Miguel Barbosa Interviews Albert Bartlett: “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy” – Puzzling Growth Rates

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Jan 15, 2010
I have to thank Jeremy Grantham for referencing Albert Bartlett’s talk, “Arithmetic, Population, & Energy”, in his semi annual letter to partners. It inspired me to track down Professor Bartlett and interview him for our readers.


Professor Albert Bartlett Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In the public space Professor Bartlett is most well known for his lecture titled Arithmetic, Population, and Energy. A Lecture he has given over 1,600 times since September, 1969. Bartlett joined the faculty of the University of Colorado in Boulder in September 1950. His B.A. degree in physics is from Colgate University (1944) and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in physics are from Harvard University (1948), (1951). In 1978 he was national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1969 and 1970 he served two terms as the elected Chair of the four-campus Faculty Council of the University of Colorado.

Question & Answers (Copyright 2009-2010 Miguel Barbosa & Albert Bartlett)

You have become very famous for your talk, “Arithmetic, Population, and Energy.” What motivated you to create this talk?

In the late 1960’s I began to realize that people didn’t understand the large numbers that result from steady growth rates. So, forty years ago I developed the talk; I’ve given it an average of once every 8.7 days for 40 years.

Why do you think people have such difficulty understanding (compounding) growth rates?

It’s arithmetic; people don’t like arithmetic. You hear it at cocktail parties. People say, “Oh, I’m terrible at arithmetic.” You never hear anyone say “I can’t read or write.” My impression is that after my talk people understand it very quickly. Years ago I gave it very slowly and in two parts to junior high school students. After the second part, two little kids came up and said, “We can understand it, why can’t grownups?”

You’re a physicist; how did you become interested in physics? And how did you land a job at Los Alamos?

I had a high school physics course that I enjoyed very much. After high school I went to college, but dropped out to work on steamboats in the Great Lakes. After working for a while, I transferred to Colgate University, took my first college physics class, did well, and stuck with it. Richard Feynman once said, “If there was anything more fun than physics I’d be doing it.”…He couldn’t seem to find anything more fun. The same applies to me.

Did you meet Richard Feynman?

Yes. I was at Los Alamos during the war…whenever he would lecture the entire lab would stop to listen to him. He was simultaneously a great physicist and a great clown.

What about Niels Bohr? Tell us about your experiences meeting with him.

“I was sitting at the lunch counter and Niels Bohr sat down beside me. I was amazed.” What was it like being around these scientists? I was in constant awe. I’d often ask myself how ended up in such a place. I barely had a Bachelors degree. But that was sufficient to get me into these secret meetings. I went religiously to those meeting and one thing led to another.

Do you think most politicians understand growth rates, but prefer to look the other way?

These are chamber of commerce types: promoters, builders, architects. Their business is promoting growth. But the single thing to note is that, both at the community level and national level, growth doesn’t pay for itself. The more you grow the greater your debt load. Colorado has had decades of wild and largely uncontrolled growth and is now practically bankrupt. People become fed up with the constant increases in taxes needed to pay the costs of growth and they vote for tax limitation measures. Unfortunately, the growth promoters seem to find ways around these limitations, so the growth continues and the consequent problems escalate rapidly. We can see this happening in California and we have a similar situation brewing in Colorado.

What you are implying is that true growth would lead to profitability and thus state governments could accumulate reserves?

Rational people (leaders) would have reserves for lean years. In fact this reminds me – there’s a little book called, “Better Not Bigger” by Eben Fodor. He looks at the municipal costs of growth in various communities. He estimates that every new house built in Oregon costs the Oregon taxpayer something in the order of $25,000 in costs not paid by taxes on the construction of the home itself.

This reminds us of utilities companies…

Utilities right now are fighting around the country to get more coal and nuclear plants around the country. What they are really fighting for, and what they normally get, is the right to tax customers for the costs of planning and construction. . In a more rational world the investors would bear these responsibilities, and when the plant was finished you could figure the cost into the rate system- so that the people that built it would be reimbursed. Now, rather than going out and borrowing money they want to get money from rate payers while they are planning. Often state regulators are allowing utilities to charge payers for planning costs- and it isn’t even clear that the plants will be built. This is a perpetual growth promoting situation.

If companies grew for very long periods at high rates (say 15% plus) within a matter of years we would all be working forthem.

