Population Growth is the Greatest Problem

Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett was emeritus professor of physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His predictions are those of a retired nuclear physicist who had been watching these problems for several decades. Professor Bartlett regarded the word combination ‘sustainable growth’ as an oxymoron, since even modest annual percentage population increases will inevitably equate to huge exponential growth over sustained periods of time. He therefore regarded human over-population as “The Greatest Challenge” we face now. This is terrifying but true.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. An investor earning a constant annual 7% return on their investment would find their capital doubling within 10 years. But the same exponential power, so advantageous to patient investors, may be potentially calamitous when applied to human population.”

Bartlett’s Great Challenge: “Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?”

Isaac Asimov said to Bill Moyers in 1989: “Everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom; it should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, “Aren’t you through yet?” and so on.”

In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive over-population. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one person matters.

Smart Growth Only Destroys Slowly

“The terms “growth management” and “smart growth” are used interchangeably to describe urban developments that are functionally and esthetically efficient and pleasing. Sometimes these planning processes are advocated by those who believe that we can’t stop population growth, therefore we must accommodate it as best we can. Other times they are advocated by those who are actively advancing population growth. The claim is made that growth management and smart growth “will save the environment.” They don’t save the environment. Whether the growth is smart or dumb, the growth destroys the environment.”

“It is frequently said that we can reduce congestion and air pollution by building high-speed super highways. This can be proven false by noting that if this were true, the air in Los Angeles would be the cleanest in the nation. The fallacy arises because the construction of the new highways generates new traffic, not previously present, to fill the new highways to capacity.”

We have a national religion of Growth;

In Growth we Trust”

we worship growth.

“The only possibility for having permanently low unemployment in a region is to build a wall around the region so that people can’t move in to take the jobs. Walls can work for a limited time; but are not a long term sustainable solution.”

Bartlett’s Table of Options

This table has inverse properties. If we do not pick from the second list, it is inevitable that Nature will pick for us. The human dilemma is that every-thing from the side we think of as good, makes the population problems worse, and the side we see as bad solves the problems of over-population.

First List of factors to: Increase Populations

growth propaganda / ignorance of sustainability

procreation, motherhood, large families

medicine, public health, sanitation

peace, law & order

scientific agriculture

accident prevention


clean air

Second List of factors to: Decrease Populations

no growth propaganda / eduction of sustainability

abstinence, abortion, contraception

disease, famine

war, murder, violence


no immigration


“Pro-growthers and Pro-Lifers see the first list as all good, and the second list as mostly bad. There is a paradoxical catch-22 with this conventional view; raising population makes the problem of sustainability of population worse, and lowering population from our present levels makes it better. Nature will choose from the second list if we do nothing. Or we can choose from the second list before the worst options are forced on us. Stable population is the goal lies in between perpetual decline and growth.”

Sustainable vs Steady Growth

Semantics regarding statistical terms should be clarified. ‘Sustainable Growth’ means “for an unspecified long period of time.” and ‘steady growth’ means “large numbers in limited or modest periods of time at stable annual percents.

“And so we have a spectrum of uses of the term ‘sustainable’. At one end of the spectrum, the term is used with precision by people who are introducing new concepts as a consequence of thinking profoundly about the long-term future of the human race. In the middle of the spectrum, the term is simply added as a modifier to the names and titles of very beneficial studies in efficiency, etc. that have been in progress for years. Near the other end of the spectrum, the term is used as a placebo. In some cases the term may be used mindlessly (or possibly with the intent to deceive) in order to try to shed a favorable light on continuing activities that may or may not be capable of continuing for long periods of time. At the very far end of the spectrum, we see the term used in a way that is oxy-moronic.”

Job Creation Increases Unemployment

“The favorite rallying cry of community leaders and politicians is, “We must create jobs.” One must respond to this cry by asking: Did you know that in your community, creating jobs increases the number of people out of work? Most people don’t understand this, even though it can be explained easily. If the equilibrium unemployment rate is 5 % , and a new factory moves into town, the hiring at the new factory may lower the unemployment rate to 4 % . But then new people move into the town to restore the unemployment rate to the equilibrium value of 5 % . But this is 5 % of a larger population, so the number of unemployed people has increased. Every time 100 jobs are created in a community one can look for about 5 more unemployed people in the community.”


