Dr. Albert Bartlett In Depth (transcript)

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth (complete)

transcribed by Brian Magee

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.

AH: 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?

AB: 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.

AH: Is it possible to mathematically determine when such a catastrophe will occur?

AB: I don't think so. I did some mathematical projections in that paper on Australia and I'm working to refine that paper some more now, I've got some more mathematics I want to add to it. But it sort of says in there, if you have business as usual then your resource consumption versus time will go through a Hubbert curve, which is sort of like a Gaussian error curve. And from the properties of that curve, and a known amount of resource, you can sort of make a reasonable projection of what the future will be. And that's the thing that I projected out for Australian coal and Australian natural gas. Just citing things, quotations in writing in an article by... Ian MacFarlane, who is the Minister of several things including resources there in Australia. And he was quite proud, in the way he wrote, that he was doing this in accord with the program of the government and that this was a program for sustainability. Well when you just look at the numbers that go with it you can see its not sustainable its antisustainable, its exactly the wrong thing to do given a desire to have a sustainable, or work for a sustainable society, you would never do the things that they're doing, and in particular you would never export all of your fossl fuels. He was quoted in the article as saying... "we're the biggest exporter of coal in the world, we have enough for 110 years worth at present rates of consumption, we're so proud of that, and our consumption is growing 5% per year." Well 5% per year, if you could continue that, your resource wouldn't last 110 years it would last something like 40 years. But 110 years, by itself- that should be sounding off alarm bells, because 110 years is very short compared to the life expectancy of a modern society. And if you're going to maintain a modern society, you want to maintain it for more than 110 years. And that is at present rates of consumption- and no one is talking about present rates of consumption. They're talking about 5% growth per year. And then what I did was to factor in the Gaussian error curve so that the thing added up properly. And you find that the peak will be in something like 25 to 30 years, peak production of coal, and then it'll go downhill. And Australia is having population growth... it increased something like a factor of 4 in a hundred years and if it continues to grow at that rate, why the population will be another four times as large as it is now, and that's just outrageous.

AH: And while 110 years may be a very short period of time in the lifetime of coal its a very long period of time compared to a politician's term.

AB: That's right, they're in office for 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, 8 years, something like that, so that's their time horizon, its a bad mismatch. And then you have to realize that in the population system there's a big delay. And if you had for instance a fertility rate which is the number of childeren per woman in a woman's lifetime, if that number is 2 or 2.1 then you can have a stable population. If its greater than 2, why, you have a growing population and if its less than 2 you have a declining population... I didn't understand this until I modeled it on a computer and saw that if you have... a fertility rate say of 4 children per woman, so you have a growing population, and then by magic on the computer you say "okay from now on, two children per woman- period". The curve does not suddenly level off. The size of the population does not suddenly stop growing. It continues to grow but at slowing rates and it is finally stable after every person has died who was living at the time you made the change. So this means then that you make a change and then its like 70 years before you see the full effect of the change. So our population decisions today won't work themselves out through the society for another 70 years.

AH: So we need to get cracking.

AB: Yeah, we need to understand this... And as you point out its a bad mismatch with the... time horizons of our politicians. And I was in Sydney in December of 2005, lecturing a couple times in Australia and I remember newspapers in Sydney- on one page you would see "oh, here's a new big section of Sydney that's going to be built out with 200,000 new homes and here's another section of Sydney that's coming out with 100,000 new homes" and "oh, how wonderful all this was", and then you turn a couple of pages and you find another article that says "but we're out of drinking water and we're going to have to go to desalinization of ocean water in order to get drinking water for these people" and I kept thinking to myself, "don't those two pages in the paper ever talk to one another? Don't the people who are building and improving these subdivisions, don't they ever concern themselves about drinking water?" And that should be the role of the government, to say "hey look, we're out of drinking water, we're having a severe drought, we shouldn't be building anything, we should be stopping our population growth, and trying to shore up our agriculture as best we can so that we don't have to become big importers of food."

AH: The state of QLD here in Australia is going to be amalgamating some of their administrative boundaries. Some of the shires are going to be made into larger shires, and the Premier of the state says that it's because "our population has tripled to 4 million in the past 50 years but our system of local gov't has not moved with the times" and he says that's unsustainable.

AB: Well the tripling in size is not sustainable and that should be his first concern. Not to rearrange the government to accommodate it. The whole goal of urban planning is to make the problem worse, because population growth produces problems. Planners are trained in school to solve problems. So what is a problem? A problem is anything that inhibits population growth and so once you remove that inhibition, you solve the problem, and then it's open for more population growth. And in particular, this going to regional planning and going to consolidating small political units- that's just taking democracy away from the people. Because here in Boulder when I came here the population was 20,000, so I could go to one of the 9 members of the city council and I would be one voice out of 20,000. But now its 100,000, 5 times as large, and still nine members of the city council. Now I'm just one person in 100,000. So I've lost a big sense of democracy here. And population growth destroys democracy.

AH: Is there anything else you wanted to add before we close?

AB: Population growth is the world's worst problem. Now at the world population conference some years ago in Mexico City, the US representative went down there, and they looked at the numbers, you know. Growth of countries in Africa, the rate is much higher than growth in the United States. So they went to the population conference and lectured to the people from these underdeveloped nations and said "you're the problem- your population growth is the problem." And these representatives just laughed at the US representatives and said "look, the average child born in the United States will, in that child's lifetime, have 50 times the impact on world resources as will a child born, say, in Africa. So you're the problem, you go home and solve your own problem." And one of our local politicians, Tim Worth, who was a United States senator at the time from Colorado, he spoke at a meeting at the University and one of the things he said struck me very strongly. He said "we cannot tell other countries that they've got to stop their population growth until we are ready to stop our own population growth and set an example. Then we can go to the other countries and say "you've gotta stop your population growth." So I think we in the United States and certainly in Australia, and in - Europe has mostly solved their problem, I guess much of Europe is at zero population growth or very close to it. But we in the United States, we've got to solve our own problem before we can go lecturing to other countries to say they've gotta stop their population growth.

AH: Dr. Albert Bartlett, thank you so much for taking the time today.

AB: Well I certainly appreciate it, and I hope everything goes well with you and I thank you very, very much.

AH: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media on the 22nd of June, 2007.

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth (complete)