Dr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Population & Peak Oil (transcript)

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Population & Peak Oil

transcribed by Brian Magee

part 1 of 3

Andi Hazelwood: This is Andi Hazelwood, correspondent for Global Public Media in Australia, speaking with Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, on the 22nd of June, 2007.

Dr. Bartlett, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today.

Albert Bartlett: Well, I'm delighted to have a chance to talk with you.

AH: In basic terms, physics is the science of matter and energy. How did population become such a big issue for you?

AB: It was back about 1969 I realized that people didn't understand the implications of steady growth. To have something growing 5% per year for a hundred years, well, how big will it be compared to its highs today? People didn't understand this and I started a lecture on this, and I've been giving the lecture ever since; it's evolved enormously, but since September of 1969 I've given it an average of once every 8½ days, and last year I gave it 42 times. It's been very successful. This not understanding the arithmetic of growth, led me into, "what happens when you have populations growing; where you have growth and rates of consumption of resources."

AH: Obviously your presentation resonates with people. It's both entertaining and also very sobering. What kind of responses to you receive from your audience?

AB: The audience is, generally, very receptive, very enthusiastic, and, "oh, I didn't realize that." And, of course, I hadn't realized some of these things until I started to think about them and do numbers. And it's very often that the ordinary person will hear something like "10,000 tons of coal a day" or something like this--it's just a big number and no idea what it means in respect to how much coal there is or how long it could continue with a given reserve of coal. And very often just a little bit of arithmetic, long division or some simple multiplication, and you can get some very interesting results. But people rarely do.

AH: Have you also had the opportunity to give your arithmetic population and energy presentation to decision makers and politicians?

AB: Yes.

AH: And how do they respond?

AB: Well, usually they appreciate it and they thank me and then when I leave I never hear from them again. Politicians, I guess, have more on their plate than logic.

AH: Right.

AB: And very often logic gets side-stepped. Logic and facts just aren't the biggest thing that they worry about.

AH: Now, obviously, you've updated the statistics and put current events into the presentation. Besides that, how has it evolved since 1969?

AB: Well, it deals much more now with resources than with population. The original talk that dealt almost exclusively with examples involving just arithmetic. What happens... the Indians sold Manhattan island for $24 to the Dutch settlers and now you look up the total assessed valuation of Manhattan island today, developed as it is, and you could ask yourself, "well, what interest rate would the Indians have needed if they put that $24 in the bank so that the bank account today would have in it an amount equal to the assessed valuation of Manhattan island?" And the answer comes out, oh, maybe, 6%, something like that, per year--6½% per year and $24 would grow into the total valuation of New York City.

AH: And in the last five years how would you say that the presentation has changed? It's gotten much more energy-centric, but how have the numbers changed in the last five years?

AB: Well, the numbers just keep getting worse. A major question is peak oil, and when will we experience peak oil. And there's now quite a heated debate, and just an email today a friend in the School of Business here on the campus sent me an email, which was an article in the magazine Business Week, which is sort of one of the very prominent business magazines here, and they're talking about peak oil--they're talking about it as though they take it seriously.

It's interesting that now, 50 years or more since the concept was put forth and the numbers were put forth by Hubbert back in 1956... He outlined all of this: that the peak of U.S. oil production would occur between 1966 and 1971. Well, the peak occurred in 1970. But people just, "well, that's a fluke; he was just lucky in his prediction." And now he predicted that the peak of world oil production would occur around the turn of the century. And, so, now it's happening and people are beginning to sound the alarm. But, the business community has, I think, pretty uniformly rejected anything like the concept of running out of resources; just it's been a part of their dogma every since they organized.

AH: Yes, it's interesting that peak oil has suddenly hit the mainstream. It also appeared in the U. K. newspaper The Independent. It was the front page article just a couple of days ago. And that's the first time that it's really hit the mainstream in the U. K., and in Australia it's starting to happen as well. Do you think there was a specific event or a turning point that caused people to suddenly realize that this is real?

AB: Well, I think people are very aware of the rising cost of gasoline for automobiles, very aware of the rising cost of natural gas for heating our home, and for running many industries, and they're beginning to wonder. The non-scientists who run the companies, they say, "oh, well, it's the bad weather", or "the hurricane in New Orleans that took out some of the production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico," or "it's some political event in the Middle East". But now they're running out of excuses. Those things are transient and short-term, they have an affect that's brief--a few months, maybe--and then things recover and the growth goes on. But now they're saying we don't have any spare capacity, we're producing right at the limit.

And so I think there's a more widespread understanding of this. Even the congress, which has been very slow... they've had full reports on this back in the 1970s from Dr. Hubbert. And my bible on my shelf--I'm looking at it right now--is a report that he prepared around 1974 on world resources and resources in the United States. He gives all of the data, he gives all of the derivations--the mathematical derivations--of the formulas he uses. And they're not complicated, they're like first year college calculus, and he sets all this forth. And this was in a report that was delivered to the chair of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs of the United States Senate. Well, what happened to it? I don't know. It was available for sale from the government printing office, which is where I got my copy. But people just glanced at it and looked the other way and listened to the economists who say, "oh, this is nonsense; we will never run out of resources." And the economists are still quite active.

AH: And what it comes down to is that these problems, not only peak oil but also climate change, can be traced back to the base issue of overpopulation, correct?

