Sunday, December 28, 2008
Albert Bartlett: Growth and Consequences
KMO Interview with Albert Bartlett
This interview with Albert Bartlett was recorded in July of 2007 and appears in episodes 53 nd 54 of the C-Realm Podcast.
Albert: This is Al(bert) Bartlett.
KMO: This is KMO of the C-Realm Podcast. Thank you for agreeing to this interview, and welcome back to the C-Realm Podcast.
KMO: I have directed the listeners of the C-Realm Podcast to go and listen to your lecture “The Exponential Function”. And while I have not heard it recently, I listened to it many times when I first discovered it. I drove around and had it playing pretty much continuously in my car.
KMO: So I am pretty familiar with the points that you make there, but just for a quick recap, you talk quite a bit about the formula for determining the doubling time of anything if you know what its growth rate is, and I am wondering if you could just recap that for us.
Albert: Well, the formula is specifically: take 100, multiply it by the natural logarithm of 2, and divide it by the percent growth rate per year, and you’ll have the doubling time in years.
KMO: You scared of lot of people when you said, "natural logarithm."
Albert: Yes, natural logarithm…
KMO:There is a simpler way to go about that.
Albert: Most people don’t know what that is. So the number comes out to be approximately 70. The actual thing is 69.2 is a hundred times the natural algorithm of 2. But 70 is close enough. This is for continuous compounding which means the growth is steady as contrasted to compounding annually which the bank used to do; compound once a year or twice a year, something like that.
KMO: What this gives us is that you can take the number 70 and divide it by the percentage growth that you are talking about and that will give you the doubling time?
Albert: Yes, for instance if it is 7% growth per year then 70 divided by 7 is 10, so you have a doubling every 10 years.
KMO: And you mention in “The Exponential Function” lecture that one can really sort of dictate the impact that your statistics have in the way that you choose to report them. If you said that crime was growing by 7%, nobody would be particularly shocked by that figure, but if you said crime is doubling every 10 years, well that sounds shockingly huge!
Albert: That’s absolutely correct. And so 7% does not seem like a terribly big growth rate, but doubling in 10 years, that gets people’s attention.
KMO: You set up your lecture, first you explain this easy way to talk about exponential growth or actually it is just steady growth?
KMO: And you relate that to two topics which are very familiar to the C-Realm audience.
One is global population, and the other is peak oil. And I would invite you to pick up either one of those two topics and just sort of plug those specific examples into how you use your formula.
Albert: Well the world population today is growing by something a little over 1% per year; it might be 1.2% per year. So if you divide 70 by 1.2%, what you find is that 70 divided by 1.2 is equal to about 58. If the present growth rate could continue, then the population of the world would double in something a little under 60 years, 58 years. Now, it is very clear that this growth rate cannot continue. It is also clear that the growth rate globally is declining. In the early 1970s, the growth rate was up around 2% per year. That is an absolute disaster; that would be doubling every 35 years. It has been slowly declining. In most of Europe now, the growth rate of the population is zero or is negative, and that is good news from the point of view of trying to achieve sustainability.
KMO: It’s particularly true in Japan, it is sort of bad news for that society in that you end up with a lot of older people who need care and not very many young people free to provide that care.
Albert: That is a very real problem. It is a short-term problem, and it is trivial compared to the problems that we will encounter if we allow the growth to continue.
KMO: Go ahead and just follow that line of reasoning for a little bit and sort of unpack the consequences if we just allow business as usual to proceed.
Albert: Well, we don’t have the resources to supply the present world population. The world population today is unsustainable. You can reach that conclusion by just observing that if any fraction of the present global warming is due to the actions of humans, then this by itself is proof that the human population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the earth. Such as a result of this global warming, there are many predictions about changing weather patterns, reduced snow fall on parts of the country, tough agriculture in many parts of the country and the world and so on. A rising sea level, a reduction in the amount of ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic and reduction of spring snow in the mountains which reduces water supply for big cities. They are all kinds of problems that come from the global warming. And now the global warming is a sure sign that we are overpopulated. If we just continue to increase the overpopulation by letting the growth continue unchecked, then all of these problems will get worse. Everyone will be affected.
KMO: You are suggesting that we look at the problem of global warming which does get a lot of play in the press right now, and equate it with a problem of overpopulation.
