Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

Arithmetic, Population and Energy

with 24 comments

Today is Earth Day 2013, apparently.  This would be a good day for everyone on Earth to accept that, given the incontrovertible operational reality of the exponential function in Nature, technological optimism is not a good idea.

I am grateful to a couple of my regular readers who have, completely independently, directed me towards complementary sources of information that go right to the core of what this blog is all about.  Before getting into the detail, I will start by simply stating what these two sources of information are, as follows:

1.  Thanks to Pendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation (circa 2002) of Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled ‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’, which High School science teacher Greg Craven (who gave the World the ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ video) has been posted on You Tube as a series of eight 9-minute videos.

2. Thanks to Mike (of uknowispeaksense fame), I have been alerted to the very recent publication of a paper by economist Partha S. Dasgupta and biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, entitled ‘Pervasive Externalities at the Population, Consumption, and Environment Nexus’.  The abstract is viewable on the Science journal website but, having done a quick Google search, I found the entire paper published as a PDF by Dasgupta on the website of Cambridge University.

Although a daunting task, I will now attempt to summarise both works; starting today with the presentation by Bartlett.  So as to do both works justice, I will publish my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich separately.


‘Arithmetic, Population and Energy’ by Albert A. Bartlett

Even if you have watched them before, I would encourage all readers to defy the viewing statistics and watch all eight videos.  However, here is a summary:  Bartlett starts and finishes his presentation by asserting that, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”.  Somewhat incongruously, he repeatedly describes exponential growth as “steady growth”.  This is a shame because exponential growth is anything but “steady”.  Exponential growth describes any situation “where the time that is required for the growing quantity to increase by a fixed fraction is a constant”.  This is most commonly expressed as percentage growth on an annual basis.  Bartlett then goes on to highlight the curious coincidence of many things that have historically doubled every 10 years by growing at a rate of 7% per annum (including crime in Colorado, inflation in the USA, and the global consumption of oil).  Having carefully explained all the mathematics, Bartlett spends a very large proportion of his presentation quoting from a bewildering array of journalists, economists and politicians who are either completely ignorant of – or deeply disingenuous about – the consequences of exponential growth.

Chillingly, Bartlett highlights the reality that, if the human population of planet Earth does not stop growing exponentially, Nature will intervene to stop it.  We can either choose to stop it or it will be stopped; and doing the former (whilst involving some very difficult choices) will be a lot better than allowing the latter to happen.  Bartlett’s presentation of population dynamics has been repeated many times before and since (but people are still ignoring it).  Even more devastating, however, is Bartlett’s presentation of the history of global fossil fuel consumption (which has given rise to many misleading statements and a great deal of misplaced optimism).  He points out that, even if it were safe to extract them, all the hydrocarbons that lie beneath the Arctic will be consumed by the USA in one year.  There is so much in Bartlett’s presentation that I could mention but I will focus on his examination of resource depletion in the face of exponential growth of consumption – it requires the perpetual discovery of double the cumulative total resource consumed.  On a finite planet, this is quite simply impossible.  Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food.  Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game.

However, most sobering of all, is Bartlett’s presentation of Dr M. King Hubbert’s predictions regarding Peak Oil. With regard to US production, history has found Hubbert was correct – production peaked in 1970 and exhaustion can be expected by 2050.  Furthermore, since global oil production has now peaked, it is guaranteed to be exhausted by 2100 (because we cannot continue to find double what we have already historically used).

Hubbert (1956) [N.B. Civil nuclear power has not developed in the way Hubbert expected.]

Hubbert (1956) [N.B. Civil nuclear power has not developed in the way Hubbert expected.]

Bartlett’s discussion of Growthmania is devastating and, to me, the logic is incontrovertible:  The First Law of Sustainability is that population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.  There can therefore be no such thing as sustainable growth.  This is not an opinion.  On a finite planet, this is mathematical fact.  Somewhat surprisingly, in a roundabout way, this leads Bartlett to point out that the country with the World’s greatest problem with regard to population growth is the USA.  This is because, in the USA, the per-capita consumption of the World’s resources is four times global average (and some thirty times that of the World’s poorest people).

