above, for articles in
The Apocalypse Cometh
An Interview With Prof. Albert Bartlett,
The following interview was conducted by the C-Realm Podcast at
http://c-realm.blogspot.com; a blog organized and managed by a gentleman who uses the initials
KMO. KMO has been gracious enough to allow us to post his interview with
the esteemed Emeritus Professor Albert Bartlett, of the Department of Physics,
University of Colorado at Boulder. Prof. Bartlett has for many years
lectured on the limits of the Earth's carrying capacity of biological
life. In other words, the planet cannot sustain so many people, and an
apocalypse by means of shortages of food, energy, water and natural resources is
fast approaching. To understand how the effects of the impact of
population growth will lead to a grave crisis almost overnight, one needs to
understand the concept of the "exponential function", and it is here where the
Albert: This is Al(bert) Bartlett.
KMO: This is KMO
of the C-Realm Podcast. Thank you for agreeing to this interview, and welcome
back to the C-Realm Podcast.
have directed the listeners of the C-Realm Podcast to go and listen to your
lecture "The Exponential Function". And while I have not heard it recently, I
listened to it many times when I first discovered it. I drove around and had it
playing pretty much continuously in my car.
KMO: So I am pretty familiar with the points that you
make there, but just for a quick recap, you talk quite a bit about the formula
for determining the doubling time of anything if you know what its growth rate
is, and I am wondering if you could just recap that for
Albert: Well, the formula is specifically: take 100, multiply
it by the natural logarithm of 2, and divide it by the percent growth rate per
year, and youíll have the doubling time in years.
KMO: You scared
of lot of people when you said, "natural logarithm."
KMO: There is a simpler way to go about
Albert: Most people donít know what that is. So the number
comes out to be approximately 70. The actual thing is 69.2 is a hundred times
the natural algorithm of 2. But 70 is close enough. This is for continuous
compounding which means the growth is steady as contrasted to compounding
annually which the bank used to do; compound once a year or twice a year,
something like that.
KMO: What this gives us is that you can take
the number 70 and divide it by the percentage growth that you are talking about
and that will give you the doubling time?
Albert: Yes, for
instance if it is 7% growth per year then 70 divided by 7 is 10, so you have a
doubling every 10 years.
KMO: And you mention in "The Exponential
Function" lecture that one can really sort of dictate the impact that your
statistics have in the way that you choose to report them. If you said that
crime was growing by 7%, nobody would be particularly shocked by that figure,
but if you said crime is doubling every 10 years, well that sounds shockingly
Albert: Thatís absolutely correct. And so 7% does not seem
like a terribly big growth rate, but doubling in 10 years, that gets peopleís
KMO: You set up your lecture, first you explain this
easy way to talk about exponential growth or actually it is just steady
KMO: And you relate that to two
topics which are very familiar to the C-Realm audience. One is global
population, and the other is peak oil. And I would invite you to pick up either
one of those two topics and just sort of plug those specific examples into how
you use your formula.
Albert: Well the world population today is
growing by something a little over 1% per year; it might be 1.2% per year. So if
you divide 70 by 1.2%, what you find is that 70 divided by 1.2 is equal to about
58. If the present growth rate could continue, then the population of the world
would double in something a little under 60 years, 58 years. Now, it is very
clear that this growth rate cannot continue. It is also clear that the growth
rate globally is declining. In the early 1970s, the growth rate was up around 2%
per year. That is an absolute disaster; that would be doubling every 35 years.
It has been slowly declining. In most of Europe now, the growth rate of the
population is zero or is negative, and that is good news from the point of view
of trying to achieve sustainability.
KMO: Itís particularly true
in Japan, it is sort of bad news for that society in that you end up with a lot
of older people who need care and not very many young people free to provide
Albert: That is a very real problem. It is a short-term
problem, and it is trivial compared to the problems that we will encounter if we
allow the growth to continue.
KMO: Go ahead and just follow that
line of reasoning for a little bit and sort of unpack the consequences if we
just allow business as usual to proceed.
Albert: Well, we donít
have the resources to supply the present world population. The world population
today is unsustainable. You can reach that conclusion by just observing that if
any fraction of the present global warming is due to the actions of humans, then
this by itself is proof that the human population has exceeded the carrying
capacity of the earth. Such as a result of this global warming, there are many
predictions about changing weather patterns, reduced snow fall on parts of the
country, tough agriculture in many parts of the country and the world and so on.
A rising sea level, a reduction in the amount of ice in the Arctic and the
Antarctic and reduction of spring snow in the mountains which reduces water
supply for big cities. They are all kinds of problems that come from the global
warming. And now the global warming is a sure sign that we are overpopulated. If
we just continue to increase the overpopulation by letting the growth continue
unchecked, then all of these problems will get worse. Everyone will be
KMO: You are suggesting that we look at the problem of
global warming which does get a lot of play in the press right now, and equate
it with a problem of overpopulation.
