Al Bartlett exposes “the silent lie”

Al BartlettIn mainstream circles, serious acknowledgment of the problem of population growth has, for some years, been more or less taboo. Mentions are made, the occasional article appears, but extended, prominent discussion is rare. A case in point was a recent issue of Scientific American. Al Bartlett, one scientist who does raise the issue of population growth, and whom I mentioned in the previous entry here, reviewed it in the last issue of the The Physics Teacher. The review is now available online at Culture Change.

Conspicuous omission

As I mentioned previously, Dr. Bartlett, physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado and former national president of the American Association of Physics Teachers, is one of my favorite thinkers on sustainability, population growth, and related issues. He’s been speaking on the topic of population and energy since 1969, and has written some of the clearest, most incisive articles you will find on sustainability-related topics. His review of the Scientific American issue is no exception. This was a special issue devoted to “Energy’s Future Beyond Carbon: How to Power the Economy and Still Fight Global Warming.” The articles focused on topics such as carbon capture and alternative energy sources. Yet, article by article, Dr. Bartlett points out the conspicuous lack of any mention of population growth as a major driver, arguably the major driver, of the trouble we’ve created for ourselves in our burning of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases:

As the size of the world population increases, the rate of burning of fossil fuels increases and this can be expected to increase the rate of rise of global average temperatures. The authors of these nine articles have to know that the size of the global population is a major factor in determining the rate of release of greenhouse gases. Yet in a special issue devoted to reducing global warming, SA almost completely ignores population size and growth

And that is a serious problem. While not involving overt lies, does the “silent lie” of omission among these authors constitute an instance of collective intellectual dishonesty? It’s so pronounced it surprises me to see it, despite my awareness that the topic of population growth has been generally squelched.

Hinting at a reason

But in the title of the special issue we do get a hint at one force keeping population growth out of view: “Energy’s Future Beyond Carbon: How to Power the Economy and Still Fight Global Warming.” (emphasis added) It’s the growth imperative that’s so pervasive in this age. The assumption is that we must continue the push for constant economic growth which, in turn, cannot happen without population growth. There seems to be little thought given to the glaringly unsustainable nature of a strategy based on infinite economic growth.

In fact, as Dr. Bartlett puts it, quoting from one of the articles, “Growth remains sacred. ‘But holding CO2 emissions in 2056 to their present rate, without choking off economic growth, is a desirable outcome within our grasp.'”

They should know better

As scientists, this collection of authors is surely more aware than most of the limits of the ecosystem and the limits to growth. But rather than examine how we might adapt to those limits (such as through policy consistent with the goal of a steady state economy), this whole group of authors opts simply to ignore the problem, examining instead technological possibilities which certainly are a key part of the solution, but which fail to address this central, causal issue.

Daniel M. Kammen, the author of the article on alternative energies, actually identifies the causal role of economic growth in creating the problem: “Because economic growth continues to boost the demand for energy–more coal for powering new factories, more oil for fueling new cars, more natural gas for heating new homes–carbon emissions will keep climbing despite the introduction of more energy-efficient vehicles, buildings and appliances.”

But his proposed solution fails to deal with that cause, not to mention ignoring the even more fundamental problem of population growth: “To counter the alarming trend of global warming, the U.S. and other countries must make a major commitment to developing renewable energy sources that generate little or no carbon.”

Dr. Bartlett refers to “a lonely isolated touch of reality” in Kammen’s opening sentence: “No plan to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions can succeed through increases in energy efficiency alone.” The reason for this, Dr. Bartlett explains, “is that continuing population growth, even at the level of approximately 1% per year, will likely overwhelm the annual savings that can be achieved nationally or globally through improved efficiencies.” I might add that continuing population growth will further a variety of ecological problems which are not even directly related to CO2 emissions. (The severe overfishing of the oceans is one of many examples.)

Time to speak up!

While the authors of the articles in Scientific American avoided the topic of population growth, I hinted at the beginning of this post that some scientists do not shrink from grappling with it in their published writings. We will of course examine what they have to say in subsequent posts. It is time, though, for other scientists began to talk about it as well. We do not have very much time to get population growth on the table as one of the key items to address. Our ecosystem is in trouble right now.