Towards the end of his presentation, Bartlett counters all the misinformation and misplaced optimism with some telling quotes from a variety of people including Galileo Galileii and Aldous Huxley.  However, perhaps the most telling quotation of all is that from Martin Luther King Jr:

Unlike plagues of the dark ages or contemporary diseases we do not understand, the modern plague of overpopulation is soluble by means we have discovered and with resources we posses. What is lacking is not sufficient knowledge of the solution but universal consciousness of the gravity of the problem and education of the billions who are its victim.


At the best part of 1000 words, this may seem like a long summary but, in truth, I have barely scratched the surface of all the information Bartlett presents.  Therefore, if any of this is unclear or, in your mind, appears to be unjustified pessimism, please watch the videos.

As promised, my summary of Dasgupta and Ehrlich’s new paper will appear later this week.

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24 Responses

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  1. Martin, the full Bartlett lecture in one piece is here


    22 April 2013 at 00:32

    • Thank-you, Mike. Please forgive me, however, if I leave the main text as it is.

      Martin Lack

      22 April 2013 at 10:18

    • Second the thanks for the link to the full lecture!


      23 April 2013 at 17:17

  2. The much-vaunted economic achievements of China will,eventually,lead to her downfall. 7% annual growth means a doubling of output and consumption within ten years! You are correct; our politicians cannot do maths. When they hear the word “more” their faces,in a pavlovian response, light up and they become “all cheerful like”. But, if one is thinking but of the next election and all its perquisites if elected, this could be the explanation for their optimism. Seeing that all of us with normal education (is there such a thing I wonder?) learnt of exponential growth in school, I cannot understand why it is hardly mentioned in any economic forecast. But then, most of us are creatures of habit. Enough to eat today; therefore there will be enough tomorrow and the days after.

    Thomas Foster

    22 April 2013 at 12:29

    • Thanks Thomas/Duncan. I decided that I was leaving a bit too much to the imagination, so have edited my first paragraph on Bartlett to highlight the reality that the doubling time for 7% annual growth is 10 years. China already consumes about 50% of the World’s resources, therefore, as you say, it simply could not go on growing at 10% pa (doubling time 7 years), 9% (7.78 years), 8% (8.75 years), or 7%… In fact, without access to the resources of multiple Earths (or mining on the seafloor or asteroids), I suspect that nothing other than zero growth by China is sustainable.

      Martin Lack

      22 April 2013 at 12:59

  3. Concerning Dr Bartlett’s reference to ‘steady’ growth… I see no incongruity. It’s a simple question of perception. As an example, 1% growth per annum is a ‘steady’, unvarying, rate: and using the rule of thumb of 70 divided by the growth rate, it equates to a doubling time of one human allotted span, three score years and ten. That this steady rate of growth results in an exponential curve just serves to underscore Dr Bartlett’s main point:

    The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.

    Never mind the human race; it’s the politico-economists who run the show who need to be aware of the implications. These folk are either unable to see the wood for the trees (I blame groupthink, myself)… or they do understand completely, but don’t give a shit about the rest of us because they will have made their fortunes, retired and died of old age by the time the shit hits the fan.

    PS Typo alert:
    “Thanks to Pendantypendantry, I have discovered an incisive presentation…”
    … I reckon this was just a Cunning Plan on your part to get another pair of eyeballs to your blog, meself ;)


    22 April 2013 at 20:12

    • Thanks Pendantry. If the time taken by anything to grow by a fixed fraction is a constant, then growth is not linear, uniform, or steady. Describing exponential growth as ‘steady’ would only make sense if you were comparing it to the super-exponential growth (i.e. where the rate of annual percentage growth increases with the passage of time). Therefore, describing exponential growth as ‘steady’ is almost as nonsensical as describing it as ‘sustainable’.

      Re the typo (now corrected), I think this was a case of Word auto-correcting what I wrote.

      Martin Lack

      23 April 2013 at 09:57

      • I’ve not made myself clear: my apologies. I’ll try again.

        As I said: it’s a question of perception.

        In the minds of those who make the important decisions for us, there is, very clearly, absolutely nothing wrong with ‘steady’ growth.

        Those (like you and me) who recognise that ‘steady’ growth has a dangerous exponential result would argue that ‘steady’ growth is a bad label.

        But that’s all it is: a label. And the meanings of labels can depend upon how you view reality.

        PS If Word auto-corrects ‘pendantry’ to a word that doesn’t exist then the universe is even more screwed up than I had thought ;)


        23 April 2013 at 16:22

        • Thanks, P. OK, I admit it, I screwed up! (Quote-miners will love that one).