Some investors fail to realize that growth eventually undoes itself. That is to say growth is mean reverting. For you or me any additional physical growth would either be; obesity or cancer. There’s a time to grow, yet when you reach maturity any further growth is detrimental.

Your book titled, “The Essential Exponential for the Future of our Planet,” contains a chapter called, “Democracy Cannot Survive Overpopulation,” in which you argue convincingly that overpopulation, by raising the number of constituents per elected official, makes it harder for individuals to gain access to representatives and have a voice in politics. Also, overpopulation breeds government regulation to cope with problems caused by population pressure.

Yes, this is a very important issue. To be exact, I took the title of the chapter from Issac Asimov. Here’s an example: When I moved to Boulder Colorado (in 1950) the population was 20,000 and there were 9 city members on the council. Today the population is 100,000 and there are still only 9 city members on the council. So in effect today we only have 20% of the democracy we use to have in 1950.

In essence, it’s harder for the individual to have access to a representative?

Of course. In the decade of the 1990’s the US population grew by 13.1%, while the number of members in the House of Representatives didn’t grow at all. So we can say that at the national level, democracy declined by 13.1% Furthermore, the Constitution requires that the government perform what is called redistricting. This happens after every census. Redistricting ensures that the populations of districts are equal across the country. In our example, the average district needed to have 13.1% more constituents after the 2000 census than after the 1990’s census. This means that every district went from approximately 600,000 constituents to approximately 700,000 constituents. Compare that with the first Congress where the makeup was 30,000 constituents per member of Congress. It’s true that women didn’t vote and thus the electorate makeup was different, but you can imagine one person in Congress representing 30,000. It’s much harder to imagine one person representing 700,000 people. Every district in the country had to grow by 100,000 people. There’s no way you can represent that many people. So it’s much easier as a politician to take your ideas from the lobbyist who has plenty of money. As a result we now often get one dollar-one vote versus what use to be one person-one vote.

Are you suggesting there’s a crowding out effect? That is to say, in a time of many important issues (global warming, health care, and financial crises) people are alienated?

Yes, that’s right.

You say the terms “sustainable” and “sustainability” are popularly used to describe “activities that are ecologically laudable,” but unsustainable. How can the average reader interested in learning about sustainability decide whether publications are seeking to illuminate or obfuscate? Slogans are seemingly designed to “sustain” optimistm and vagueness.

There are a few organizations devoted to alert people of the dangers of population growth. There’s a group called Californians for Population Stabilization. There’s a real good group in Washington called Negative Population Growth; they have the best series of monographs of any group I’m aware of. You can find them on the web at npg.org.

How do you approach reading periodicals that present confusing growth rates?

I approach periodicals with skepticism and look for absurdities. Remember that politicians will try to claim that there isn’t a conflict between saving the environment and smart growth. Unfortunately, both smart growth and dumb growth destroy the environment. The only difference is that smart growth destroys the environment with good taste. It’s like buying a ticket on the Titanic, if you’re smart you go first class. But the outcome is the same…the boat still sinks.

Well if the outcome is the same, then most sustainable solutions are pseudosolutions. Tells us about pseudosolutions

It’s so discouraging when you see Al Gore’s book & film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Early in his book he says population growth has changed our whole way of life. With those words he is saying that he understands that population growth is the cause of the problem. Unfortunately at the end of his book when outlining the things you can do to avoid environmental problems (changing bulbs etc), Gore never mentions curbing population growth. This behavior is what Mark Twain would call a “silent lie.” If you have information that would help other people if you shared it, but you kee it hidden. Then you are guilty of what Mark Twain would call a silent lie.

In 1994, you wrote “In the manner of Alice in Wonderland, and without regard for accuracy or consistency, ‘sustainability’ seems to have been redefined flexibly to suit a variety of wishes and conveniences.” How are you seeing sustainability used by current politicians and businesses? Has it gotten worse? And what are the most recent clear examples of misuse of sustainability by politicians?

I couldn’t quantify it, but I believe so. Everything now is called “sustainable.” It’s the “in” thing to do, whether it’s sustainable or not.

According to your interpretation of the Tragedy of the Commons (Hardin 1968) your writings suggest that there will always be large opposition to programs of making population growth pay for itself. Those who profit from (uneconomic)growth will use their considerable resources to convince the community that the community should pay the costs of growth. How does the tragedy of the commons relate to launching wars?