Albert: Absolutely, yes, and I think that the many people who give us advice, some of them are experts, and some are not, but essentially all of them, as far as I know, will tell us that we have to use energy more efficiently, and all efficient light bulbs, raise up the pressure in the tires on our cars and all sorts of little things like this that are important, but they are absolutely trivial, and in total, if everyone followed these, it would not stop the global warming simply because they do not address population growth.
And this is something that Malthus understood 200 years ago: that population growth has the capability of growing more rapidly than we can grow the supplies, and so on, that are necessary for human survival. So all of these, and I think it is just irresponsible; I just saw a thing on the web this morning, somebody advising us what we can do to reduce global warming and all of the things were important but in the big picture they where trivial. They will have no effect as long as we do not address population growth.
KMO: It's strange to hear you describe anything as being both simultaneously important and triviail.
Albert: Well, it’s going to take a lot to stop global warming, but all of these important things taken together will not stop it, and just on the basis of good common sense independent of global warming we should be reducing our personal energy consumption. We should be using energy more efficiently. We should be doing all sorts of things that will help reduce the problems. That is independent of global warming, but we should be aware that taken all together, those things cannot have any big impact on global warming as long as we fail to address the overpopulation problem and fail to take real steps to stop the overpopulation.
And then one has to ask, well where is the overpopulation problem the worst. If you look at just the numbers of population growth per year, well the numbers are very high for instance in underdeveloped nations, but the numbers are fairly large in the US, the total world population growth in a year is like 75 million people. The population growth in the US is 3 million people every year. Now 3 is small compared to 75 so a lot of people say, "Oh well, it is those other countries, they are the problem." But when you look at resources, the average child born in America will in a life-time have something like, I don’t know, 10 to 20 times the impact on world resources, as will a child born in some underdeveloped nation. So the real problem is us. It is here in the United States. And yet people who are claiming to be thoughtful, who do worry about population here in the United States very often point to the underdeveloped nations and say, "You are the problem," and they do not look here in the United States and say, "We are the problem."
KMO: I think it is easy to point to the Third World and say there is the problem because we fear, and rightly so I think, that the Third World is looking to the US and the industrialized First World generally as a model for where they want to go with their own development, and we just project things out and we think, "Gosh, if the Chinese drove cars like we drive cars that is going to be another billion cars on the road." That is almost going to double the number of cars on the road now, so I can certainly understand that tendency, although it is comical to think that the problem is that everybody else wants to live like we live, and the problem is not that we live like we live.
Albert: And the problem is that there are not enough resources to let everyone else live as we live. In other words, if you look at the studies of ecological footprinting, something that was developed at the University of British Columbia by Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees, you will find that the total footprint of the world population today living, some very well, some very poorly, is about 1.2 Earths. We have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth by that measure, and if you try to bring up all the under-developed parts, populations of the world, to our standard of living, they estimate it would take another 1 or 2 Earth's worth of resources to bring them up, so the die is cast. There aren’t enough resources to bring them up to our standard of living.
Now, that will impact us very greatly, and we can begin to see this because there is a lot of world competition for petroleum. I did some calculations on this. We have used, I estimate, about 85% of the total recoverable conventional oil that was ever in the ground in the United States. So we are in dire straits. We are importing over 60% of the oil we consume, and much of this comes from underdeveloped nations, and wherever we are importing it from, we find ourselves competing with the Chinese because they have even fewer resources than we do in terms of petroleum, and they have, as you mentioned, a very big growing population of automobiles and people who want to drive automobiles, and they have a very growing affluence of their people because of the big export business the Chinese do with the United States and other nations. And so they are competing with us in all of the world markets, and they are winning because we go out and our foreign policy is one of making war on the countries that have oil, of making enemies of the leaders of countries that supply us with significant quantities of oil, and the Chinese are going in there, to the same countries and they are competing successfully and getting oil that they need, and that is at the expense of the United States.
KMO: It brings to mind your example of the bacteria that are propagating in a jar, and they have something to eat there. Where I am going with this is that when you have a steady growth, every cycle or every doubling in the growth produces a number that exceeds all of the growth that came before it, so that your bacteria that are doubling at a constant rate... and suppose they are going to fill a bottle in an hour, the bottle will be half full a minute before that hour is up.
Albert: Yes, that is in the case of a doubling time of one minute so if the bacteria double in number every minute, and you observe that the bottle is full at twelve noon, then the question is at what time is it half full and the answer is one minute before, two minutes before it was ¼ full, 3 min before it was 1/8 full and so you have to ask yourself, if you were an average bacterium in that bottle, at what time would you first realize that you are running out of space? This is a line I use in my talk, and it gets people’s attention because when you are at 5 minutes before 12 noon you are only 3% full, 97% open space just yearning for development. Who would think that we would be likely to run out of resources in 5 more minutes? It’s a very striking metaphor.