AB: That is the central thing. And I never cease to be amazed that groups that are so concerned about global warming, so concerned about energy, carbon dioxide and global heating gasses, and so on like this, they never come down and identify population size as the crucial factor that must be addressed. They elect instead to sort of diddle around the edges and sort of say, "we'll use more efficient light bulbs," and "we will use energy more efficiently in our home," and "we'll make more efficient automobiles," and so on. And these are all important, but they won't solve the problem.

And there's a famous paradox from Great Britain, that's Jevons Paradox. He was studying the consumption of coal about the time of the very early steam engines, which were very inefficient, and he saw about how much coal was used each year in Britain. And then when James Watt invented the enormous improvements in the steam engine, Jevons thought, "oh, they're more efficient now, coal consumption will go down." And instead it went up. And if we all buy hybrid vehicles, they have much better miles per gallon than the existing vehicle, then I suspect we'll have Jevons hard at work here and the total gasoline consumption will go up because people will say, "oh, it doesn't cost me as much per mile to drive, I'll drive more miles."

AH: And you think that people would understand that because you can see Jevons Paradox just in your own life. If you get an increase in pay, most people, rather than put that money in the bank, they just increase the amount of money they spend. If you buy a larger house, and you don't have enough furniture, you end up filling it with furniture. It's Jevons Paradox in every case.

AB: That's interesting. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but I think you're absolutely right.

AH: Now, on the topic of population--it has been said that Paul Ehrlich and other doomsayers were wrong in their predictions and Julian Simon, the cornucopian, was generally right with his optimistic views. Do you think that has something to do with why population growth hasn't been taken seriously?

AB: I think so, yes. People just don't like to talk about limits. And you may remember the book called Limits to Growth. It was published in 1972 and it was sponsored by the Club of Rome. But then it was written by four people at the Systems Analysis Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And they did a computer modeling that extended from the year 1900 through the year 2000 and up to the year 2100. And so, it was a very simplified model, but they showed that if you plotted a graph for 200 years there, of about five major factors--like food per capita, and energy per capita, and pollution, and two or three other things, I forget right now what all they were--their model, their computer model, showed a major crash in the middle of this century we're now starting on. And it showed population... big die-off of numbers like the plague in Europe back in the 1300s. And the whole world community of economists just fell all over themselves trying to prove: "this can't be true; this is too terrible to be true; this is just Malthus all over again." And they keep just asserting that "we've proven Malthus wrong."

Well, I read Malthus three times. Malthus understood the problems of limits, and he understood these things. And his timetable--he couldn't have anticipated the mechanization of agriculture, which has greatly increased agricultural production worldwide. And I'm sure there are more people well-fed in the world today than there were 200 years ago when Malthus wrote his essay. But I'm sure there are also many more people staring and malnourished today in the world than there were 200 years ago. And I think with these limits showing up in terms of peak oil, peak natural gas--I think with these limits showing up people will have to reassess their proud claim that "we've proven Malthus wrong." Malthus, I think, will turn out to be... "well, yeah, he understood the problem, he was right." And when some learned scholar tells me "we've proven Malthus wrong," that scholar is telling me about himself; he's not telling me about Malthus.

AH: And I think we should point out that Julian Simon infamously said that we had enough technology in our minds and in our libraries to allow population to continue growing for the next 7 billion years.

AB: That's an interesting story. And I had two friends in Washington, D.C.... Independently, they sent me the clipping that said that, attributed to Julian Simon, and it was from a newsletter published by the Cato--C-A-T-O--Cato Institute in Washington, which is a libertarian think tank. And one of them said, in his letter, he said, "I phoned Julian to ask him, 'Is that 7 billion correct?'" He said Julian answered and said, "No, it should be 7 million."

Now that was the first part of the story. And then my correspondent asked me, "What would the world population be if it just grew at the present rate of 1% per year"--which sounds terribly small as a growth rate--"if it grew at 1% per year for 7 million years?" Well, this is a nice problem in arithmetic because you can't do a straight-off on a hand-held calculator. The numbers get too big and the system overflows and it can't handle it. So you have to know a little bit of arithmetic to get around it so you can get around it using your hand-held calculator and get an answer.

And, so when I did it I found that the world population, which is like 6 billion people--6½ billion today, it was 6 billion when I did it--growing 1% per year for a period of 7 million years would turn out to be a number that you get by writing 1 followed by 30,000 zeroes.

And I didn't know how big that was. So I said, "well, now, what is the estimate of a total number of atoms in the known universe?" And there's a figure that cosmologists sometimes use--it's just an estimate; it isn't accurate, particularly--but they say about one atom per cubic centimeter, averaged over the known universe. Well, how big is the known universe? Well, take a sphere that is 20 billion light years radius, and how many cubic centimeters in it, and that's the number atoms. Well, you calculate that out and it comes out something like 1 followed by 85 zeroes. So, 1 followed by 85 is the number of atoms estimated in the known universe, and Julian's population size would be 1 followed by 30,000 zeroes.

AH: So, no amount of technology is ever going to make it possible for those people to fit on earth.

AB: Well, you couldn't put them together.

AH: Right.

AB: There aren't enough atoms to make that many people.

But Julian was worshiped by the people in Washington who wanted to hear is message. And these people were often politicians who had no scientific judgment. But Simon had a Ph.D. And he was reasonably bright in the sense that he was bright enough to know what it was that important clients wanted to hear. And so he composed things they wanted to hear. And so they were very much enamored of him.

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Population & Peak Oil