1: Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

2: In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

3: The response time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average length of a human life, or approx. 70 years. This is called “population momentum.”

4: The size of population that can be sustained (carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. This must be true even though Cohen (1995) asserts that the numerical size of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined.

5: Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

6: Lesson of “The Tragedy of the Commons” (Hardin 1968): The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

7: Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

8: The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by: technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used; using the resources in accord with a program of ‘Sustained Availability’; recycling; substitute resources.

9: When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.

10: Benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

11: (Second Law of Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

12: (Eric Sevareid’s Law); The chief causes of problems, are solutions to other problems. (Sevareid 1970)

13: Humans will always be dependent on agriculture. This is the first of Malthus’ two postulata (Principle of Population 1798).

14: If humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.

15: In every local situation, creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.

16: Starving people don’t care about sustainability.

17: Using the word “sustainable” in our vocabulary, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

18: Extinction is forever.

Hypotheses Relating To Sustainability

“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. 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). The increasing sizes of populations that result from population growth are the single greatest and most insidious threat to representative democracy. The costs of programs to stop population growth are small compared to the costs of population increases. For society as a whole, population growth never pays for itself. This is a consequence of the Tragedy of the Commons.”

Disturbing Conclusions

“The Earth is already over populated. Population growth interferes with economic growth, and standards of living; and dilutes democracy. Human freedoms depend on social stability. Armed conflict (war) cannot be a part of a sustainable society. Modern agriculture uses fossil-fuels to make food. Social stability tends to be inversely related both to population size and density. There will always be those who reject all limits to growth.”

“By contemporary western standards, Nature’s method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane. Glimpses of Nature’s method of dealing with populations that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.”

We are in a perpetual childhood economically. Children grow, adults must stop growing at some point, or become obese.

“Those who profit from growth will use their considerable resources to convince the community that we should pay the costs of growth. Making growth pay for itself could be a major tool to use in stopping the population growth.”

We should “not to create despair, but activity” of the right kind. Bartlett did advocate alternative renewable energy, and to invest in those we know work, without assuming we will invent others. 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. Bartlett argues that in a context of population growth and compromises, the notion of carrying capacity, as unpopular as it is, “must become central to our thinking”


“If any fraction of the observed global warming can be attributed to the activities of humans, then this constitutes positive proof
that the human population, living as we do, has exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. This situation is not sustainable!
As a consequence, it is an inconvenient truth that all proposals or efforts to slow global warming, or to move toward sustainability are serious intellectual frauds if they do not advocate reducing populations to sustainable levels at the local, national and global scales.” – short essay by Bartlett

“Dumb growth destroys the environment. Smart growth destroys the environment. The difference is that smart growth destroys the environment with good taste. So it’s like buying a ticket on the TITANIC. If you’re smart you go first class. If you’re dumb you go steerage. Either way the result is the same.”


“For our U.S. energy policy, we must choose between the Conservative and the Liberal Paths. These political positions are not only opposites of each other, but Conservative Republicans are advocating liberal energy consumption, and Liberal Democrats support conservative preservation of resources (conservation); however the labels line up on immigration; and neither support population control.

So there are two possible wrong choices that we must compare. If we choose the Conservative Path that assumes finite resources, and our children later find that resources are really infinite, then no great long-term harm has been done. If we choose the Liberal Path that assumes infinite resources, and our children later find that resources are really finite, then we will have left our descendants in deep trouble. There can be no question. The Conservative Path is the prudent path to follow. However, it is the Liberal Path that we are so eagerly taking today. If resources turn out to be infinite, then we will be OK on the Liberal Path. But if resources turn out to be finite, then today’s choice of the Liberal Path will create enormous and critical problems for our children.

We should not be confused by the conflicting expertise that supports each of these two paths because there is a very fundamental truth: For every PhD. there’s an equal and opposite PhD.” – testimony to Congress 2001



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: