Wednesday, September 11, 2013

An Important Voice On Climate Change & Population Growth Is No More

Physicist Albert Bartlett, as reported in yesterday’s Denver Post (p. 8A) has died. Bartlett was a “celebrated speaker and writer on world population growth” and especially how it impacted global warming as well as long term energy supplies. His major contribution was in showing how exponential growth has the capacity to wreck us all – as he showed the havoc instigated when population grows exponentially while energy sources grow only linearly or arithmetically.

In this sense, perhaps his greatest monograph was the book, The Essential Exponential, and especially the chapters (3, 'On Population' and 6, 'The Arithmetic of Growth') highlighting world population growth and also its impact on climate change.

More recently, Prof. Bartlett’s article, ‘Thoughts on Long-Term Energy Supplies: Scientists and the Silent Lie’ in Physics Today(July, 2004, p. 53) pinpointed the failure to name human population growth as a major cause of our energy and resource problems.

Bartlett averred that “their” (scientists’) general reticence stemmed from the fact that it’s become politically incorrect or unpopular to argue for stabilization of population – at least in the U.S. He added: “Or perhaps scientists are uncomfortable stepping outside their specialized areas of expertise”.

Whatever the reason, Bartlett argued it was equivalent to perpetuating a “silent lie”, a term derived from a Mark Twain quote: “Almost all lies are acts, and speech has no part in them…I am speaking of the lie of silent assertion: we can tell it without saying a word.”

This silent lie occurred each time a rosy economic forecast is given, and energy scientists – for example, withhold comment rather than strongly vocalizing how these forecasts are adrift from reality since they take no account of “externalities” or “external costs”.

To put the numbers in more stark relief, Bartlett, in a follow-up extended letter in Physics Today (Letters, November, 2004, p. 18) noted that in the 1970s there were about 2.2 liters per person per day of oil. Of this, one could estimate that just over half or nearly 1.3 liters went to food production, processing, preparation or distribution. This was in a world with nearly 2.7 billion fewer people! Today, we are down to a production level of barely 1.6 liters per person per day while the consumption level approaches 4 liters per person per day. After Peak Oil (which likely occurred ni 2005), the latter will continue to increase, while the former will diminish by about 2-3 percent per year. It doesn’t take a math genius to ascertain that this is a recipe for catastrophic crash of the human population.

According to a Colorado University press release, Prof. Bartlett gave his most famous talk “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” 1,742 times in 49 states and seven other countries, to students, corporations and government agencies. As the CU release adds:

“His timeless, internationally revered lecture on the impacts of world population growth will live beyond his passing, a distinction few professors can claim.”

The release also noted that the world population is now 7.1 billion and the Boulder campus planned to celebrate his population growth talk with at least three volunteer performances of the lecture over 2013-14, which will be made available on You tube.

An even better way for students to carry on Bartlett’s legacy, would be to practice it in their lives – by being among those who have only one or no children. Especially in the energy intensive US of A, where each citizen born imparts an enormous carbon footprint relative to the rest of the world.

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