          Martin Lack

          23 April 2013 at 16:36

        • Ah, the wonderful ability to admit being wrong. If only politicians were tested for that trait before being allowed to act ‘in our best interests’.


          23 April 2013 at 16:49

  4. We are all at it!
    and I must admit that Al Bartlett’s lecture has had a positive influence on my arguments- I have always had reservations about ‘growth’ but there is nothing like a bit of math to really concentrate the mind of what is likely to be achievable.

    Politically it does show up ALL politically parties to be either lying or fools. China is planning- and I wish them well on their experiment- to halt coal consumption at the current 3-4 billion tons in 2015 and replace the difference with alternatives. The figures are so astounding it is hard to get your head round them- a billion tons- how big is that Martin?- but 7% growth is China ‘slowing’! with 10% being a target- and there has been more in the past.

    Compound interest is something even house buyers fail to look at- instead going for the easier monthly repayments .
    year 1 – 4 [billion tons of coal] + 10% = 4.4 for year 2 add year 1 = 8.4 etc etc for 10 years
    and total consumption is 64 billion tons.

    well quite clearly this is not sustainable if the lower end of reserves of China’s coal of 70 billion tonnes is correct [ 90 is an optimistic figure] and if it were to carry on for 20 years [it is not] total consumption is 180 billion [although I stopped counting after 160 billion- all a little pointless].

    So as Al Bartlett points out with oil- with each decade of growth the coming decade requires -all the oil that has been extracted so far to be discovered again just for another 10 years. Likewise China would need to buy all the world’s coal reserves to grow on average for 20 years.

    China has entered into a risky contract- no democracy but lots of growth. It does have a few efficiency areas such as for every power station it opens it closes and old inefficient one [ supposedly anyway and the climate sceptics fail to mention that new German coal- and Chinese coal power has this trade off]. But as we have found out the real added value growth [like coffee cups having the same size lids what ever cup size - introduced in only a decade ago] hits a wall of diminishing returns.

    An unbridled China would consume all the world’s resources in 20 years time. It is not going to happen- who will they sell too? And it cannot happen unless they turn into the Borg. So what do you think will happen?


    23 April 2013 at 12:36

    • Thanks for letting me know about the post on your blog, Jules. (I have posted a quick reply).

      Do you have a reference for your assertion that China intends to peg its coal consumption at 2015 levels? Does this mean they wills stop building coal-fired power plants (or will they just build more roads in Africa in exchange for coal)? As with the UK government promising to set a target for phasing out fossil fuels in 2016, I will believe it when I see it.

      Mortgage-owners have historically paid back 3 times what they borrow(ed). Furthermore, until civilisation collapses, this is likely to remain true because longer-term mortgages are being accompanied by lower interest rates. Sadly, unless or until monthly rental is made cheaper than mortgage-repayment, all but lottery-winners will continue to ignore the total repayment cost; and focus on the fact gamble that they will one day own a property.

      Bartlett’s argument about perpetually needing to discover new resources double the cumulative total historically consumed is very alarming. However, all should remember that the “every 10 years” bit only applies if growth is 7% p.a. This is no longer happening anywhere other than China and there too it will soon stop. Like you say, all growth has been facilitated by fossil fuels and, now that global production is in decline, growth is also. However: Irrespective of the doubling time over which it is required, the perpetual discovery of double-the-resource-consumed-to-date is simply impossible on a finite planet. Quite how anyone can argue against basic mathematical reality such as this is completely beyond my comprehension.

      Martin Lack

      23 April 2013 at 15:05

      • The Chinese plan to peg col consumption is under ’5 year plan’ if you do a search mostly newspaper references come up. The Chinese plan is to get greater efficiency so as new coal power station open old ones are supposed to close down [try sourcewatch for refs]. The same is really happening in Germany which seems to be overlooked by fake climate sceptics- however such is the demand for electricity regions are not closing down old power stations as they should. China knows it is running out of coal – I don’t think they have to kid themselves unlike our elected politicians- I think they know they are in a pickle- they will build solar/wind and nuclear they have no choice.

        China still has a lot of growth in it as it can now turn to its internal market which seems to have been the deal they stuck with its people.

        Without constraints China would eat the world in 30 years- see my latest blog, it is not scientific mind!


        23 April 2013 at 15:49

        • I think I have a PDF of that 5-year plan somewhere – it is a shame that I have never read it in such detail.