KMO: But with that metaphor in mind it occurs to me that we could proceed here in the United States with business as usual, particularly if we are woefully ignorant of the actual supplies of oil at our disposal, until pretty much the very last minute. I mean that we could well be, according to the logic of the metaphor, within a couple of minutes of noon.
Albert: Yes, that is right. And I think we are approaching one minute before noon, and in the real world it can be found that things don’t grow steadily until the last bit of the resources are used. You have instead what is called a Hubbert curve, and this is sort of a Gaussian error curve. Two hundred years ago, oil production worldwide was zero. Two hundred years from now, it is going to be zero. In between, it rises to one or more maxima and you can approximate that by a smooth error curve.
A lot of reporters ask, "Well, when are we going to run out of oil?" And my answer is, "Never. We will never run out of oil." But the question that has to be asked and understood is, "When will oil production peak? When will we pass that peak production?"
And the peak production marks the point at which we have consumed half of the initial resource. And so after you pass the peak then production declines and approaches zero. And it may take another 100 years for it to approach zero; it took a 100 years to get up to where it is now. But as you have declining production, and a growing world population and a growing world per capita demand for oil, then you have all the makings of a real disaster, because everything in our modern society is dependent on oil and the first thing you think of is the food production, and one can observe that modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food, and you know we can see that rapidly rising prices of petroleum as we pass over the peak, and that will immediately be reflected in very rapid rises in the cost of food and the cost of everything else in society.
Now, where are we with regard to the world peak? The US peaked in 1970, and we are well down on the downhill side of the curve. World production could peak anytime now. There are some experts who say the peak has already been passed, my own analysis says we are very close to the peak. And the latest I have heard from any scientists in the field of geologists is about 2020. But I think most of the consensus feeling among people who are really into this problem is that it is much earlier than 2020, that it is any day now, and unfortunately, we won’t know when we pass the peak; we could already have passed it. You will have to have 4 or 5 or 10 years of consistent downturn in world production before you can say statistically it is clear that back there 5 years ago or so that was the peak. One point being a little bit lower than the current trend does not prove that the peak has been passed so we won’t know for at least 5 years after the peak that the peak has actually been passed.
KMO: Peak Oil could come 20 months from now, or it coule come 20 years from now. I was talking to a guest on the podcast a few weeks ago, and he was mentioning that in terms of the adjustment that we’ll have to make, it would be a lot easier on us if peak oil came right now than if it came 20 years from now. Do you think that is the case?
Albert: I do because if it comes 20 years from now, we will have all of these non-scientists or PhDs telling us we can just go on increasing our rates of consumption, and so when it does come, we’ll be much more dependent on oil than we are now and so the shock of rapidly rising oil prices resulting from the passing of the peak, will be an even bigger shock.
It is in our national self-interest to reduce our annual consumption of petroleum right now, and the easiest ways to do that would be to put a large tax of several dollars a gallon on petroleum, but that is not going to fly in a democracy. That would not be acceptable. It is an unfortunate thing that we will have to wait until things get so bad that the prices go up. If we would put a tax on petroleum of several dollars a gallon, then that tax would go to the United States’ Government or to our State Governments or some combination of it, but if we wait until the price goes up because of passing the peak, then that extra money goes to the oil producers, most of whom are out of the country, and many of whom are supporting terrorism. Every time right now you pay a dollar for gasoline, every time you spend a dollar on gasoline, some fraction of that dollar is going to support international global terrorism.
KMO: Would you explain the mechanism by which that works?
Albert: Well, a lot of it goes to Saudi Arabia, and there are many allegations that money that goes to Saudi Arabia; some of it is diverted from the giant fortunes of some of the oil people over there; some of it gets into funding Al Qaeda and the terrorist organizations.
KMO: The friend that I was speaking with about peak oil, and he was saying that it would be a lot easier on us if it came now rather than later. I think what he had in mind was that a gallon of gasoline weighs about six pounds, and when you burn it you are adding about five pounds of carbon to the atmosphere. And that if we were to proceed with business as usual for another twenty years, then we would have added so much carbon to the atmosphere that it seems as though there would be no reversing the warming trend that that would set off.
Albert: That is a very good point. That is absolutely right.
