Professor Al Bartlett interview on peak oil at the ASPO peak oil conference in Denver, November 10, 2005

Albert A. Bartlett was interviewed at the ASPO peak oil conference in Denver, November 10, 2005. See conference highlights, day 1 and day 2.

Julian Darley: We've heard a lot about of the concept of sustainable development, both in the last two days and in the last 15 or more years. Sustainable development by some understanding, means sustainable growth. Be it industrial growth or any other kind of growth, but development generally means growth - economic growth. What do you think about the idea of sustainable development, if that's the right way of characterising it, in other words: sustainable growth?

video Watch video of interview by Global Public Media.
audio Listen to Dr. Bartlett's talk at the ASPO conference. (6 minute audio; different from this interview).

Albert Bartlett: Sustainable growth is an oxymoron, because if you just look at the arithmetic of steady growth the numbers become astronomically large in modest periods of time, so you can't have steady growth. That is of material things. The national debt can grow, that's just numbers on paper. That can grow sustainably until the economy collapses, and it seems as though it may be heading in that direction. But sustainable growth in terms of ordinary residences, buildings, industrial development, this is just an oxymoron. What I think has happened is, in this country we have a great growth machine. This has been tooled up to build more highways, to build more cities, to build more subdivisions, to build more shoppingcenters, to build everything. It's a big part of the economy. With the advent of the concept of sustainability, I think a lot of the people involved in all this promotion of growth have just attached the word sustainability to whatever they were doing, as though adding that word suddenly made them sustainable. I think we need to remember the first law of sustainability: you cannot sustain population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources. That's it; the numbers become too large.

Sustainable have to mean for a long period of time, long compared to a human lifetime. The numbers are just off the scale and the resources are not there to do it. So the first law of sustainability has to be: you cannot sustain population growth. So it follows then that it is necessary to stop population growth in order to have sustainability. But stopping population growth will not guarantee sustainability. It's a necessary condition, it's not a sufficient condition. I'm very distressed. I've met over the years many people who talk very earnestly about saving the environment, about sustainability. They write learn-it articles about it and they never come down and say the most fundamental thing: we have to stop population growth if we're gonna have any chance of saving the environment. You notice here in this meeting: many people speeking on many aspects of the energy problem, but you can't solve the energy problem until you stop population growth.

It was interesting, you may have heard Congressman Roscoe Bartlett make mention of the Jevons' Paradox, which was something that was noticed at the time of the advent of the steam engine. The very early steam engines in England were terribly inefficient, they burned coal and they were increadibly inefficient. Then James Watt came along and made a tremendous improvement in the efficiency. The old engines were burning coal, and Jevons had statistics of how much coal was consumed every year. So if you suddenly introduced the Watt steam engine you'd think: well, that is more efficient - the coal consumption will go down. Instead the coal consumption went up! I think we face that in all, we can put in more efficient lighting and all of this sort of thing, but if there are more lights than that wipes out the savings that you get from making more efficient lights in one building. If you save the lighting energy in this building, but then you build another building then you bump back where you started.

We have to remember that first of all sustainable growth is an oxymoron, secondly just cannot continue the growth. I think it was Herman Daley at the University of Maryland, spoke about you cannot have sustainable growth if growth means increase in throughput of materials in the economy. You can grow in stature or you can grow in various other things like that that are non-material, but you cannot grow if you require constantly increasing throughputs in your industrial system.

Julian Darley: And yet we hear that message extremely rarely. There was a book in 1972, published by the Club of Rome called Limits to Growth. It was attacked very ferociously, and then about 15 years later came the Brundtland report which ushered in sustainable development. Do you think there was any connection between the tremendous attack that the writers of Limits to Growth received and then the invention of sustainable development, which as we've discussed is oxymoronic and in fact possibly a very foolish, and possibly even a dangerous idea. Do you think there could be some kind of connection?