Albert: Absolutely, yes, and
I think that the many people who give us advice, some of them are experts, and
some are not, but essentially all of them, as far as I know, will tell us that
we have to use energy more efficiently, and all efficient light bulbs, raise up
the pressure in the tires on our cars and all sorts of little things like this
that are important, but they are absolutely trivial, and in total, if everyone
followed these, it would not stop the global warming simply because they do not
address population growth.
And this is something that Malthus understood
200 years ago: that population growth has the capability of growing more rapidly
than we can grow the supplies, and so on, that are necessary for human survival.
So all of these, and I think it is just irresponsible; I just saw a thing on the
web this morning, somebody advising us what we can do to reduce global warming
and all of the things were important but in the big picture they where trivial.
They will have no effect as long as we do not address population
KMO: It's strange to hear you describe anything as being
both simultaneously important and triviail.
Albert: Well, itís
going to take a lot to stop global warming, but all of these important things
taken together will not stop it, and just on the basis of good common sense
independent of global warming we should be reducing our personal energy
consumption. We should be using energy more efficiently. We should be doing all
sorts of things that will help reduce the problems. That is independent of
global warming, but we should be aware that taken all together, those things
cannot have any big impact on global warming as long as we fail to address the
overpopulation problem and fail to take real steps to stop the
And then one has to ask, well where is the overpopulation
problem the worst. If you look at just the numbers of population growth per
year, well the numbers are very high for instance in underdeveloped nations, but
the numbers are fairly large in the U.S., the total world population growth in a
year is like 75 million people. The population growth in the U.S. is 3 million
people every year. Now 3 is small compared to 75 so a lot of people say, "Oh
well, it is those other countries, they are the problem." But when you look
at resources, the average child born in America will in a life-time have
something like, I donít know, 10 to 20 times the impact on world resources, as
will a child born in some underdeveloped nation. So the real problem is us. It
is here in the United States. And yet people who are claiming to be thoughtful,
who do worry about population here in the United States very often point to the
underdeveloped nations and say, "You are the problem," and they do not
look here in the United States and say, "We are the
KMO: I think it is easy to point to the Third World
and say there is the problem because we fear, and rightly so I think, that the
Third World is looking to the U.S. and the industrialized First World generally
as a model for where they want to go with their own development, and we just
project things out and we think, "Gosh, if the Chinese drove cars like we drive
cars that is going to be another billion cars on the road." That is almost going
to double the number of cars on the road now, so I can certainly understand that
tendency, although it is comical to think that the problem is that everybody
else wants to live like we live, and the problem is not that we live like we
Albert: And the problem is that there are not enough
resources to let everyone else live as we live. In other words, if you look at
the studies of ecological footprinting, something that was developed at the
University of British Columbia by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, you will
find that the total footprint of the world population today living, some very
well, some very poorly, is about 1.2 Earths. We have already exceeded the
carrying capacity of the Earth by that measure, and if you try to bring up all
the under-developed parts, populations of the world, to our standard of living,
they estimate it would take another 1 or 2 Earth's worth of resources to bring
them up, so the die is cast. There arenít enough resources to bring them up to
our standard of living.
Now, that will impact us very greatly, and we can
begin to see this because there is a lot of world competition for petroleum. I
did some calculations on this. We have used, I estimate, about 85% of the total
recoverable conventional oil that was ever in the ground in the United States.
So we are in dire straits. We are importing over 60% of the oil we consume, and
much of this comes from underdeveloped nations, and wherever we are importing it
from, we find ourselves competing with the Chinese because they have even fewer
resources than we do in terms of petroleum, and they have, as you mentioned, a
very big growing population of automobiles and people who want to drive
automobiles, and they have a very growing affluence of their people because of
the big export business the Chinese do with the United States and other nations.
And so they are competing with us in all of the world markets, and they are
winning because we go out and our foreign policy is one of making war on the
countries that have oil, of making enemies of the leaders of countries that
supply us with significant quantities of oil, and the Chinese are going in
there, to the same countries and they are competing successfully and getting oil
that they need, and that is at the expense of the United States.
KMO: It brings to mind your example of the bacteria that are
propagating in a jar, and they have something to eat there. Where I am going
with this is that when you have a steady growth, every cycle or every doubling
in the growth produces a number that exceeds all of the growth that came before
it, so that your bacteria that are doubling at a constant rate... and suppose
they are going to fill a bottle in an hour, the bottle will be half full a
minute before that hour is up.