          China’s growth is declining but, you are right, it is unlikely to stop any time soon (I was being far too optimistic to suggest that it might). I think the rest of the World might object to being eaten out of house and home by China.

          Martin Lack

          23 April 2013 at 16:34

        • well there is objecting and objecting as the US has spent the last 50 years eating a quarter of all the global resources without too many complaints. I suppose now the larder is getting a little empty things may be different.


          23 April 2013 at 16:40

        • “…the US has spent the last 50 years eating a quarter of all the global resources without too many complaints…”

          Aye. And it’s a bit rich when they turn around and point the finger at China to excuse their actions. I think that’s called ‘deflection’?


          23 April 2013 at 16:47

      • “As with the UK government promising to set a target for phasing out fossil fuels in 2016, I will believe it when I see it.”

        I had this confirmed myself by my own MP, the Right Honourable Andrew Lansley CBE:

        The Government recently laid amendments to the Energy Bill to enable a legally binding decarbonisation target for the electricity sector to be set in 2016. [...] It has been decided to set the target in 2016, once the Climate Change Committee has provided advice…

        I think the key word there is ‘target’; those things that are all too often missed. I think that the reasons politicians love targets so much is because it allows delay at the same time as giving the appearance of taking decisive action. Here we have procrastination one step further removed: the UK government ‘promising’ to set a ‘target’ at a later date.

        The cynic in me also notes the term ‘electricity sector’ (implication: the ‘binding decarbonisation target’ may not apply to other sectors) and the reference to ‘Climate Change Committee advice’ (advice can all too easily be interpreted depending upon one’s worldview).

        Weasel words.


        23 April 2013 at 16:44

        • Clearly, you have been sending your MP letters similar to those I have been sending mine.

          Martin Lack

          23 April 2013 at 21:56

  5. “..Bartlett dismisses the proposition that biofuels could solve this problem by pointing out that Agriculture is an industry that uses land and oil to produce food. Therefore, using agriculture to produce biofuels is likely to be a zero sum game…”

    This highlights the problem of precipitous action – already 40% of the USA corn crop is diverted to ethanol production. Not only does it raise the cost of food, but does nothing or is detrimental in regard to decreasing CO2 output.

    …. and further:

    “….Year after year, we are treated to a message of environmental doom and gloom and admonitions on Earth Day. On the back of this sentiment in wealthy countries, governments have invested billions of dollars in inefficient, feel-good policies such as subsidizing solar panels and electric cars.
    German taxpayers have poured $130 billion into subsidizing solar panels, but ultimately by the end of the century, this will postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours.

    The electric car is even less efficient. Its production consumes a vast amount of fossil fuels, and mostly it utilizes fossil fuel electricity to be recharged. Even if the U.S. did reach the lofty goal of 1 million electric cars by 2015 — costing taxpayers more than $7.5 billion — global warming would be postponed by only 60 minutes.


    24 April 2013 at 09:56

    • As Bartlett demonstrates, insisting that fossil fuels will never run out is insane. Therefore, even if climate change were not happening, failing to plan for a World without fossil fuels is tantamount to planning to fail. Therefore, I think it would be far more constructive for you to come up with some alternatives of your own (rather than pretending that there is no reason to modify our energy policy at all). If nuclear power is going to be required in the longer-term (assuming for the sake of argument that civilisation has such a future), we need to start building the reactors now (rather than closing them down like Germany has done).

      Martin Lack

      24 April 2013 at 11:00

      • Nonononono no nuclear power stations, please… sited on the coast with a rising sea? Madness. Add in the risk of localised social unrest (due to mass human migrations caused by climate disruption?)… lunacy. O.o didn’t mean to hijack the thread, but hey, you said ‘Nuke-you-leer’ first :P


        24 April 2013 at 21:08

        • You make a valid point, though. Plant design must be improved in the wake of Fukushima (although I think it already had been). However, since I am only reluctantly not anti-nuclear, let’s not get into that debate again, here.

          Martin Lack

          25 April 2013 at 08:03

  6. [...] was intended for last Monday.  However, thanks to the happy coincidence of incoming information, Monday’s post was taken up with summarising an 11-year old presentation by Dr Albert A. Bartlett, entitled [...]

  7. [...] 2013/04/22: LoE: Arithmetic, Population and Energy [...]

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