Dr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Solutions & Sustainability (transcript)

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Solutions & Sustainability

transcribed by Brian Magee

part 2 of 3

Andi Hazelwood: You've said that the only solution to the problem of overpopulation is a large-scale family planning program. Would that be similar to China's one-child policy?

Albert Bartlett: I guess I don't know. What we ought to do, I think, is make family planning assistance available world-wide to every person, every couple that wants it. And this means counseling, this means the facilities, this means devices, this means education; make it available with an international goal that every child should be a wanted child. And that would go a long way, I think, to helping solve our problem.

AH: Would we end up with an imbalance where the younger generation... there's too few of them to take care of the older generations?

AB: That's a very real problem. Making a transition from a growing population that has a large number of young people, to a stable population that has a smaller fraction of young people, to a declining population that has an even smaller fraction of young people--those transitions are difficult, and there will be real problems, especially with a social security system.

And at least in the United States the social security is sort of a Ponzi scheme that requires continuous new investors to pay dividends to the early investors, a thing that grows until it collapses from just from its own size. I mean, it's a standard kind of fraud that people come up with every once in a while--invent it and then make some money--because there are always gullible people who will buy in. But we have to put these social programs on a sound fiscal basis, taking account of the fact that there will be a smaller percentage of the population contributing into the welfare fund to help older people.

AH: And would an immigration plan also figure into a zero population growth policy?

AB: Well, immigration is something like three-quarters of the current population growth in the United States. There's a current debate going on in Congress about the immigration laws, and all the debates focus on sort of one of three things. They talk about the humanitarian aspect--people who are being persecuted we should allow them in. They talk about the economic aspect. You often hear, "well, we can't get American workers to do the jobs so we have to import people." And the law and order aspect--you have the laws, you've got to enforce them. And so people who break the laws--come here and break the laws--they shouldn't get special, favorable treatment.

So those three are the various things about which all the discussion in Washington focuses. And no one there, to my knowledge, as said in Congress that, "Well, we've just got too many people in the United States and we've got to reduce our population." And so the real thing that we have to do is reduce immigration to zero net immigration. It's estimated, like, 200,000 people leave the United States voluntarily every year, and so we could let in 200,000 so that that is no net immigration, and then let the population decline in a natural way, as birth rates decline, until we can get down to a sustainable population. But we can't sustain the present population in the United States; we can't sustain the present population of the world.

AH: Do you feel that money is unsustainable? Do compounding investments figure into exponential population growth?

AB: Well, there are certainly many aspects. Compound interest is sort of the classical perfect case of steady growth. Five percent interest on your saving account, that's calculated out--and it's mathematically... can be exactly exponential. So, as you have enormously growing national debts and fewer people to fund the debt, I suspect that there will be big international financial repercussions that will come about as oil peaks and we find that we can no longer go on with growth in our industrial sector and our transportation sector, and we have to cut back on things that we import from great distances. And I suspect that there will be severe financial--worlwide financial--fallout when the full impact of peak oil hits the economy.

AH: Can you see anything that's happening today that you consider proof that we've overshot the Earth's carrying capacity for human population?

AB: Oh, yes, yes. Global warming. If any fraction of that global warming is due to human activities, that, by itself, proves that the human population has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. If we are warming the Earth through our activities, we've exceeded what we should be doing. And the most plausible thing to say, then, is, "well, there are just too many of us doing these things." If we want to have a good life, which means a good deal of energy consumption by each of us each year, then we've got to cut back on the number of us that there are doing this.

And what you've got is a world with the haves and have-nots. And in the western world, in the United States in particular, we have enormous per capita consumption of resources, and in some of the underdeveloped nations, a very, very low consumption, they want to get up to our consumption. And it's been estimated that right now, just to continue the present rate disparity--to continue the present standard of living of the people of the world--it would require about 1.2 Earths. And if you then said that all these other people that are living with so little income, so little luxury, they want to come up to our level of luxury, it would require something like two more Earths.

These estimates have been published and they're backed up by analysis--it's called ecological footprinting. And it's a very powerful way to represent the problem in which people can understand. So, they estimate it would take another couple of Earths to bring the rest of the world's population up to our level of affluence.

AH: And, of course, with all of this recent talk of global warming sustainability has gone mainstream.

AB: Well, that's another word that's sort of come into the lexicon very quickly. But it's been used and misused and incorrectly used. I like to say sustainability has to imply for a time that's long compared to a human lifetime. And, how long? Well, it has to be many centuries. And when you look at the arithmetic of growth you can't have real things growing for many centuries.

So, the first law of sustainability is that population growth, and/or growth and rates of consumption of resources, cannot be sustained, period. That's the first law. And it isn't debatable. It isn't as though somebody said this and, oh, well, let's see if it's true and let's debate it. This is just based on arithmetic. And if you want to debate arithmetic, well, that's another question, but that's an absolute law. And the second law then sort of follows from the first law. And it says that the larger the population, and/or the larger the rate of consumption of resources, the more difficult it's going to be to make the transition back to sustainability. And the laws of sustainability... I've sort of compiled a set of them. They're in that paper that you probably have a copy of...

AH: I do, yes.

AB: ...that was recently reprinted. It was originally a paper in 1994, I think it was, and then it was republished in two or three journals and a couple of anthologies, the most recent one being last year in Holland. And I revised the laws a little bit, but most of the paper is the same as the early 1994 paper.

AH: Do you think that it's possible at this point in time for a community or a society today to voluntarily step back and become truly sustainable?

AB: That's going to be very difficult.

Now I look around the United States and I've asked where do I find a group of people, a population in the United States--a sub-group of the population--that is as close to sustainability as I can imagine, and I go to the Amish farmers of western Pennsylvania. And they're oriented toward agriculture, they use draft animals rather than machinery. They're very primitive, but they've been very successful; business-wise they've been very successful. They don't educate their children very far in terms of years of schooling, and it's reported that lots of their children, they see the outside world and want to go out and be part of it. But the Amish have been very successful in their farming, and I suspect they're as close to sustainability as any sub-group in the United States. But it isn't a way of life that's going to attract a lot of people because it's hard, hard work.

AH: One thing that's accused of many people who are working towards sustainability is that they're anti-technology. Are you anti-technology?

AB: Oh, no, I'm not. I like technology. But I don't think technology can solve our problems. And this is one of the things that Julian Simon used to say, "more people, more brains; we can use more tech and then they can invent more technology to solve our problems." Well, he could never demonstrate that. That was just speculation on his part. It takes a lot more than brains to make inventions and so on. You have to have a lifetime of nurture and education, and so on, to get people up to the point where they can contribute at the forefront of our technology today. But technology today just gives us new and interesting ways to increase our consumption and resources. It sort of like Jevons Paradox, the more technology you have the more per capita consumption you have.

AH: So, in one respect Simon was right because the technology has allowed us to increase our population to an unsustainable level. But all that means is that the catastrophe that's going to come is just going to be worse.

AB: Yeah, right. I like to point out that modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food, and we're beginning to see real crisis in petroleum and that will be followed by a crisis in food. In the 1970s when we had those OPEC embargos that really wreaked havoc in much of the industrialized world, I was giving my talk up in Montana in the spring, and the farmers up there were just in desperate straights because they couldn't get diesel fuel to do their spring planting. Agriculture is totally dependent on petroleum.

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: Solutions & Sustainability