Albert: Yes, that is in the case of
a doubling time of one minute so if the bacteria double in number every minute,
and you observe that the bottle is full at twelve noon, then the question is at
what time is it half full and the answer is one minute before, two minutes
before it was ľ full, 3 min before it was 1/8 full and so you have to ask
yourself, if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would
you first realize that you are running out of space? This is a line I use in my
talk, and it gets peopleís attention because when you are at 5 minutes before 12
noon you are only 3% full, 97% open space just yearning for development. Who
would think that we would be likely to run out of resources in 5 more minutes?
Itís a very striking metaphor.
KMO: But with that metaphor in mind
it occurs to me that we could proceed here in the United States with business as
usual, particularly if we are woefully ignorant of the actual supplies of oil at
our disposal, until pretty much the very last minute. I mean that we could well
be, according to the logic of the metaphor, within a couple of minutes of
Albert: Yes, that is right. And I think we are approaching
one minute before noon, and in the real world it can be found that things donít
grow steadily until the last bit of the resources are used. You have instead
what is called a Hubbert curve, and this is sort of a Gaussian error curve. Two
hundred years ago, oil production worldwide was zero. Two hundred years from
now, it is going to be zero. In between, it rises to one or more maxima and you
can approximate that by a smooth error curve.
A lot of reporters ask,
"Well, when are we going to run out of oil?" And my answer is, "Never.
We will never run out of oil." But the question that has to be asked and
understood is, "When will oil production peak? When will we pass that peak
And the peak production marks the point at which we have
consumed half of the initial resource. And so after you pass the peak then
production declines and approaches zero. And it may take another 100 years for
it to approach zero; it took a 100 years to get up to where it is now. But as
you have declining production, and a growing world population and a growing
world per capita demand for oil, then you have all the makings of a real
disaster, because everything in our modern society is dependent on oil and the
first thing you think of is the food production, and one can observe that modern
agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food, and you know we
can see that rapidly rising prices of petroleum as we pass over the peak, and
that will immediately be reflected in very rapid rises in the cost of food and
the cost of everything else in society.
Now, where are we with regard to
the world peak? The U.S. peaked in 1970, and we are well down on the downhill
side of the curve. World production could peak anytime now. There are some
experts who say the peak has already been passed, my own analysis says we are
very close to the peak. And the latest I have heard from any scientists in the
field of geologists is about 2020. But I think most of the consensus feeling
among people who are really into this problem is that it is much earlier than
2020, that it is any day now, and unfortunately, we wonít know when we pass the
peak; we could already have passed it. You will have to have 4 or 5 or 10 years
of consistent downturn in world production before you can say statistically it
is clear that back there 5 years ago or so that was the peak. One point being a
little bit lower than the current trend does not prove that the peak has been
passed so we wonít know for at least 5 years after the peak that the peak has
actually been passed.
KMO: Peak Oil could come 20 months from now,
or it could come 20 years from now. I was talking to a guest on the podcast a
few weeks ago, and he was mentioning that in terms of the adjustment that weíll
have to make, it would be a lot easier on us if peak oil came right now than if
it came 20 years from now. Do you think that is the case?
I do because if it comes 20 years from now, we will have all of these
non-scientists or PhDs telling us we can just go on increasing our rates of
consumption, and so when it does come, weíll be much more dependent on oil than
we are now and so the shock of rapidly rising oil prices resulting from the
passing of the peak, will be an even bigger shock.
It is in our national
self-interest to reduce our annual consumption of petroleum right now, and the
easiest ways to do that would be to put a large tax of several dollars a gallon
on petroleum, but that is not going to fly in a democracy. That would not be
acceptable. It is an unfortunate thing that we will have to wait until things
get so bad that the prices go up. If we would put a tax on petroleum of several
dollars a gallon, then that tax would go to the United Statesí Government or to
our State Governments or some combination of it, but if we wait until the price
goes up because of passing the peak, then that extra money goes to the oil
producers, most of whom are out of the country, and many of whom are supporting
terrorism. Every time right now you pay a dollar for gasoline, every time you
spend a dollar on gasoline, some fraction of that dollar is going to support
international global terrorism.
KMO: Would you explain the
mechanism by which that works?
Albert: Well, a lot of it goes to
Saudi Arabia, and there are many allegations that money that goes to Saudi
Arabia; some of it is diverted from the giant fortunes of some of the oil people
over there; some of it gets into funding Al Qaeda and the terrorist
KMO: The friend that I was speaking with about peak
oil, and he was saying that it would be a lot easier on us if it came now rather
than later. I think what he had in mind was that a gallon of gasoline weighs
about six pounds, and when you burn it you are adding about five pounds of
carbon to the atmosphere. And that if we were to proceed with business as usual
for another twenty years, then we would have added so much carbon to the
atmosphere that it seems as though there would be no reversing the warming trend
that that would set off.
Albert: That is a very good point. That
is absolutely right.
