Economics, Oil, and Population Growth

A group of people standing in front of a windmill

When someone earns a Ph.D. from Harvard, teaches at a major institution like the University of Colorado for fifty years, and briefs Congress on energy policy, people tend to pay attention to his ideas. That is exactly the case with Dr. Albert Bartlett and an opinion of his that has become know as “Bartlett’s Law.” His lecture on this subject can be seen as a series of Internet videos entitled “The Most IMPORTANT Video You’ll Ever See”.

According to Dr. Bartlett, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” He goes on to explain, “the exponential function is used to describe the size of anything growing steadily, for example, 5% per year.” His goal appears to be to demystify and simplify the figures people encounter in their daily lives. Society seems to dismiss numbers without ever accounting for their true meaning. Hence it is advised to feel financially secured all the time, playing บาคาร่าsa online may have stigma but it could actually help us in times of need. 

During his lecture, he provides some down-to-earth examples from easily accessible resources. One primary focus is world population growth. People do not seem to understand just how fast humans are multiplying. He points this out in a brochure touting the City of Boulder, Colorado. It read, “Doubling its population in 10 years, Boulder…is indeed a stable and prosperous community.” Before hearing this lecture, one might have read “doubling its population in 10 years” and “Boulder…is indeed a stable and prosperous community” as separate statements that were both true. However, that rate of growth is anything but stable. The city could not continue to double in size every ten years without exhausting all available resources.

Boulder is one example of a larger problem that faces the globe. According to Dr. Bartlett, the rate of human population growth is unsustainable. His theory is grounded in sound mathematical formulas. Growth, left unchanged, will lead to disaster. This is known as the “Malthusian Catastrophe.”

Dr. Bartlett subscribes to the theories of Thomas Robert Malthus. This famous British economist wrote that population growth will outstrip food production with catastrophic results. Unless the population is artificially reduced by famine, plague, or war, this reality will inevitably come to pass. These principles can also be applied to the human population exhausting a natural resource like oil.

Dr. Bartlett turns his attention to fossil fuels during his lecture and details how the world is racing towards exhausting its oil supply. In a companion paper entitled “Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment – Revisited” he writes, “fossil fuels probably will not be available in globally significant quantities for more than a few decades into the 21st Century.” His graphs show that steady population growth and resource consumption will lead to disaster. Some call this “Bartlett’s Law.”

The numbers are hard to argue with, but one must keep in mind that impending doom comes from steady growth. The “law” of supply and demand would dictate that humans adjust their demand for a resource as it becomes less available. Conservation would increase in importance and alternatives would be explored. For example, as gasoline reached $4 per gallon, Americans consumed less of it. Dr. Bartlett’s calculations do not consider this and only detail what would occur if the true costs of oil were not passed on to the consumer.

Does Dr. Bartlett’s message apply if steady growth is never encountered? In the absence of artificial market pressure, people regulate demand in response to supply. This gap between Dr. Bartlett’s beliefs and this economic reality is difficult to navigate. Simply looking at the charts, formulas, and numbers does not show how humans will react.

Dr. Bartlett dismisses supply and demand because he does not believe that the population will see its impending downfall in time to stop it. He calls his detractors “technological optimists” that believe that humankind can solve any problem put before it. However, his solution to the “Malthusian Catastrophe” is also a solution for the “technological optimists.” “We must educate all of our people to an understanding of the arithmetic and consequences of growth, especially in terms of populations and in terms of the earth’s finite resources.” Dr. Bartlett’s education initiative itself could lead a population to see the problem in time to act.

Jill Buch

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