The world’s oceans are a perfect example of the tragedy of the commons. By and large they are unmanaged commons and they are destroyed by high tech fisheries. This is tragic for local fishermen who have lived off the oceans for centuries. Small conflicts over resources can lead to wars.”

When it comes to war… look at Iraq. The poor GIs getting shot and killed are paying an enormous cost. Bush seems to think there is a law of conservation of terrorists, that is to say, “There are a certain number of terrorists in the world and you kill them all and you solve the problem.” Unfortunately, this doesn’t solve the problem at all. We aren’t reducing terrorism; rather, we are increasing it.

Where does the role of economist, Kenneth Boulding, play into the topic of population growth?

He’s one of the few economists that I can respect. He was a colleague at the University of Colorado. He is known for saying that, “Anyone who thinks that steady growth can continue indefinitely, is either a madman or an economist.” I once asked Boulding if he said that, he gave me a funny smile and said, “Yes, I think so.” Boulding’s three laws are related to sustainability. In fact, in my opinion, they say it all. The second law is the important one. It says, the solution to problems create more problems. “The main source of problems is solutions.

Excerpt of Boulding’s Three Laws:

First Theorem: “The Dismal Theorem” If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

Second Theorem: “The Utterly Dismal Theorem” This theorem states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

Third Theorem: “The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem” Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous. Until we know more, the Cheerful Theorem remains a question mark. Misery we know will do the trick. This is the only sure- fire automatic method of bringing population to equilibrium. Other things may do it.

This is reminiscent of Eric Sevareid’s Law – The Chief Cause of Problems is Solutions. In a society as complex as ours is there a way around this issue?

I don’t believe there is a way around this issue. In a society as complex as ours it’s impossible to anticipate the interaction of all agents. It’s very much like the operation of the National Electric Grid. No one knows exactly how it operates. So if a squirrel crosses the wrong power line the east coast can go without power. These things do in fact happen. More importantly, because our system is so complex it’s vulnerable. If we are talking about a war on terror we wouldn’t want such a vulnerable system.

In preparation for this interview you sent us a book review. My favorite quote from this review is the following: “A society that is totally dependent on high tech for the functioning of every aspect of the lives of its people is vulnerable to disruption by acts of God and acts of people. The complexities of our pres¬ent infrastructure predictably lead to unpredictable failures. More complex infrastructures anticipated for the future will probably experience larger unpredictable failures.”

There is big talk in Europe right now about putting large fields of solar collectors in the Sahara Desert and then transmitting the power under the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It looks good on paper, but the long extended transmission lines will be vulnerable to the forces of nature and to terrorists. A small group of individuals could deprive Europe of a big fraction of its electricity for long periods of time. “Insanity” is the only word I can think of to describe plans to build this incredibly expensive system that is so transparently vulnerable to sabotage.”

In other words, complex infrastructure(s) translate into unpredictable failures. When it comes to alternative energy, most solutions are complex. What’s your opinion of alternative energy sources?

If alternative energies are to replace existing technologies very sizable investments would be required. I often wonder if there is enough capital in the world to replace this existing energy production, that is, to go from coal & natural gas to geothermal, wind or or solar. I don’t know the answer to the investment question.

What I do know is that it’s very difficult to manage wind energy. Currently, coal plants provide base loads and then natural gas (or hydroelectric) turbines are used to meet peak loads. But when you factor wind into your management scheme things become very difficult. You don’t know where the wind is blowing, how much, when, or in what direction it’s blowing. Then you have to factor this into your management. With 5% of your electricity coming from wind this “might” be manageable but to increase it to 50% or 60% it’s very difficult. Most people don’t pay attention to the difficulties of managing electrical demand.

Is the culprit of global warming population growth? Are you suggesting that unless we have major breakthroughs in technology population growth will undermine most current energy initiatives?

Al Gore understands that population growth is the problem. But he doesn’t recommend doing anything to reduce overpopulation which is the cause of the problems.. It is politically incorrect to talk about population growth. The last US president that worried about population was Richard Nixon. He charted a major study called “The Rockefeller Commission Report.” This study was put together by some very talented people. Their conclusion was simple; they couldn’t see any benefit to further population growth in the US. Unfortunately, the study was put on the shelf and forgotten.

This reminds me of the Red Queen…the more she runs the more the walls/scenery catch up. What can we do?