KMO: First it seems that nobody in power right now, or nobody with the ability to shape the conversation as it takes place in the corporate media, is willing to equate the climate crisis with unsustainable levels of population.
Albert: That is correct.
KMO: It seems that on the political right in this country, and the left/right spectrum describes a pretty narrow range of thought, but on the political right there is absolutely no questioning whatsoever the importance of continued economic expansion. And on the left, I think the idea that the problem is too much humanity probably offends the sensibilities of people who would describe themselves as deeply humanist.
Albert: As liberals.
Albert: Well, I agree.
KMO: Is there any strategy that you know of for sort of getting around these political preconceptions that keep this discussion from taking place on a larger scale?
Albert: Well, I think the thing that we have to do is what you are doing and let us start educating people throughout the country and so that the people will communicate to their members of Congress and say look, the big problem is population. These others are important but trivial. Let us go after the population growth and let's remember that the last US president who was concerned about population was Richard Nixon. And he chartered a major study, the reporters called the Rockefeller commission report, and its conclusion was to the effect that the commission could see no benefit to the US from any future population growth. But that report got put on the shelf when Nixon had all his problems and has been forgotten. Nobody remembers it now.
KMO: Well when it comes to actually addressing the problem of overpopulation, it seems that one of two models is going to come to mind. Either you are going to have a central authority with the strength to force people to curb their reproductive habits as has happened in China, or you are going to count on some sort of naturally occurring organic process or some sort of just distributed raising of awareness to bring awareness to population problems and then thereby bring them, or bring reproduction under control.
But it seems to me that if one goes for a central authority model, that for there to be a centralized authority with the power to enforce that mandate, you are going to bring along the economies of scale which are so much at the cause of our problem to start with. It seems that decentralization is the way to go but that seems to run afoul of people’s desire to make sure that everybody does their share.
Albert: Well if you are going to try to issue an edict, that is something you are going to do in a totalitarian state, but you can’t do it in a democracy so that is not the way to proceed here. But we do have to remember that one of our big national goals is economic growth and development of technology. Now thirty years ago, when the People’s Republic of China instituted their very coercive ‘one child per family’, their statement of justification of that tough policy was the following: economic development is hindered by population growth. So they have been able to cut their population growth roughly in half and look at the economic development that they have been able to achieve because of that reduction. Now we could have even more economic development, high tech and so on if we could stop our population growth.
But I think the first step has to be a national awareness of the problem of population. If the president of the United States would come out and say, "Look, we are overpopulated. Here is the evidence. We have got to find some way to reduce our population and do it in a humane way consistent with the Constitution of the United States and let us have a national dialogue for a year, about the problem and about what is the best way to address it." If something like that would happen, there would be awareness and people would be aware that large families do not further and advance the welfare of the United States. And I think, without anything coercive, we could make big progress and a coupled with such a recognition could be (the realization that) we have got to spend more nationally, within our country for making sure that family planning assistance is available to everyone who requests it. And the goal should be, both in our country and worldwide, to make sure that every child is a wanted child. If we could do that, we would go a long way towards solving the population problem. It might not solve it all, but it would certainly go a long way, and I think it could be done consistent with the laws and Constitution of the United States.
KMO: I think that the plan runs afoul of the ideology of main stream protestant Christianity, in that, providing 'family planning help'... That phrase, to a large percentage of the population, is going to equate to abortion on demand, which is something they absolutely could not countenance.
Albert: Well, I think the studies show that when you have traditional family planning available, the number of abortions each year goes down. And if you want to increase the number of abortions annually, you cut back on family planning. That is what has been found now with the present administration in Washington. They have cut back on family planning assistance, especially overseas and in this country too, and the number of abortions goes up.
KMO: I had sent you an excerpt from a book by Vincent Castriano Jr; and I wanted to read just a paragraph or two from that excerpt and get your response.
KMO: Mr. Caspriano writes, “Within the next fifty years, during the lifetime of the majority of individuals reading these words, humanity’s infinite growth potential versus finite planet conundrum, if allowed to simply run its course, will almost certainly be resolved through the elimination of some segment of human life on Earth. In the reduction through affluence plan, it is the yet unborn children of the future that are sacrificed. The religious, economic and cultural varients mostly name their present day targets out loud, investing enormous amounts of energy in demonizing their perceived enemies: terrorists, capitalists, leftists, infidels, Jews, Christians, Muslims, gays, the ultra rich, the useless eater poor, etc.. And making shameless public preparations for their elimination or forced impoverishment. Reducing population by increasing material affluence may turn out to be, by far, the most humane strategy for redirecting an earthbound humanity towards stabilization. But are we on board with its projected outcome, of a planet of rich old people, clinging forever to their stuff, even if we personally get to be the new eternals. And a stagnant long term future that amounts to little more than a dull continuance of the status quo into perpetuity.
