Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment - part 5

by Prof. Al Bartlett

Hypotheses relating to sustainability

1) For the 1998 average global standard of living, the 1998 population of the Earth exceeds the carrying capacity of the Earth. (Pimentel 1994) [Cohen (1995) would probably debate this.]

2) For the 1998 average standard of living in the United States, the 1998 population of the United States exceeds the carrying capacity of the United States. (Abernethy 1993a), (Giampietro and Pimentel 1993)

3) The increasing sizes of populations that result from population growth are the single greatest and most insidious threat to representative democracy.

4) The costs of programs to stop population growth are small compared to the costs of population increases.

5) For society as a whole, population growth never pays for itself. [This is a consequence of the Tragedy of the Commons.]

A) In the U.S. in general, the larger the population of a city, the higher are the municipal per-capita annual taxes.

B) Sales taxes generated by a large shopping center in a small town may make it appear that growth of the shopping center has earned more than its public costs, but these earnings are at the expense of the areas surrounding the town.

6) The time required for a society to make a planned transition to sustainability on its own terms, so it can live within the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, increases with increases in

i) the size of its population

ii) the rate of growth of its population

iii) the society's average per-capita rate of consumption of new resources.

7) The rate (S) at which a society can improve the average standard of living of its people is directly related to the rate of application of new technologies (T) and is inversely related to the rate of growth (R) of the size of the population (the fractional increase per unit time), by a relation with the general properties of the equation,

S = T - A R + B

where A and B are positive constants.

A) In places in the world in 1998, the value of R (the rate of growth of population) is so large that it is causing S to be negative. Said in other words:

a) Population growth competes with and slows down the rate of improvement of the average standard of living and may cause the average standard of living to decline. In other words:

b) Population growth interferes with economic growth.

8) Social stability is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for sustainability.

A) Human freedoms depend on social stability.

B) Armed conflict (war) cannot be a part of a sustainable society.

9) Social stability tends to be inversely related both to population size and density.

10) The per-capita burden of the lowered standard of living that generally results from population growth and from the decline of resources, falls most heavily on the poor.

11) When populations are growing, the rate of growth of the fraction of the population that is poor exceeds the rate of growth of the fraction of the population that is wealthy.

12) Environmental problems cannot be solved or ameliorated by increases in population or by increases in the rates of consumption of resources.

A) All environmental problems would be easier to solve if the population were smaller and / or if the rates of consumption of resources were smaller.

13) Problems of shortages of non-renewable resources cannot be solved or ameliorated by population growth.

14) Regional efforts to solve problems caused by population growth will only enlarge the problems if population growth in the region is not halted.

15) In general, neither the environment nor agriculture can be enhanced or even preserved through compromises.

A) Compromises and accommodations between the immediate needs of people and the long-term needs of the environment will generally be resolved in favor of people at the expense of the environment, as though people can exist independent of the environment. For the most part, compromises only reduce the rate of destruction of the environment or they increase the elegance with which the environment is destroyed.

B) Compromises between the demands of urban / industrial growth and agriculture will always result in the conversion of agricultural land to urban and industrial uses. The reverse conversion never happens.

16) The fractional rate of destruction of the environment that results from human activities will always exceed the fractional rate of increase of our knowledge and understanding of the environment.

A) Every decision affecting the environment will have to be made with less than full knowledge of the risks and consequences of the decision.

B) Much of our knowledge of the environment has come from the study of past mistakes.

C) It will always be possible for persons to argue for the delay of the implementation of corrective measures to save or preserve the environment, by claiming that our information about the problems is incomplete.

17) By the time overpopulation and shortages of resources are obvious to most people, the carrying capacity has been exceeded. It is then almost too late to think about sustainability.

A) It is difficult to know what to do once one realizes that the population of a society is too large.

B) Long-range thinking, planning, and leadership, carried out with a full recognition of the laws of nature, is most urgently needed.

18) For countries with large populations, importing non-renewable natural resources demonstrates unsustainability: exporting non-renewable natural resources reduces the ultimate sustainable standard of living and / or the carrying capacity of the exporting country.

19) When a society is living at the limit with regard to renewable resources such as food or water, small fluctuations in the supply can have large negative effects on the society.

20) Because of the growing universal nature of world trade, the concept of "carrying capacity" is difficult to apply to a nation or region.

A) Sustainability is a global problem.

B) However, the approach to stainability must be sought on the local and national levels.

C) If a local official speaks of his / her community being sustainable, it probably is not true.

21) Sustainable agriculture cannot be based on large annual energy inputs from fossil fuels, particularly petroleum.

i) "The food system consumes ten times more energy than it provides to society in food energy." (Giampietro and Pimentel 1993)

22) Irrigation of farmland, as it has been practiced throughout history and up to the present time, cannot be sustained. (Abernethy 1993a, p. 136)

i) The lands become poisoned with salts.

