What Time Is It?

March 2, 2010

I like it when people leave comments and offer their own perceptive stance on their world view. It usually results in my learning something really important about the world… Something that I’m sure I knew on some level (having learnt most of statistics at university) but just never really had the foresight to translate it into real world analogies. Well… I’m glad to say it’s happened again!

Credit: University of Colorado.

Relating to current escalating global population levels and, thus, the resulting increase in consumption of resources, we’d be all well advised to watch this lecture entitled “Arithmetic, Population And Energy,” given by Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University at Boulder. Here Professor Bartlett felicitously explains what it means to see an annual 7% increase in growth, asking questions like “What’s the doubling time for 7% growth?” and “Should we be promoting disease?” so as to bring these ideas into a crystal clear perspective… With a touch of humour here and there.

So where do we start? Well, let’s start in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s my home town. There’s the 1950 census figure, 1960, 1970—in that period of twenty years, the average growth rate of Boulder’s population was 6% per year. With big efforts, we’ve been able to slow the growth somewhat. There’s the 2000 census figure. I’d like to ask people: let’s start with that 2000 figure, go another 70 years—one human life time—and ask: what rate of growth would we need in Boulder’s population in the next 70 years so that at the end of 70 years, the population of Boulder would equal today’s population of your choice of major American cities?

Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 31?4% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?

Now, every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a bigger city might be a better city,” and I have to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve done that experiment!” We don’t need to wonder what will be the effect of growth on Boulder because Boulder tomorrow can be seen in Los Angeles today. And for the price of an airplane ticket, we can step 70 years into the future and see exactly what it’s like. What is it like? There’s an interesting headline from Los Angeles. (“…carcinogens in air…”) Maybe that has something to do with this headline from Los Angeles. (“Smog kills 1,600 annually…”)

So how are we doing in Colorado? Well, we’re the growth capital of the USA and proud of it. The Rocky Mountain News tells us to expect another million people in the Front Range in the next 20 years, and what are the consequences of all this? (“Denver’s traffic…3rd worst in US…”) These are totally predictable, there are no surprises here, we know exactly what happens when you crowd more people into an area.

Well, as you can imagine, growth control is very controversial, and I treasure the letter from which these quotations are taken. Now, this letter was written to me by a leading citizen of our community. He’s a leading proponent of “controlled growth.” “Controlled growth” just means “growth.” This man writes, “I take no exception to your arguments regarding exponential growth.” “I don’t believe the exponential argument is valid at the local level.”

So you see, arithmetic doesn’t hold in Boulder. I have to admit, that man has a degree from the University of Colorado. It’s not a degree in mathematics, in science, or in engineering. All right, let’s look now at what happens when we have this kind of steady growth in a finite environment…

Thus I ask if this could be a new slogan for the “Optimum Population Trust“? And perhaps when we tie this idea up with consumption, it might be a reason to change our habits, like finding the goods we need off “FreeCycle” rather than ‘buying’ them brand new in the shops OR throwing away what we think we don’t need or can’t use?

A BIG thank you to Andrew Soon for bringing this to my attention!

To find the transcript for this video, please click here.

Or to find out more about Professor Albert A. Bartlett, please click here.