"Don’t all the other competing plans out there amount to only slightly more draconian versions of pretty much the same thing? Idealized and intensely meme-driven wish fulfillment scenarios of what life in the present ought to be like, infinitely extended into the future. That is the future Muslim planet looks pretty much like a bigger version of the present Muslim world; a Christianized earth with a church on every corner and a bible in every hand; a capitalist globe glistening in space like a giant blue shopping mall; a post earth changes New Age wonder world with tribes of happy homesteaders drumming blissfully beside bonfires and singing Kum Ba Yah across a lush naturally depopulated landscape; etc.”
And where he is going with this, I think is, he is suggesting that our resolution is going to be getting off planet, to moving humanity into a larger environment in which to populate.
Albert: I wouldn’t count on that at all. Right now it takes so much energy just to put a crew of half a dozen or so in a space shuttle into orbit. The amount of energy required is just absolutely staggeringly large. And the idea of populating other planets, I don’t think we should count on that in any future scenario. I think that would be unwise in the extreme. It would be a total waste of energy. Look, if you are going to solve the US problem, a population increase of three million people every year in the United States; you have got to find three million Americans and say to them, "We would like you to leave, please. And we will provide the spaceships. We want you to go out there and please don’t come back."
Now that isn’t going to fly.
KMO: There are many science fiction scenarios that result from that. One is that the folks do leave as you tell them to but contrary to your instructions, later on they do come back and they are not very pleased with the experience they have had out there.
Albert: Well that is right. They all want to come back, so it is no answer. Now, this is not to say that we will never in the future populate other planets, but I would say it would be unwise in the extreme to count on that in any plans and preparations that we are making today.
KMO: There are a good number of people worried about what they call existential risks, which are risks that threaten the future of humanity as a whole, and a lot of those folks are interested in getting some self-sustaining communities going off of Earth, not necessarily to relieve Earth of its population pressure, but just to make sure that, should some large meteor hit the Earth, or should something happen to the Earth, that humanity itself would not be lost.
Albert: Well, that is a noble goal, but I don’t know what you can do, and the idea of putting people into a spaceship, say it just orbits the earth on a continuous basis, so that these people can survive up there for long periods of time. I mean, that is certainly being studied but I think it is beyond the capability of our present technology, and it would take some pretty dedicated volunteers that say I am willing to go up there and stay up there and not come back. And you know, they did some experiments in the Arizona desert where they built a great big greenhouse like building and they tried to make a closed atmosphere inside the building and had maybe, I don’t know, half a dozen people living in this closed atmosphere. And the idea was to see if they could survive, growing their own food, making their own oxygen and so on without any input from the outside world and the thing was not a success; a lot of money went down the drain with that experiment. So we can’t even do it on earth, and let alone send them off into space and have them survive.
KMO: In that paragraph that I read from Vincent Caspriano’s book, he claimed that, if allowed to simply run its course, the conundrum of the infinite growth versus the finite resources will almost certainly be resolved through the elimination of some segment of human life on earth.
Albert: That is to be expected. That was predicted in 1972 in the book “Limits to Growth,” and that was a computerized study done by some people at MIT. They modeled a global economy and put in all the trends in terms of population growth, growth of energy consumption, growth of food supplies and 5 or 6 variables like that, and no matter how they juggled it, the input and the prescriptions for the future, every model seemed to show collapse in the middle of the century; a big cutback and die off of population from lack of food and from pollution. When you read the stories of air pollution in China today, they’re just devastating, and in large part it's because of their rapid industrialization, their rapid increase in the use of coal, and their inability or unwillingness, whatever, to control the emissions from coal plants, and so they are killing themselves. They're killing the Chinese, but they're having this wonderful economic growth, and so their leaders are torn between: "Do we go on with this killing people by air pollution and allow a few of us to enjoy the benefits of great growth, or do we say stop the growth and try to clean up the air?"