23) Hydroelectric power generated from reservoirs created by construction of large dams, cannot be sustained.

i) The reservoirs fill with silt.

Observations relating to sustainability

1) In order to moved toward a sustainable society, the first and most important effort that must be made is to stop population growth. This will require the initiation of major comprehensive educational, technical, and outreach programs in the areas of social responsibility, family planning, contraception, immigration, and resource use. To get things right, these programs must focus on the goal of stopping population growth and should not be diluted by omitting references to the numbers involved in understanding population growth. The greater the degree to which the carrying capacity has been exceeded, the more probable it is that coercion will become a factor in these programs.

2) The food chain is nature's equilibrium mechanism. It functions to prevent unlimited expansion of populations of flora and fauna. Primitive human societies were able to maintain approximately constant populations and to live within the carrying capacity of their ecosystems. The methods they used to maintain approximately constant populations were often cruel and inhumane. Technology has given many people the feeling that, through our own efforts, we are exempt from the cruel constraints of limited carrying capacities.

3) Ancient civilizations have vanished, in part because they grew too large and their size exceeded the carrying capacity of the ecosystems on which they depended for support.

a) Education notwithstanding, civilizations today show considerable tendency to repeat the mistakes of earlier civilizations, but on a much larger scale.

b) Growing international trade allows the developed countries to draw on the carrying capacity of the entire earth, often at the expense of underdeveloped countries.

4) The complete era of the use of fossil fuels by humans will be a vanishingly short fraction of the span of human existence on the Earth. (Hubbert 1974)

5) The supplies of all non-renewable resources will effectively expire when the costs (in cash, in energy, in ecological and societal disruption) of making available a quantity of the resource exceed the value of the quantity of the resource.

6) Comprehensive educational, technical, and outreach programs in the areas of efficient use of resources will be needed in order to help achieve sustainability.

7) A major use of technology is, and has been, to accommodate the growth of populations, and to remove the recognition of the importance of living within the carrying capacity of the environment. (See Boulding's "Utterly Dismal Theorem" and Eric Sevareid's Law)

A) This use of technology has had the effect of encouraging population growth.

B) This use of technology inhibits an approach to sustainability.

C) An essential condition for sustainability is that technology be redirected toward the improvement of the quality of life, especially for those whose quality of life is now low, and away from its present use to increase the quantity of life.

Technical predictions relating to sustainability

1) Peak world production of petroleum will probably happen before the year 2020. Peak production of coal and oil shale, may occur in the 21st Century. Other fossil fuels probably will not be available in globally significant quantities for more than a few decades into the 21st Century.

2) If replacements can be found for fossil fuels, especially for petroleum, it will require major technological breakthroughs.

3) Technological progress in the future is much more likely to be characterized by incremental advances than by breakthroughs, especially in the field of sources of energy.

4) The probability is very small that technological developments will produce new sources of energy in the next century, sources not already known in 1998, that will have the potential of supplying a significant fraction of the world's energy needs for any appreciable period of time.

5) The larger the global total daily demand for energy, the smaller is the probability that a new energy source or technology will be found that will have the potential of being developed sufficiently to meet an appreciable fraction of the global daily energy demand for any extended period of time.

6) The larger the global total daily demand for energy, the longer is the period of time that will be required for a new energy technology to be developed to the point where it will have the capacity of meeting an appreciable fraction of the global daily energy demand.

7) In the event that science and technology find a new source of large quantities of energy, the probability is high that the new source will be technologically very complex, with the result that it will be extremely costly to bring globally significant quantities of the new energy to the marketplace.

8) Children born in 1990 will not live to see 10% of the energy consumed in the U.S. generated by terrestrial nuclear fusion. (Bartlett 1990)

9) There will always be popular and persuasive technological optimists who believe that population increases are good, and who believe that the human mind has unlimited capacity to find technological solutions to all problems of crowding, environmental destruction, and resource shortages.

A) These technological optimists are usually not biological or physical scientists.

B) Politicians and business people tend to be eager disciples of these technological optimists.

10) Because population growth is only one of the factors that drives up the cost of living, the rate of increase of the cost of living will probably be larger than the rate of increase of population.

11) The rate of increase of the cost of living will be greater than the rate of increase of family income for a majority of families. This is what is called a "healthy economy."

Political predictions relating to sustainability

1) Local and regional business and political leaders will continue to spend much of their working time trying to attract new industries and populations to their areas, and to spend a prominent few minutes a week complaining and wondering what to do about the consequent increases in taxes, pollution, congestion, crime, costs, etc.