KMO: First it seems that nobody in power
right now, or nobody with the ability to shape the conversation as it takes
place in the corporate media, is willing to equate the climate crisis with
unsustainable levels of population.
Albert: That is
KMO: It seems that on the political right in this
country, and the left/right spectrum describes a pretty narrow range of thought,
but on the political right there is absolutely no questioning whatsoever the
importance of continued economic expansion. And on the left, I think the idea
that the problem is too much humanity probably offends the sensibilities of
people who would describe themselves as deeply humanist.
Albert: Well, I
KMO: Is there any strategy that you know of for sort of
getting around these political preconceptions that keep this discussion from
taking place on a larger scale?
Albert: Well, I think the thing
that we have to do is what you are doing and let us start educating people
throughout the country and so that the people will communicate to their members
of Congress and say look, the big problem is population. These others are
important but trivial. Let us go after the population growth and let's remember
that the last US president who was concerned about population was Richard Nixon.
And he chartered a major study, the reporters called the Rockefeller commission
report, and its conclusion was to the effect that the commission could see no
benefit to the US from any future population growth. But that report got put on
the shelf when Nixon had all his problems and has been forgotten. Nobody
remembers it now.
KMO: Well when it comes to actually addressing
the problem of overpopulation, it seems that one of two models is going to come
to mind. Either you are going to have a central authority with the strength to
force people to curb their reproductive habits as has happened in China, or you
are going to count on some sort of naturally occurring organic process or some
sort of just distributed raising of awareness to bring awareness to population
problems and then thereby bring them, or bring reproduction under
But it seems to me that if one goes for a central authority
model, that for there to be a centralized authority with the power to enforce
that mandate, you are going to bring along the economies of scale which are so
much at the cause of our problem to start with. It seems that decentralization
is the way to go but that seems to run afoul of peopleís desire to make sure
that everybody does their share.
Albert: Well if you are going to
try to issue an edict, that is something you are going to do in a totalitarian
state, but you canít do it in a democracy so that is not the way to proceed
here. But we do have to remember that one of our big national goals is economic
growth and development of technology. Now thirty years ago, when the Peopleís
Republic of China instituted their very coercive Ďone child per familyí, their
statement of justification of that tough policy was the following: economic
development is hindered by population growth. So they have been able to cut
their population growth roughly in half and look at the economic development
that they have been able to achieve because of that reduction. Now we could have
even more economic development, high tech and so on if we could stop our
But I think the first step has to be a national
awareness of the problem of population. If the president of the United States
would come out and say, "Look, we are overpopulated. Here is the evidence. We
have got to find some way to reduce our population and do it in a humane way
consistent with the Constitution of the United States and let us have a national
dialogue for a year, about the problem and about what is the best way to address
it." If something like that would happen, there would be awareness and people
would be aware that large families do not further and advance the welfare of the
United States. And I think, without anything coercive, we could make big
progress and a coupled with such a recognition could be (the realization that)
we have got to spend more nationally, within our country for making sure that
family planning assistance is available to everyone who requests it. And the
goal should be, both in our country and worldwide, to make sure that every child
is a wanted child. If we could do that, we would go a long way towards solving
the population problem. It might not solve it all, but it would certainly go a
long way, and I think it could be done consistent with the laws and Constitution
of the United States.
KMO: I think that the plan runs afoul of
the ideology of main stream protestant Christianity, in that, providing 'family
planning help'... That phrase, to a large percentage of the population, is going
to equate to abortion on demand, which is something they absolutely could not
Albert: Well, I think the studies show that when you
have traditional family planning available, the number of abortions each year
goes down. And if you want to increase the number of abortions annually, you cut
back on family planning. That is what has been found now with the present
administration in Washington. They have cut back on family planning assistance,
especially overseas and in this country too, and the number of abortions goes
KMO: I had sent you an excerpt from a book by Vincent
Castriano Jr; and I wanted to read just a paragraph or two from that excerpt and
get your response.
Caspriano writes, "Within the next fifty years, during the lifetime of the
majority of individuals reading these words, humanityís infinite growth
potential versus finite planet conundrum, if allowed to simply run its course,
will almost certainly be resolved through the elimination of some segment of
human life on Earth. In the reduction through affluence plan, it is the yet
unborn children of the future that are sacrificed. The religious, economic and
cultural varients mostly name their present day targets out loud, investing
enormous amounts of energy in demonizing their perceived enemies: terrorists,
capitalists, leftists, infidels, Jews, Christians, Muslims, gays, the ultra
rich, the useless eater poor, etc.. And making shameless public preparations for
their elimination or forced impoverishment. Reducing population by increasing
material affluence may turn out to be, by far, the most humane strategy for
redirecting an earthbound humanity towards stabilization. But are we on board
with its projected outcome, of a planet of rich old people, clinging forever to
their stuff, even if we personally get to be the new eternals. And a stagnant
long term future that amounts to little more than a dull continuance of the
status quo into perpetuity.