Albert Bartlett: I don't know. I remember reading Limits to Growth with great interest. I remember how the world community of economists fell all over themselves trying to prove this couldn't be true; it was too terrible to be true. An economist friend of mine said: Al, you should read the book called Models of Doom, that'll explain to you why all these computer calculational things are wrong. So I read the book, and it's not scientifically acceptable. 20 years later there was an update of Limits to Growth, and then 30 years later in 2002 there was a 30-year update of Limits to Growth. Essentially what they're saying in the 30-year update is: we've lost 30 years! They predicted some very dire consequences for the global society and they all happened in the mid-part of this 21st century. As far as we can tell, everything is about on track.

The main criticism that I could sense from the economic community was that this is a very simple computer model, it's much too simple for representing the global economy. But if you read the book Limits to Growth they essentially say: well, this is a simple model, but this is a start. We've got to start and look at things. Newspaper editors said: oh, the Club of Rome has disowned this, they have repudiated it, or something. Stepped back from it. I remember there was a conference here in Denver at which there were several people from the Club of Rome, and I remember talking to them. I said: have you repudiated that? - No no, they said, we stand by it, it's still valid.

The Brundtland report was a very interesting thing. It was sad in a sense that it was a recitation of the incredible living conditions for such a large fraction of the global population. It was just tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. Then they introduced this definition of sustainability, which I think is still sort of the accepted standard definition of sustainability. I forgot the exact words, but you conduct yourself so that we do not jeopardize the well-being of future generations. That's become a standard. But then what they said, in total contradiction to their message, what they said in that book was: we have to grow the economy in order to help poor people up. I thought it was just internally conflicted.

Certainly we need to try to help the poor people who are struggling throughout the world, but it's not clear that we can do that by having more growth here. That's sort of like the trickle-down economic theory that we used to hear about; we put more food on our tables, we're the wealthy people, and then the crums that fall to the floor they help the poor people that are down there groveling on the floor. I think that's been thoroughly disproved; that just isn't a working situation.

Then you remember the Brundtland report was followed up some time later, maybe after the real conference, by Agenda 21. That was a disaster! That book had all the character and usefulness of the Yellow Pages, we do this, we do this, we do this... no connection with the real world of what will it take to do this. One of the things that we need to remember at this conference is Eric Severeid's law. Eric Severeid was a national journalist, first on radio and then on Television. He observed that the main source of problems is solutions. The room is full of people down there, all working out solutions. Everyone of those solutions are gonna produce more problems, unless we really recognize that law and tailor our proposals for solutions so that we reduce as much as we can the secondary effects.

I may just give you a local example. I25 is the big main highway south of Denver, and it's and Interstate. It was crowded on every day because of all the building of subdivisions down to the south. That was the problem. What was the solution? They went to the federal government, got billions of dollars. They want to take construction for four or five years, and it's still under progress now. At some point they'll finish it. What they're doing is adding new lanes. So the new lanes are the solution to the problem. What do you know will be the condition of the new lanes a year after they're opened? The answer is: they will be just as crowded as the old lanes were.

That's new problem, created by the solution to the old problem. This Eric Severeid's law... I wish I'd known that, or recognized it, or appreciated it, back when I was teaching, because I think that's more important than any of the laws of physics probably.

Julian Darley: If that's the case, and we've got all these marvelous and not so marvelous solutions being suggested, I don't very often hear the word 'sacrifice' being used. It became unpopular after Jimmy Carter used it. Do you think there's any place for actually seriously cutting back, so it's like making life a little bit more uncomfortable.

Albert Bartlett: In a democracy?

Julian Darley: Anywhere.

Albert Bartlett: That's the problem! You run for Congress, stand for election in Congress on a program with sacrifice and you wind up like Jimmy Carter did - you didn't get re-elected. That's the real problem. I think this Congressman Bartlett from Maryland, we've talked and we're not related as far as we can tell, he's in and he's established. He's now taking up the question of Peak Oil and the implications. He's big enough to do it, but most people just can't take on something like that.

Julian Darley: He's also not at the beginning of his career.

Albert Bartlett: Yes, that's right. He's had a very successful career.

Julian Darley: Do you think that one of the reasons why there might be so much poverty in the world is perhaps there are too many people but not enough resources?