2) Local and regional political and business leaders will continue to use the circular arguments of self-fulfilling predictions in order to generate local population growth. The circular argument proceeds as follows:

i) Quantitative projections of the "inevitable" future population growth in the area are made.

ii) Plans are made to expand the municipal or regional infrastructure to accomodate the predicted growth.

iii) Bonds are issued to raise money to pay for the planned expansions of the infrastructure, and the infrastructure is expanded.

iv) The bonds must be paid off on a schedule that is based on the projections of population growth.

v) The political and business leaders will do everything in their power to make certain that the projected population growth takes place, so that the bonds can be paid off on schedule.

vi) When this results in the needed population growth, the leaders who predicted the population growth will speak loudly of their foresight.

vii) Go back to i) and repeat.

3) Some political and business leaders will continue to want to throw away all manner of toxic waste by dumping the waste on the lands of low-income or underdeveloped people, in the U.S. or abroad.

4) Some business leaders will want to continue to manufacture hazardous materials whose sale in the U.S. is prohibited, so that these materials can be sold abroad.

5) Business and political leaders will continue to find it more attractive to promote growth than to promote sustainability.

A) It is easy to talk about sustainability.

B) It is difficult to make realistic constructive progress toward sustainability

C) Business and political leaders are not attracted to the concept of limits as implied by the term "carrying capacity."

6) In the U.S., political "conservatives" will continue to be liberal in their policy recommendations in regard to rapid exploitation and use of the earth's renewable and non-renewable resources, with complete confidence that technology will be able to solve all of the consequent problems of shortages, pollution, and environmental degradation. Political "liberals" will continue to urge people to conserve and to protect the environment, to recycle, to use energy more efficiently, etc., i.e., to be conservative.

7) Entrepreneurs and politicians will continue to use the term "sustainable" for their own personal advantage in promotion of enterprises and programs, whether or not these enterprises and programs are sustainable or contribute to the creation of a sustainable society.

8) Many members of the academic research and education programs that focus on sustainability issues such as air pollution, global warming, etc. will continue their old ways of generating high per capita levels of pollution.

9) Many Americans will continue to deny the seriousness of the population problem in America and will focus their attention on population problems elsewhere. They may be motivated in this by their reluctance to accept the fact that immigration accounts for roughly half of the present growth of the population of the United States.

10) Many Americans will continue to believe that the environment in the U.S. can be preserved without the need of addressing the population growth in the U.S.

11) Many people who are active in matters relating to population problems will continue their efforts to ignore and to urge others to ignore the quantitative aspects of the population problem. They will continue to claim that the problems will be more effectively addressed if we focus our efforts on such worthy causes as population growth in other countries, foreign aid, human rights, justice, equity, education of women, the consumption of resources, the distribution of food, etc. Some will even claim that slow growth and sustainability are compatible.

12) Reports containing the word "sustainable" in their titles will continue to be produced at all levels of government, and these reports will continue to ignore population growth as the greatest threat to sustainability.

13) There will always be those who reject all limits to growth.

So where do we go from here?

The challenge of making the transition to a sustainable society is enormous, in part because of a major global effort to keep people from recognizing the centrality of population growth to the enormous problems of the U.S. and the world.

The immediate task is to restore numeracy to the population programs in the local, national and global agendas.

On the local and national levels, we need to work to improve social justice and equity

On the community level in the U.S., we should work to make growth pay for itself.

On the national scale, we can hope for leaders who will recognize that population growth is the major problem in the U.S. and who will initiate a national dialog on the problem. With a lot of work at the grassroots, our system of representative government will respond.

On the global scale, we need to support family planning throughout the world, and we should generally restrict our foreign aid to those countries that make continued demonstrated progress in reducing population growth rates.

Boulding on Malthus

In writing about Malthus' essay on population, Kenneth Boulding observed:

that the essay, punctures the easy optimism of the utopians of any generation. But by revealing the nature of at least one dragon that must be slain before misery can be abolished, its ultimate message is one of hope, and the truth, however unpleasant, tends "not to create despair, but activity" of the right kind. (Boulding 1971, p. 142)

A thought for the future

When competing "experts" recommend diametrically opposing paths of action regarding resources, carrying capacity, sustainability, and the future, we serve the cause of sustainability by choosing the conservative path, which is defined as the path that would leave society in the less precarious position if the chosen path turns out to be the wrong path.


In the preparation of the original manuscript, I am greatly indebted to Profs. Robert Ristinen and Charles Southwick for their critical reading and to Prof. Ulrich Muller-Herold, and Juliet Serenyi for their very helpful suggestions.

Contents     << Previous     Next >>
Copyright 1998 Albert A. Bartlett
Fair Use: This site contains copyrighted material, the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of issues related to exponential growth. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information, see:
In order to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.