Donít all the other competing plans out there
amount to only slightly more draconian versions of pretty much the same thing?
Idealized and intensely meme-driven wish fulfillment scenarios of what life in
the present ought to be like, infinitely extended into the future. That is the
future Muslim planet looks pretty much like a bigger version of the present
Muslim world; a Christianized earth with a church on every corner and a bible in
every hand; a capitalist globe glistening in space like a giant blue shopping
mall; a post earth changes New Age wonder world with tribes of happy
homesteaders drumming blissfully beside bonfires and singing Kum Ba Yah across a
lush naturally depopulated landscape; etc."
And where he is going with
this, I think is, he is suggesting that our resolution is going to be getting
off planet, to moving humanity into a larger environment in which to populate.
Albert: I wouldnít count on that at all. Right now it takes so
much energy just to put a crew of half a dozen or so in a space shuttle into
orbit. The amount of energy required is just absolutely staggeringly large. And
the idea of populating other planets, I donít think we should count on that in
any future scenario. I think that would be unwise in the extreme. It would be a
total waste of energy. Look, if you are going to solve the U.S. problem, a
population increase of three million people every year in the United States; you
have got to find three million Americans and say to them, "We would like you
to leave, please. And we will provide the spaceships. We want you to go out
there and please donít come back."
Now that isnít going to
KMO: There are many science fiction scenarios that result
from that. One is that the folks do leave as you tell them to but contrary to
your instructions, later on they do come back and they are not very pleased with
the experience they have had out there.
Albert: Well that is
right. They all want to come back, so it is no answer. Now, this is not to say
that we will never in the future populate other planets, but I would say it
would be unwise in the extreme to count on that in any plans and preparations
that we are making today.
KMO: There are a good number of people
worried about what they call existential risks, which are risks that threaten
the future of humanity as a whole, and a lot of those folks are interested in
getting some self-sustaining communities going off of Earth, not necessarily to
relieve Earth of its population pressure, but just to make sure that, should
some large meteor hit the Earth, or should something happen to the Earth, that
humanity itself would not be lost.
Albert: Well, that is a noble
goal, but I donít know what you can do, and the idea of putting people into a
spaceship, say it is just orbits the earth on a continuous basis, so that these
people can survive up there for long periods of time. I mean, that is certainly
being studied but I think it is beyond the capability of our present technology,
and it would take some pretty dedicated volunteers that say I am willing to go
up there and stay up there and not come back. And you know, they did some
experiments in the Arizona desert where they built a great big greenhouse like
building and they tried to make a closed atmosphere inside the building and had
maybe, I donít know, half a dozen people living in this closed atmosphere. And
the idea was to see if they could survive, growing their own food, making their
own oxygen and so on without any input from the outside world and the thing was
not a success; a lot of money went down the drain with that experiment. So we
canít even do it on earth, and let alone send them off into space and have them
KMO: In that paragraph that I read
from Vincent Casprianoís book, he claimed that, if allowed to simply run its
course, the conundrum of the infinite growth versus the finite resources will
almost certainly be resolved through the elimination of some segment of human
life on earth.
Albert: That is to be expected. That was predicted
in 1972 in the book "Limits to Growth," and that was a computerized study done
by some people at MIT. They modeled a global economy and put in all the trends
in terms of population growth, growth of energy consumption, growth of food
supplies and 5 or 6 variables like that, and no matter how they juggled it, the
input and the prescriptions for the future, every model seemed to show collapse
in the middle of the century; a big cutback and die off of population from lack
of food and from pollution. When you read the stories of air pollution in China
today, theyíre just devastating, and in large part it's because of their rapid
industrialization, their rapid increase in the use of coal, and their inability
or unwillingness, whatever, to control the emissions from coal plants, and so
they are killing themselves. They're killing the Chinese, but they're having
this wonderful economic growth, and so their leaders are torn between: "Do we
go on with this killing people by air pollution and allow a few of us to enjoy
the benefits of great growth, or do we say stop the growth and try to clean up
Itís a real dilemma. The ĎLimits to Growthí postulated this
and showed it in a computerized model back in 1972. Now that really upset the
whole world community economists and they said, "Oh, this is absolutely wrong.
It canít be true. It is too terrible to be true." And then in 1992, 20 years
later, another edition was brought out, and the people at MIT did their computer
programs, and their conclusion was: we lost 20 years. And then in 2002, there
was a thirty year update, and again their conclusion was the same. We have lost
30 years. And then in the 2002 version, the only way that they could adjust the
society to have a stable population out to the year 2100, roughly 90 years from
now, was to instantly stop population growth worldwide and to cut back
enormously on the per capita consumption of energy. And I forget what
'enormously' was. They gave a figure, and it may have been to cut it in half or
something like that. But with those two very draconian measures they were able
to project a stable population out to the year 2100. But nothing else. None of
the more reasonable scenarios for the future showed that they were able to
sustain population size.
