Arithmetic, Population and Energy
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).
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.