Albert Bartlett: Overpopulation is the central problem. That's what's addressed in the first law: you cannot sustain population growth. The second law says that the bigger the city or the political unit the bigger the population the more difficult it's gonna be to make the transition to sustainability. Sustainability is essentially a concept that you can have with small populations, you cannot sustain big populations.

I remember some colleague at the University once characterized New York city as being a desert, or like a feed-lot like we have out here in this part of the West here. Feed-lots is where you have giant big areas, not a blade of grass in them. Enourmous numbers of cattle - you have to haul in the feed and haul out the waste. It's just a feed-lot. New York city is just a big feed-lot. You have to haul in all the food, and none of the food is grown there, and then you have to haul out all the waste and figure out something to do with it. Sustainability, when you look at it at the ultimate limit, the population that survives have to be in equilibrium with the environment, which means you essentially live off of solar energy.

Julian Darley: Do you see any ways in which that transition can be achieved at the moment?

Albert Bartlett: I don't know. I don't think people voluntarily move very much in this direction. The price mechanism is a good one for moving people to more efficient automobiles. And certainly if the natural gas price is rising, as they are here locally, that will prompt a lot of people to think more about insulating their homes and using home energy more efficiently. But it all requires some capital investment in order to achieve some of these savings, and there's a lot of poor people who are just ***[00:14:05] financially, and who cannot aid the cost of some of these energy saving improvements in their homes. These people are gonna be hurt. We gotta worry about this.

Julian Darley: Do you have any sense of what the carrying capacity in terms of human population on this planet might actually be, within a range?

Albert Bartlett: There was a book published called How Many People can the Earth Support. That was a very learned review of many many many studies over centuries of how many people, and there was no conclusion. David Pimentel, who is a global acricultural scientist at Cornell University, he has said that if you want to live at the dietary level average in America, but have the whole world population living at our average dietary level, then the agriculturally sustainable world population is one third of the present population; two billion instead of over six. He said that for the United States, living at our average dietary level, the sustainable population is about half of our present population.

Julian Darley: About half. Do you think he was including the use of oil and gas in our agriculture?

Albert Bartlett: I'm not sure. I think he was looking at productivity of land and things like this. Here is a place to attack another myth. This myth you hear said repeated often in this country: American agriculture is the most efficient in the world. That's nonsense! It's the least efficient in the world! The way they get this number is they say how much unit output do you get per unit of human labor in? By that measure it is efficient, but that isn't the proper measure! The measure is to say how many units of energy do we put on the dining room table, and how many units of energy do we have to expend from the growing, processing, transporting, to get it to your table. That ratio is about 10 to 1: for every calorie you eat on your table you have spent about 10 calories of petroleum or other energy to get it there. So it's the least efficient in the world.

Julian Darley: If we are to try to achieve let's say a one third world population, maybe it's even less than that that might actually be truly sustainable. Do you have any idea how we might go about doing that?

Albert Bartlett: I think the United States should take the lead in a massive global family planning operation with the goal that every child is a wanted child. I think that would do it. I think it's the right thing to do.

Julian Darley: Do you see much likelihood of that happening?

Albert Bartlett: Not at present, no. The present attitude in Washington is that family planning is somehow evil. And that does not get us anywhere. The present policy in Washington is increasing the growth of population and it's increasing the number of abortions annually world-wide, and this creates untold human miseries.

Julian Darley: As you look around, what do you think the most practical things are that we can do?

Albert Bartlett: We have to educate people so that they know about the impossibility of growth. So when a political leader - the president of the United States - says we are gonna have sustainable growth, one can say in a letter to the editor: the president doesn't know what he's talking about, you can't have sustainable growth. President Clinton was quoted in the paper saying we're gonna have sustainable growth. That's crazy! He knows better than that. He should know.

Julian Darley: Why do you think he said that?

Albert Bartlett: I don't know. He has speach writers. Maybe he doesn't read over the text before he reads it to an audience.

Julian Darley: Thank you very much indeed.

Albert Bartlett: Thank you.

Transcript courtesy Global Public Media.
Edited by Denis Morel
Copyright 2005 Albert A. Bartlett