you’re going. It feels like overkill to a Brit who’s used to thinking that even in the most remote tract of virgin forest you are never more than a brisk walk from a country pub. In Maine, though, wandering off the path is a potential risk to life. The very sad story of Geraldine Largay brings it home. She stepped off the Appalachian trail in 2013 to answer the call of nature. She had a mobile phone, map, compass, etc. and probably considered herself well prepared. She died nearly a month later, having never found her way back to civilization. Her body was undiscovered for two years. She was only 3000 yards from the trail, but the forest is so dense and so vast that huge search parties never even came near her (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/26/hiker-who-went-missing-on-appalachian-trail-survived-26-days-before-dying).

It’s both unnerving and beguiling to think how wild large parts of this country are, how untouched, especially compared to the UK. Something else that worries me about this country, and with no compensatory thrill, is the level of inequality. The standard of living available to me here is fantastic but one is constantly aware that such luxury is limited only to those of us with privilege. One cannot miss the poverty, discrimination and poor access to care and services that are all around in NYC. No matter where you live, you will have heard that police shootings of black men are disturbingly high in this country. News media here and elsewhere paint a picture of a country close to the edge, with a twitchy trigger-finger and a higher than average propensity to violence, discrimination and xenophobia. Despite what Trump says, though, violent crime is low in most of the USA, down from historic highs in the 1980s. Immigration is also low, historically, and the number of undocumented immigrants is reckoned to have been roughly static for the last ten years. So what is everyone so angry about and so scared of? Heather MacDonald has argued recently (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2016/07/18/police-shootings-and-race/) that the police here aren’t systematically racist, and the reason for so many police shootings of black men isn’t police bias, but simply that police shootings happen in high-crime areas, and high-crime areas tend to have more black people. This leads one to ask why people from ethnic minorities are so much more likely to be involved in crime – the answer must surely be poverty. Poverty in this city is obvious, scary and depressing. People sleep rough in huge numbers, and limited access to health care means that people suffering from obvious mental distress are left alone and helpless. It is not uncommon in this city to witness a stranger in the grips of paranoia, psychosis or delusion, passers-by unfazed, desensitised by frequency. Poverty and poor health affect ethnic minorities in much greater numbers than they do white people. The reasons for that are complex and historic, but discrimination and unfairness are blinding in this city.

The highs in this country are wonderfully high – the quality of life one can achieve is simply superb – but the lows are depressing and can be terrifying if you think about them for any length of time. It seems so unfair that such a prosperous place appears to care so little for the needy. Charity seems the job here of wealthy individuals more so than the state or local government. Of course, there are programs to assist people in need here, and the UK doesn’t have all the answers, but the UK, at least to my eyes, appears a much fairer society than the USA.

One thing that isn’t scary at all in the USA is Halloween. This festival, which in the UK seems to be an excuse for yobbish intimidation and random egging, is a delight here. The last few weeks have been so much fun because this country loves to decorate. NYC has been festooned with fake cobwebs, fall colours, carved pumpkins and witches’ hats. Just before Halloween, I took part in an event called the Haunted Island 10k, a Halloween-themed road race around Roosevelt Island. Roosevelt Island, now a peaceful leafy residential area, was once home to the city’s Lunatic Asylum, a fact perhaps unknown to those runners dressed in bloodied strait jackets. It was a wonderful event run by a group called NYCRuns, well worth a look for anyone wanting to enjoy some fit-keeping in the Big Apple’s most stunning locations.

On the spooky day itself, children and adults throughout the city turned out as all manner of ghosts, gouls, heroes and villains; stores and restaurants gave out free candy, and it all culminated in the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, a cavalcade of performers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers and float-riders. The crisp fall air and general high spirits made this a heart-warming night to see NYC at its best while all people, zombie or ghost, vampire or skeleton, Iron Man or Wonder Woman, put aside their differences and celebrated death and evil in all its multi-coloured manifestations.

Parades are something of a regular occurrence here, the next big one being Thanksgiving. If Halloween in the USA appeals to my slight over-keenness for dressing up, Thanksgiving gets me excited because it’s an excuse for me to loosen my belt, drag myself up to the table, and gorge on turkey, gravy and sweet potatoes. Now that really is scary!

 

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