KMO: You have mentioned Thomas Malthus,
and I think it is fair to describe you as a Malthusian
KMO: Now a lot of folks are
fond of saying that Thomas Malthus has been proven wrong because, you know, we
have gone 200 years without his suggested population correction ever really
taking place on any grand scale. Why do you think that we should still take
Albert: Well, he was a mathematician among
other things, and if you translate his message of 200 years ago into todayís
idiom, what you come up with is: he says the population has the capability of
growing more rapidly than we can grow any of the supplies that are necessary to
sustain the population. Now he looked at food, and he said that we canít
increase food production very much except by increasing the land that is
available, and you couldnít increase the land by very much and so he didnít
anticipate the widespread use of petroleum in agriculture, and so it has gone
200 years, and some people claim we donít have the Malthusian crisis. But I can
say that I suspect there are more people well-fed in the world today than there
were 200 years ago. But I think it is also true that there are more people
starving and malnourished in the world today than there were in the world of
Malthus 200 years ago. So we can not say we have avoided the Malthusian crisis.
We have just sort of limited it to underdeveloped nations and remote places that
you can read about in the paper but not have any connection with.
what we are seeing is that food production has increased. The productivity per
acre of land has increased very largely, by very large amounts and since the
time of the prediction of Malthus, that was a thing he couldnít anticipate. What
it is based on, it is based on fertilizers, chemical fertilizers and one of the
ingredients that is essential to making fertilizers are natural gas and
petroleum. So with those productions peaking, we can expect to see a peaking in
world agriculture. And I was giving my talk back in the seventies, up in Montana
one spring, and it was during the second, I think, of those OPEC energy crises
where gasoline at the pump was in short supply, and the farmers up there were
climbing the walls. It was spring and they could not get diesel fuel to do those
spring plantings. So we built an agriculture that is totally dependent on
petroleum, and so any peaking of world petroleum supplies can be followed by a
peaking of agriculture.
Now you hear people say, and again, these are
people who are well meaning, often well educated but who don't understand the
problem, say that American agriculture is the most efficient in the world today.
That is nonsense; it is the least efficient in the world today. It is the least
efficient because if you have to use, and there is your definition of
efficiency, how much energy does it take, in the form of petroleum, natural gas,
etc. to produce 1 unit of energy that is on your dinner table? And that is about
10 units of petroleum energy for 1 unit of food energy on your table.
the thing that makes people say we are more efficient is, they use a different
measure. They say, "How many person hours on the farm are required to produce 1
unit of food?" Well that number has been going down, leaving these people
without understanding to say we are more efficient. We donít use as many people
farming as we used to. But that is not a good measure; that is a measure of how
we are substituting petroleum for people on the farm. And if the petroleum peak
starts down, we are not going to be able to continue to do that. So global
agriculture today takes on the order of 10 units of energy to put 1 unit of food
energy on your plate, and that is terribly inefficient and it is getting worse
KMO: But in addition to the sort of false efficiency
that is claimed because there are fewer human hours of labor going into the
production of food, I think that is sort of the euphemistic gloss on saying that
we have lost an enormous amount of human intellectual capital in terms of people
who know how to grow food.
Albert: That is
KMO: Very few people have anything to do at all with the
production of their own food and the people who are producing these huge
quantities of calories now, they are not doing it by tending plants in the soil,
they are doing it by driving tractors back and forth across these enormous
fields and, you know, using these huge combines to spray petroleum based
fertilizers on the land and then just spray Round-Up and other poisons and then
drive over and harvest the crops once they have grown, and these folks, you
know, if you gave them a shovel and a pack of seeds and a bucket of horse manure
they would not necessarily know how to go and actually plant a garden that is
going to grow some food for them.
Albert: I think you are
KMO: Now, another problem that we face here in
the US is that we have physically structured the country such that people live
out in the suburbs, which are places that are pretty much devoid of any
agricultural land and pretty much devoid of even the goods and services that
people depend on in daily life, because it is pre-supposed that people will be
able to get in their cars and cover 30 miles, you know, without really thinking
much about it to go and buy things.
Albert: Now, the lands where
these people work, those used to be agricultural lands. We never built
subdivisions on waste land. We always build our subdivisions on the best
agricultural land that is available.
KMO: Why is
Albert: Well, the cities were built, originally, in the
center of good agricultural land. So as the cities expand, it is only
agricultural land that they can expand onto.