(Apart from the articles on energy related topics, this issue of Scientific American was also the one containing a column by Jeffrey Sachs which did discuss population growth. Dr. Bartlett took issue with some of Sachs’s comments as well. But that is a topic for an upcoming post.)

Image source: Stuart Staniford, as posted on The Oil Drum under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 license

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6 responses to “Al Bartlett exposes “the silent lie”

  1. True economic growth derives from growth in productivity. If economic growth corresponds perfectly to population growth, the average person isn’t getting any wealthier. That aside, if alternative energy largely replaces fossil fuels, the connection between increased consumption and carbon emissions will of course be weakened.

    There are many reasons to tackle population growth, with even global warming less than some of the others in certain locales, like overcrowding and instability.

    The silence on the issue is probably because the issue is largely up to non-Westerners. It means drastically lowering the birthrate in places like Kenya and Yemen. Further, it may mean reducing immigration to the West, as some immigrants have more children than they would’ve had they remained in their native country. From an American lens, the National Academies of Sciences found that two thirds of projected population growth owes to immigration ( ).

    The case of Iran permits some optimism – changes in state policy have drastically reduced fertility, to just above two children per ( p.10-12).

  2. I agree that much of the current population increase is occurring in poor, non-Western countries, but most of the environmental damage is caused by relatively few people born in, or immigrating to, Western countries.

    Adding just one child in North America has as much impact as adding 60 children in a place like Ethiopia. A Western couple that believes they are helping the environment by stopping at “just two” children are having the equivalent impact of an Ethiopian family that stops at 120.

  3. ANM and Brad — Very thoughtful, good points. To try to kind of bridge the two, I’ll just add a couple of thoughts:

    1) Brad, you’re right about consumption rates. That is why some writers, like Al Bartlett as a matter of fact :), say that the U.S. has the worst population growth problem of all.

    2) The relevant equation is essentially: population size x resource consumption rate. So it’s always both, but with different results in different locales.

    3) Of much concern though is that a lot of “developing” countries are beginning to raise their standards of living and so their consumption rates. Others are expected to do this as time goes on. So, with their fast growing populations this represents a very serious looming problem. I think it points to the need for the clean technologies that will help bring down consumption rates in developed countries and prevent them from skyrocketing in developing countries. At the same time, of course, we need to bring down fertility rates so as to address *that* side of the equation.

    4) An area I haven’t had a chance to research much yet is the question of whether certain environmental problems are much more the result of pure population growth than of consumption rates. I tend to think some are. Overfishing, deforestation, and species extinction (which is currently way higher than its usual rate) come to mind, but as I said I need to research it more.

    Thanks for the thought provoking comments. They get right to the heart of much of this.

  4. Some interesting information: Has the world become a better place?

    Fertility rate and child mortality of all countries 1962-2003 presented in an educational moving graph mode showing birth rates/income.

  5. Evan,

    Thanks for the link.

    Let me first mention for anyone else reading that the graphic animation Evan is referring to is the 4th one down on the page linked to.

    It shows fairly dramatically that in countries which have experienced declining fertility rates, fertility and child survival show an inverse correlation. And it’s mentioned that child mortality dropped first, and then fertility rates followed, very much in line with Jeffrey Sachs’s point that increasing child survival will reduce fertility rates.

    The graphic shows a good deal of progress in reducing childhood mortality and fertility rates. (though its unfortunate the huge size of the bubbles for India and China make Africa and the Middle East — major population growth hot spots at present — look insignificant) There’s still a good ways to go though. With fertility rates around 3.0, India, for instance, is still growing fast, as is China due to “demographic momentum.” And Africa is a serious problem. Then there’s the U.S. which some say has the worst population growth problem of all, due to our extremely high per capita consumption rates.

    The title, “Has the World Become a Better Place?,” bothers me a little. It would suggest that childhood mortality is the sole measure of how good a place the world is. We need to keep in mind that as some things, like childhood mortality have improved overall, there are areas (the environment chief among them) which have degraded.

    At any rate, thanks for the link. It helps you see trends which would be difficult to appreciate otherwise. I also watched the 9-part presentation featured above the others. It shows quite a mixed bag of data on income distribution and percentages of people living below the poverty line globally and between and within countries. Hard to interpret, but interesting.

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