Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment - part 5
by Prof. Al Bartlett
Laws, hypotheses, observations and predictions relating to sustainability
The Laws, Hypotheses, Observations, and Predictions that follow are offered to define the term "sustainability." In some cases these statements are accompanied by corollaries that are identified by capital letters. They all apply for populations and rates of consumption of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world in 1998, and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in primitive tribal situations.
These Laws are believed to hold rigorously.
The Hypotheses are less rigorous than the laws. There may be exceptions to some, and some may be proven to be wrong. Experience may show that some of the hypotheses should be elevated to the status of laws.
The Observations may shed light on the problems and on mechanisms for finding solutions to the problems.
The Predictions are those of a retired nuclear physicist who has been watching these problems for several decades.
The lists are but a single compilation, and hence may be incomplete. Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard to items that should or should not be in these lists.
In many cases, these laws and statements have been recognized, set forth, and elaborated on by others.
Laws relating to sustainability
First Law: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.
B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of "development," that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources. This is true even if the program is said to be "sustainable."
C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting "sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.
D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.
E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.
F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.
G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability.
(Advertising your city or state as an ideal site in which to locate new factories, indicates a desire to increase the population of your city or state.)
H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.
Second Law: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995) [ This is called "population momentum." ]
A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates until the growth finally stops.
B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st century, we must make the necessary changes before the end of the 20th century.
C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight years.
D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the lifetimes of those leaders.
Fourth Law: The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))
A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.
B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law: 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.
A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic but stable ecosystems.
B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or the sustainable standard of living.
C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.
D) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment. This is true locally and globally.
Sixth Law: (The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons") (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.
A) 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.
B) 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)
Seventh Law: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.
A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth. More relevant than the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. ( Hubbert 1974)
B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resources will last "at present rates of consumption." (zero growth)
Eighth Law: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by:
i) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used
ii) using the resources in accord with a program of "Sustained Availability," (Bartlett 1986)
iv) the use of substitute resources.
Ninth Law: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.
A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.
B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.
Tenth Law: The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.
Eleventh Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.
Twelfth Law: (Eric Sevareid's Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970)
A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.
Thirteenth Law: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus' two postulata.)
A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.
B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as:
i) Urbanization and development
iii) Poisioning by chemicals
Fourteenth Law: If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.
B) Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.
Fifteenth Law: In every local situation, creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.
Sixteenth Law: Starving people don't care about sustainability.
A) If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.
Seventeenth Law: The addition of the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Eighteenth Law: Extinction is forever.
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