KMO: I read
something that is kind of amusing, and that it is we have this national
obsession with the lawn, the modern culture of grass. You know this carpet that
is supposed to sweep from coast to coast, unbroken from one patch of carefully
tended monoculture into the next. And somebody suggested that that might just
turn out to be a saving grace because in these huge suburban tracts we have set
aside land that can be reclaimed for small scale agriculture. Albert: We did
that during World War II, we had Liberty Gardens all over the country, and I do
not know what fraction of the U.S. domestic food supply came from Liberty
Gardens, but I think it could have been 5%. It could have been 10%. That
significant. But we did that, and people dug up their yards and planted gardens.
In fact, I think there was a symbolic liberty garden on the White House lawn.
KMO: I am pretty sure it is gone now.
think Öoh yes.
KMO: In the passage that I read from Vincent
Caspriano Jr., he was saying that the more ideologically extreme groups in the
world right now seem to have an intuitive understanding of the fact that a
population correction is in order, and they are shamelessly and explicitly
campaigning to have their chosen group be the sacrificial lamb. And if you were
to poll them and say, "OK, we need to get rid of two out of 10 people in the
world, who do you think we should get rid of?" Well, they are going to have a
ready answer. And it seems that most groups who are propagating an Ďus versus
themí ideology have selected the group that they would like to see
eliminated, and are openly campaigning for it.
Albert: Yes, that
may be. You know, if making war is your idea on how to solve the future
problems, why then I am sure people are thinking like that but I donít think
like that, and I do not want to have any part of people who are thinking like
KMO: You have spent a long time honing your presentation
and your arguments, and your arguments seem to be pretty thorough going and
difficult to refute in terms of laying out what the problem is. I ask a lot of
people, a lot of people who are very friendly to the notion of peak oil and
people who are very friendly to the notion of returning us to a more localized
sort of lifestyle where we depend upon the people who are physically close to
us, and a sense of community and shared faith that we have with these people.
But when I ask them, "Do you think that there is a Malthusian Correction in the
offing?", almost universally the answer is no.
I had Thomas
Holmer-Dickson, the author of "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and
the Renewal of Civilization" on the program a couple of months ago, and I asked
him about the potential for a Malthusian Correction and his response was that
right now, as you pointed out, our system of agriculture is very inefficient,
and there is a lot of slack in it, and that we could tighten things up. We could
change the agricultural system such that it is sufficient to feed everybody. Do
you think that is the case?
Albert: I think that would involve
many people now living in cities and employed in urban environments to go back
to farming. And that is a major sociological shift.
KMO: Well, I
tell you, I would very much like to be an organic farmer and do nothing but. But
in the current economy it is a very difficult shift to make for somebody who
wants to do it. And most people have no interest in doing
Albert: You know, I agree. It is going to be a very difficult
shift. But I think there will be a large readjustment somewhere along the line
that was predicted in Limits to Growth. But there will be a very significant
population die back. Now let me speculate as to why people who are well informed
about current problems donít think there will be a Malthusian crisis. I think I
believe these people, they have heard it so often; these credentialed
professorial types who say we have proven Malthus wrong.
And let me give
you an example. I gave my talk to a group of retired people, not too long ago,
and I saw in the audience a retired professor of economics, and I could see,
from the talk as I watched his face, he just got more and more agitated. When I
finished, he got up, turned to the audience and said: "This is all wrong. This
is just Malthus all over again. We have proven Malthus wrong." And he went on
and on, and I kind of knew him so when he quieted down I talked to him and I
said: "Well look, you know the arithmetic of growth, and you know the growth
cannot go on." And he said: "Yes, I know that, that is true" but he
said: "We have to grow for now" I said: "Why for now?" He said:
"To help poor people". Well now the one thing that we know, from news
reports that come out several times a year is that the present situation, based
on growth, is one that results in an increasing gap, economically, between the
well to do, and the poor. And that gap is increasing. It is increasing in the
United States. It is increasing globally. And I wonder to myself, "What
planet has this guy been living on?"
People believe that somehow
technology is going to save us. Technology is the main thing that has gotten us
into this problem. Because the main effect of technology is to allow population
to continue to grow. And as long as the populations continue to grow, the
problems get worse.
And I think we should remember Eric Sevareid's law.
Eric Sevareid was a national journalist. He observed that the main source of
problems is solutions. So in everything we do, we are trying to solve problems.
Most of the problems we are trying to solve are caused by population growth. And
a problem is anything that inhibits population growth, so solving a problem
involves removing the inhibition. So what we have done then is open the door to
even more population growth. And I am particularly critical of the business of
urban planning, because urban planning is just making everything worse. And you
can say "smart growth" and things like this. Well I like to point out that smart
growth destroys the environment. Dumb growth destroys the environment. Now,
smart growth destroys the environment in good taste, so it is a little like
buying a ticket on the Titanic. If you are smart you go first class, if you are
dumb you go steerage, but either way the result is about the same.
KMO: So if you know you are going to be on the Titanic, and you
know it is going to sink, you might as well have a few good meals and a nice
stroll on deck.
Albert: Thatís right. That is what we are doing,
you know. The Ďwell to doí are taking care of themselves.
the short term.
Albert: They are lobbying for all kinds of tax
breaks and other considerations that keep them, and the lifestyle, and life
trajectory that they are on and never mind the rest of the people.
KMO: I suspect that a lot of the people who are
solution-oriented, and now I am talking about actual solutions and not bigger
grander technological boondoggle solutions, but decentralization, getting back
to organic agriculture, getting more people involved in food production. These
folks, I think, or at least I sometimes suspect, will not entertain the idea of
a Malthusian crisis because they think that, if they were to say it out loud,
that it would just make the situation seem hopeless and that nobody would be
motivated to do anything.
Albert: Well, I think there is a real
element of truth in that.
KMO: Well, you have been very effective
at articulating the problem that we have; the situation that we face. What are
your ideal goals for pursuing the solution?
Albert: Well, I am
sort of working to try to educate people that growth is a problem. Growth of
population is a problem. The effect of this growth on natural resources is a
problem. The problems are all related to one another by arithmetic. The
arithmetic is not difficult. We can understand the problems, and we can take
steps to solve them. So I am still working at that level; trying just to educate
people in the hope that we can have a more enlightened approach to the future.
KMO: You think that somebody who has a consciousness of peak oil
now and somebody who has an understanding of the mathematics behind growth; do
you think they have any better prospect for surviving the Malthusian correction
than somebody who is oblivious?
Albert: No, I donít think so. They
may, I donít know. Following the Malthusian crisis is certainly going to be a
difficult, challenging thing. And I suspect we are much more equal in our
ability to solve, personally solve, the crisis as it affects us; and that the
people who are Ďvery well to doí may not be much better off than the people who
are very poor. In fact, you know; if you look at them, say what group in the
United States today is the most sustainable, through their lifestyle today. And
I would tend to say it is probably the, what is the agriculture group in western
Pennsylvania, that religious agriculture group, not the shakers, it
KMO: The Menonites?
Albert: Well, the
Mennonites. People who are very conservative religiously, who donít use
automobiles or power; have used horsepower, horses on their farms and do their
agriculture. They are very successful. But it is a way of life I wouldnít want
to shift to myself. But they are very successful, and I think when the crunch
counts, these people will be very well situated personally to
KMO: Well, I think most people, given the choice right
now would not voluntarily adopt an Amish or Mennonite
Albert: Yes, Amish. That is the
KMO: If they were given the option of adopting an Amish
lifestyle or dying of starvation; that is a pretty easy choice to
Albert: Well, right, but you know, in todayís situation I
donít think people, or many people, would voluntarily make that
KMO: I appreciate your time, and we have pretty much come
to the end of the time that we have available. What final thoughts would you
like to leave with somebody who has taken an interest in the topics you
articulated so well?
Albert: Well, I thank you for your interest,
and I just simply say we have to fight growth wherever we observe it; population
growth in particular. We have to note in our communities that population growth
never pays for itself. It results in higher taxes, higher congestion, higher air
pollution, higher utility costs for all of us. And we just have to try to get a
national ground swell to get people to realize that growth is the wrong path to
follow, and that we have got to stop the growth now while we can do it on our
terms. If we donít stop it now, then Nature will stop it through a big
KMO: Professor Albert Bartlett, I thank you very much for
your time and I hope that you will continue to do what you have been doing, for
sometime yet to come.
Albert: Thank you, KMO.
Professor Albert Bartlett has a BA
degree from Colgate University; MA and PhD degrees in Nuclear Physics from
Harvard University. He was a member of the faculty of the University of
Colorado since 1950. In 1978, he served as President of the American
Association of Physics Teachers, and in 1981 received the Association's
Robert A. Millikan Award.
The concepts discussed in the above interview are partly covered
in one of Prof. Bartlett's lectures, Arithmetic, Population and Energy,
available on YouTube in 8 parts, and based on the paper, "Forgotten
Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis," American Journal of Physics, Vol. 46,
pp. 876-888, Sept. 1978, and revised in the Journal of Geological Education,
Vol. 28 #1, pp.4-35, Jan. 1980.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOBPNtupL_Q&feature=related Part II
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GySmzLw3zs&feature=related Part III
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQd-VGYX3-E&feature=related Part IV
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-X6EpvWWu8&feature=related Part V
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-3y7UlHdhAU&feature=related Part VI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyseLQVpJEI&feature=related Part VII
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VoiiVnQadwE&feature=related Part VIII
This interview is herein reprinted with the
Posted May 31,
You are here: HOME page-SPRING 2009 Issue-Apocalypse
Previous : FDR Address Next : The Vampires