This is something Malthus understood years ago. We still have economists and politicians that claim that Malthus was wrong. This is nonsense. I’ve read Malthus three times and he presents population problems very clearly. The message of Malthus, translated to today’s problems would be something like this: “Population growth has the potential to outstrip the growth in production of any of the resources that are necessary to sustain our population. This is as true today as it was a hundred years ago when he wrote his essay.

I’d like to ask you a question from the title of your own piece, “Why have scientists succumbed to political correctness?”

I don’t know. I think there is a widespread feeling amongst scientists and certainly among the population that science and technology will save us, so why worry about it? Here’s a story… I was once met with a state senator; he said to me “I’m not worried about running out of petroleum, you (pointing to me) scientists will figure out what ever we need.” So I asked him what was the last new source of energy scientists found? He didn’t have an answer,

so I suggested nuclear power – the process was discovered in Germany in 1939. Enrico Fermi had a reactor operating in 1942. By 1956 we had first commercial nuclear power reactor in this country. Since then, we have spent billions of public and private dollars and we only receive 20% of our electricity from nuclear power. Innovation on the large scale required by our overpopulated society will take time and costs billions of dollars..

Even if science/technology develops the appropriate energy solutions. These solutions would have to be developed and implemented at the same rate as the population growth?

What you must realize is that technological improvements by design allow for and encourage more growth. This is like prescribing aspirin for cancer. As for the timing you’re absolutely right: while technology develops populations keep compounding. And because the scale is so large it’s impossible to implement changes quick enough. In other words, it’s very difficult to get 30% of the population using hybrid electric cars in anything short of 20 years.

Let’s talk about employment. Does growth solve unemployment problems?

If creating jobs reduced unemployment, Colorado would have negative unemployment (or whatever that means). For decades we have been creating jobs and we still have unemployment. No matter how many jobs you create you can’t get off unemployment. This is a consequence of people moving around – a constitutionally protected right.

Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate (say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%). Yet this is 5% of the no larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.

What’s your opinion of national unemployment rates and the recent crisis?

For years, we have promoted an insane policy of exporting jobs and importing people. So now it’s catching up with us. Any country that has to import people to do the work of the country is unsustainable. One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living. All countries cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity. World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying capacity.

Tell us more about carrying capacity and trade.

Carrying capacity is a measure of how many people can be supported indefinitely. Therefore if any fraction of global warming is due to the actions of humans, this alone proves that human populations are larger than the carrying capacity of the earth. Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

Many economists have raised concerns over countries particularly European countries which have experienced zero population growth rates (or negative population rates). They claim that these rates will burden “entitlements” such as social security… So clearly the answer is to have higher birth rates…unfortunately this only exacerbates the problems of “sustainability.” What’s your take?

Social Security and such projects are Ponzi schemes. They depend on having more and more people paying every year or they collapse. In effect, Social Security will collapse when there aren’t enough young workers. Getting the population back on the growth curve isn’t a long term answer. That makes all the other problems more difficult. So what you have to do is refinance social security – by raising taxes, reducing benefits, or altering the retirement age.

It’s so sad to see European politicians offering bonuses to couples to have more children because they are afraid of slowing growth rates. What people don’t realize is that declining growth rates are the way to sustainability.

You talk about how zero or negative population growth rates translate into higher standards of living. Can you comment on this?

Thirty years ago when the Chinese put their one child per family policy, there statement of justification was that population growth interferes with economic development. In 30 years, they have proven this is true. We in the U.S. haven’t learned this lesson – if you spend all your resources to take care of new people you have no resources to take care of existing citizens.

That’s interesting; we look at China as an economic miracle. Not many attribute much of this success to controlled population growth. This brings me to my next question: many population problems will not be solved unless Americans are consistently implementing plans for the next 70 years. How do we manage this given our political structures? Does China have an advantage?

That’s a great difficulty. Planning horizons in a democracy are based in term years (2, 4, 6 years). Unfortunately, if you change fertility rates it can take 50-70 years before you see the full effects of a change in fertility. This is called population momentum which is a mismatch to our democracy. Politicians implement changes that benefit us in the short term over the long term.

Have you ever calculated the required population for all countries to enjoy the standard of living experienced by Americans?

I haven’t done that, and there isn’t any specific formula. It depends on the standard of living. The most I can do is quote David Pimentel who is a global agricultural scientist at Cornell University. He says that a sustainable world population living at current US dietary level would consist of two billion people. Furthermore, he suggests that a sustainable US population at current dietary levels would have to be around 130-150 million people, which is the population of the US around World War II.