It’s a real dilemma. The ‘Limits to Growth’ postulated this and showed it in a computerized model back in 1972. Now that really upset the whole world community economists and they said, "Oh, this is absolutely wrong. It can’t be true. It is too terrible to be true." And then in 1992, 20 years later, another edition was brought out, and the people at MIT did their computer programs, and their conclusion was: we lost 20 years. And then in 2002, there was a thirty year update, and again their conclusion was the same. We have lost 30 years. And then in the 2002 version, the only way that they could adjust the society to have a stable population out to the year 2100, roughly 90 years from now, was to instantly stop population growth worldwide and to cut back enormously on the per capita consumption of energy. And I forget what 'enormously' was. They gave a figure, and it may have been to cut it in half or something like that. But with those two very draconian measures they were able to project a stable population out to the year 2100. But nothing else. None of the more reasonable scenarios for the future showed that they were able to sustain population size.
KMO: You have mentioned Thomas Malthus, and I think it is fair to describe you as a Malthusian theorist.
KMO: Now a lot of folks are fond of saying that Thomas Malthus has been proven wrong because, you know, we have gone 200 years without his suggested population correction ever really taking place on any grand scale. Why do you think that we should still take Malthus seriously?
Albert: Well, he was a mathematician among other things, and if you translate his message of 200 years ago into today’s idiom, what you come up with is: he says the population has the capability of growing more rapidly than we can grow any of the supplies that are necessary to sustain the population. Now he looked at food, and he said that we can’t increase food production very much except by increasing the land that is available, and you couldn’t increase the land by very much and so he didn’t anticipate the widespread use of petroleum in agriculture, and so it has gone 200 years, and some people claim we don’t have the Malthusian crisis. But I can say that I suspect there are more people well-fed in the world today than there were 200 years ago. But I think it is also true that there are more people starving and malnourished in the world today than there were in the world of Malthus 200 years ago. So we can not say we have avoided the Malthusian crisis. We have just sort of limited it to underdeveloped nations and remote places that you can read about in the paper but not have any connection with.
So now what we are seeing is that food production has increased. The productivity per acre of land has increased very largely, by very large amounts and since the time of the prediction of Malthus, that was a thing he couldn’t anticipate. What it is based on, it is based on fertilizers, chemical fertilizers and one of the ingredients that is essential to making fertilizers are natural gas and petroleum. So with those productions peaking, we can expect to see a peaking in world agriculture. And I was giving my talk back in the seventies, up in Montana one spring, and it was during the second, I think, of those OPEC energy crises where gasoline at the pump was in short supply, and the farmers up there were climbing the walls. It was spring and they could not get diesel fuel to do those spring plantings. So we built an agriculture that is totally dependent on petroleum, and so any peaking of world petroleum supplies can be followed by a peaking of agriculture.
Now you hear people say, and again, these are people who are well meaning, often well educated but who don't understand the problem, say that American agriculture is the most efficient in the world today. That is nonsense; it is the least efficient in the world today. It is the least efficient because if you have to use, and there is your definition of efficiency, how much energy does it take, in the form of petroleum, natural gas, etc. to produce 1 unit of energy that is on your dinner table? And that is about 10 units of petroleum energy for 1 unit of food energy on your table.
Now the thing that makes people say we are more efficient is, they use a different measure. They say, "How many person hours on the farm are required to produce 1 unit of food?" Well that number has been going down, leaving these people without understanding to say we are more efficient. We don’t use as many people farming as we used to. But that is not a good measure; that is a measure of how we are substituting petroleum for people on the farm. And if the petroleum peak starts down, we are not going to be able to continue to do that. So global agriculture today takes on the order of 10 units of energy to put 1 unit of food energy on your plate, and that is terribly inefficient and it is getting worse every year.
KMO: But in addition to the sort of false efficiency that is claimed because there are fewer human hours of labor going into the production of food, I think that is sort of the euphemistic gloss on saying that we have lost an enormous amount of human intellectual capital in terms of people who know how to grow food.
Albert: That is correct.
KMO: Very few people have anything to do at all with the production of their own food and the people who are producing these huge quantities of calories now, they are not doing it by tending plants in the soil, they are doing it by driving tractors back and forth across these enormous fields and, you know, using these huge combines to spray petroleum based fertilizers on the land and then just spray Round-Up and other poisons and then drive over and harvest the crops once they have grown, and these folks, you know, if you gave them a shovel and a pack of seeds and a bucket of horse manure they would not necessarily know how to go and actually plant a garden that is going to grow some food for them.
Albert: I think you are absolutely right.
KMO: Now, another problem that we face here in the US is that we have physically structured the country such that people live out in the suburbs, which are places that are pretty much devoid of any agricultural land and pretty much devoid of even the goods and services that people depend on in daily life, because it is pre-supposed that people will be able to get in their cars and cover 30 miles, you know, without really thinking much about it to go and buy things.
Albert: Now, the lands where these people work, those used to be agricultural lands. We never built subdivisions on waste land. We always build our subdivisions on the best agricultural land that is available.
KMO: Why is that?
Albert: Well, the cities were built, originally, in the center of good agricultural land. So as the cities expand, it is only agricultural land that they can expand onto.
KMO: I read something that is kind of amusing, and that it is we have this national obsession with the lawn, the modern culture of grass. You know this carpet that is supposed to sweep from coast to coast, unbroken from one patch of carefully tended monoculture into the next. And somebody suggested that that might just turn out to be a saving grace because in these huge suburban tracts we have set aside land that can be reclaimed for small scale agriculture.
Albert: We did that during World War II, we had Liberty Gardens all over the country, and I do not know what fraction of the US domestic food supply came from Liberty Gardens, but I think it could have been 5%. It could have been 10%. That significant. But we did that, and people dug up their yards and planted gardens. In fact, I think there was a symbolic liberty garden on the White House lawn.
KMO: I am pretty sure it is gone now.
Albert: I think …oh yes.
KMO: In the passage that I read from Vincent Caspriano Jr., he was saying that the more ideologically extreme groups in the world right now seem to have an intuitive understanding of the fact that a population correction is in order, and they are shamelessly and explicitly campaigning to have their chosen group be the sacrificial lamb. And if you were to poll them and say, "OK, we need to get rid of two out of 10 people in the world, who do you think we should get rid of?" Well, they are going to have a ready answer. And it seems that most groups who are propagating an ‘us versus them’ ideology have selected the group that they would like to see eliminated, and are openly campaigning for it.
Albert: Yes, that may be. You know, if making war is your idea on how to solve the future problems, why then I am sure people are thinking like that but I don’t think like that, and I do not want to have any part of people who are thinking like that.
KMO: You have spent a long time honing your presentation and your arguments, and your arguments seem to be pretty thorough going and difficult to refute in terms of laying out what the problem is. I ask a lot of people, a lot of people who are very friendly to the notion of peak oil and people who are very friendly to the notion of returning us to a more localized sort of lifestyle where we depend upon the people who are physically close to us, and a sense of community and shared faith that we have with these people. But when I ask them, "Do you think that there is a Malthusian Correction in the offing?", almost universally the answer is no.
I had Thomas Holmer-Dickson, the author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization” on the program a couple of months ago, and I asked him about the potential for a Malthusian Correction and his response was that right now, as you pointed out, our system of agriculture is very inefficient, and there is a lot of slack in it, and that we could tighten things up. We could change the agricultural system such that it is sufficient to feed everybody. Do you think that is the case?
Albert: I think that would involve many people now living in cities and employed in urban environments to go back to farming. And that is a major sociological shift.
KMO: Well, I tell you, I would very much like to be an organic farmer and do nothing but. But in the current economy it is a very difficult shift to make for somebody who wants to do it. And most people have no interest in doing it.
Albert: You know, I agree. It is going to be a very difficult shift. But I think there will be a large readjustment somewhere along the line that was predicted in Limits to Growth. But there will be a very significant population die back. Now let me speculate as to why people who are well informed about current problems don’t think there will be a Malthusian crisis. I think I believe these people, they have heard it so often; these credentialed professorial types who say we have proven Malthus wrong.
And let me give you an example. I gave my talk to a group of retired people, not too long ago, and I saw in the audience a retired professor of economics, and I could see, from the talk as I watched his face, he just got more and more agitated. When I finished, he got up, turned to the audience and said: “This is all wrong. This is just Malthus all over again. We have proven Malthus wrong.” And he went on and on, and I kind of knew him so when he quieted down I talked to him and I said: “Well look, you know the arithmetic of growth, and you know the growth can not go on.” And he said: “Yes, I know that, that is true” but he said: “We have to grow for now” I said: “Why for now?” He said: “To help poor people”. Well now the one thing that we know, from news reports that come out several times a year is that the present situation, based on growth, is one that results in an increasing gap, economically, between the well to do, and the poor. And that gap is increasing. It is increasing in the United States. It is increasing globally. And I wonder to myself, "What planet has this guy been living on?"