So, how do we get there? My answer is that the government should bring the issue to the forefront and ask; how large do we (as a nation) want to be and what benefit is there from population growth. Then, we need to set goals and plan accordingly. The key is to make family planning available widely throughout the US and the world – with the goal that every child is a wanted child.

You’ve written that, “The benefits of population growth accrue to a few; while the costs are borne by all of society.” Let’s enumerate some of the costs borne by society and a potential solution.

Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are also good for society. [This is the Charles Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.] (Yates 1983) As for the costs borne by society – with increased growth you have to provide police, fire, schools, waste removal, clean water, and a variety of other infrastructure projects. These services have to be paid for – but they aren’t paid for by growth. Schools in particular suffer. The school systems get their operating expenses from the taxes and to get capital expenses they have to issue bonds. Thus, all tax payers have to pay higher taxes to accommodate schools for new kids.

The solution is to tax growth, put a tax on real estate transactions (both at local levels and state levels) and use this tax to fund new projects.

Where are most economists confused on this issue of growth rates & consumption?

Economists think of infinite substitutability. They cite the example of shifting out of whale oil to petroleum or from wood to coal. Economists suggest that this can continue indefinitely. Unfortunately there are no close substitutes for petroleum. Furthermore, we already know which substitutes exist and they are very costly to access. The substitutability age is no longer as prominent.

What books would you recommend we read to understand population growth rate issues?

I recommend reading Richard Heinberg’s books, “Peak Oil” and “Peak Everything.” He clearly understands the issues.

Is there any hope given the actions of the current administration?

I certainly welcome the new administration, but the problem is we have the same Congress. This Congress enjoys the status quo, they are protective of their own interests, and tey listen to lobbyists. So as someone once said, “we have the best government money can buy.”

Growth never pays for itself. One of the biggest culprits is the federal government. Almost all states have requirements for a balanced budget. The federal government does not have this requirement. As a consequence the federal government is now paying for state schools, highways, sewage systems, bridges. This has happened because the local economy can’t support local population growth. Therefore, the main responsibility of members of Congress is to bring home federal grants to pay for the results of population growth in their representative district.

Another thing to remember is that inflation is a tax on everyone. So if the federal government issues bonds to pay for the consequences of growth (infrastructure, etc) this is likely to result in inflation. Thus, we will all bear the costs. Having looked at our national debt levels, I’m worried that the inflation could be very severe.

That said, stopping population growth is a necessary condition for sustainability, but it isn’t a sufficient condition.

Let’s assume we could implement population growth constraints. What else must be done?

Assuming you can constrain population growth rates, you have to implement every possible efficiency improvement (meaning energy, design, etc). In addition, you would have to create an environmental agency to stop polluters and require existing sources of pollution to be removed. The US population growth rate is the highest of any industrial nation. The US can’t preach for other countries to limit population growth unless we are willing to set an example and do so first.

Key Points to Remember: By Albert Bartlett:

When applied to material things, the term “sustainable growth” is an oxymoron. (It is possible to have sustainable growth of non-material things such as inflation.) Perhaps this is why inflation rates are sustainable or as some politicians would say hopefully sustainable in moderate amounts. We have seen how major national and international reports misrepresent and downplay (marginalize) the quantitative importance of the arithmetic of population sizes and growth.

1. One has to ask if it is possible to have an increase in economic activity (growth) without having increases in the rates of consumption of non-renewable resources? If so, under what conditions can this happen? Are we moving toward those conditions today?

2. What courses of action that could be followed to meet the needs of the present, but which, in doing so, would not limit the ability of generations, throughout the distant future, to meet their own needs?

3. The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standards of living of the population are inversely related to one another. “This runs counter to most traditional entrepreneurial myths of sustainable growth and rising standards of living”

I come back to an Eric Sevareid quote: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.” That is so important. For example, as long as there’s population growth, urban planning is bound to make everything worse. Here’s why. Essentially all the problems planners must deal with are caused by population growth. And planners are trained to solve problems. For a planner, a problem is anything that inhibits population growth. So when you solve the problem you are encouraging more population growth, and this makes everything worse.

Professor thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. We will continue to track your progress. I wish you the best of health. For More information about Professor Bartlett visit Albartlett.org

Miguel Barbosa

Founder of