People believe that somehow technology is going to save us. Technology is the main thing that has gotten us into this problem. Because the main effect of technology is to allow population to continue to grow. And as long as the populations continue to grow, the problems get worse.
And I think we should remember Eric Sevareid's law. Eric Sevareid was a national journalist. He observed that the main source of problems is solutions. So in everything we do, we are trying to solve problems. Most of the problems we are trying to solve are caused by population growth. And a problem is anything that inhibits population growth, so solving a problem involves removing the inhibition. So what we have done then is open the door to even more population growth. And I am particularly critical of the business of urban planning, because urban planning is just making everything worse. And you can say "smart growth" and things like this. Well I like to point out that smart growth destroys the environment. Dumb growth destroys the environment. Now, smart growth destroys the environment in good taste, so it is a little like buying a ticket on the Titanic. If you are smart you go first class, if you are dumb you go steerage, but either way the result is about the same.
KMO: So if you know you are going to be on the Titanic, and you know it is going to sink, you might as well have a few good meals and a nice stroll on deck.
Albert: That’s right. That is what we are doing, you know. The ‘well to do’ are taking care of themselves.
KMO: In the short term.
Albert: They are lobbying for all kinds of tax breaks and other considerations that keep them, and the lifestyle, and life trajectory that they are on and never mind the rest of the people.
KMO: I suspect that a lot of the people who are solution-oriented, and now I am talking about actual solutions and not bigger grander technological boondoggle solutions, but decentralization, getting back to organic agriculture, getting more people involved in food production. These folks, I think, or at least I sometimes suspect, will not entertain the idea of a Malthusian crisis because they think that, if they were to say it out loud, that it would just make the situation seem hopeless and that nobody would be motivated to do anything.
Albert: Well, I think there is a real element of truth in that.
KMO: Well, you have been very effective at articulating the problem that we have; the situation that we face. What are your ideal goals for pursuing the solution?
Albert: Well, I am sort of working to try to educate people that growth is a problem. Growth of population is a problem. The effect of this growth on natural resources is a problem. The problems are all related to one another by arithmetic. The arithmetic is not difficult. We can understand the problems, and we can take steps to solve them. So I am still working at that level; trying just to educate people in the hope that we can have a more enlightened approach to the future.
KMO: You think that somebody who has a consciousness of peak oil now and somebody who has an understanding of the mathematics behind growth; do you think they have any better prospect for surviving the Malthusian correction than somebody who is oblivious?
Albert: No, I don’t think so. They may, I don’t know. Following the Malthusian crisis is certainly going to be a difficult, challenging thing. And I suspect we are much more equal in our ability to solve, personally solve, the crisis as it affects us; and that the people who are ‘very well to do’ may not be much better off than the people who are very poor. In fact, you know; if you look at them, say what group in the United States today is the most sustainable, through their lifestyle today. And I would tend to say it is probably the, what is the agriculture group in western Pennsylvania, that religious agriculture group, not the shakers, it is...
KMO: The Menonites?
Albert: Well, the Mennonites. People who are very conservative religiously, who don’t use automobiles or power; have used horsepower, horses on their farms and do their agriculture. They are very successful. But it is a way of life I wouldn’t want to shift to myself. But they are very successful, and I think when the crunch counts, these people will be very well situated personally to survive.
KMO: Well, I think most people, given the choice right now would not voluntarily adopt an Amish or Mennonite lifestyle...
Albert: Yes, Amish. That is the group.
KMO: If they were given the option of adopting an Amish lifestyle or dying of starvation; that is a pretty easy choice to make.
Albert: Well, right, but you know, in today’s situation I don’t think people, or many people, would voluntarily make that change.
KMO: I appreciate your time, and we have pretty much come to the end of the time that we have available. What final thoughts would you like to leave with somebody who has taken an interest in the topics you articulated so well?
Albert: Well, I thank you for your interest, and I just simply say we have to fight growth wherever we observe it; population growth in particular. We have to note in our communities that population growth never pays for itself. It results in higher taxes, higher congestion, higher air pollution, higher utility costs for all of us. And we just have to try to get a national ground swell to get people to realize that growth is the wrong path to follow, and that we have got to stop the growth now while we can do it on our terms. If we don’t stop it now, then Nature will stop it through a big die-off.
KMO: Professor Albert Bartlett, I thank you very much for your time and I hope that you will continue to do what you have been doing, for sometime yet to come.
Albert: Thank you, KMO.