The statements and opinions herein are
solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any organizations or individuals associated with the author, past or present.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Al Bartlett: the sustainable arithmetic of an inspiring life

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

By Dave Newport
It’s hard to think about people that constantly point to problems as inspiring, but a few can pull it off.

Professor Albert P. Bartlett is one of those few. He sets the bar on inspiration—and at the same time has never retreated from exposing the biggest elephant in sustainability’s room, probably the biggest challenge civilization ultimately faces: overpopulation.

Ugh. I hate this issue. It dwarfs climate change in scale, complexity, and apparent inevitability. I hate this issue—but I love Al Bartlett. He’s huge.

Maybe tackling such a big issue requires a big person. Well, Professor Bartlett, a nuclear physicist, is a towering man in every way: height, physical stature, vice-grip handshake even at age 90, large personality matched to an incredibly warm heart, prodigious intellect, and an enormous lifelong body of work.

Interestingly, while Professor Bartlett is passionate about the perils of overpopulation,
his career is grounded in saving lives. Absorbed out of college during WWII to serve his country as a physicist working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, Professor Bartlett was mindful of the estimated million or more lives predicted to be lost if the US had to invade Japan to close out WWII, he told the New York Times. A difficult and unsettling moral calculus to be sure, it nonetheless motivated him and many others to help father The Bomb. Likewise, his focus on overpopulation is aimed at averting The Population Bomb and thus allow for a sustainable human population.

He is in a class of brilliance, prescience and greatness alongside more well-known canaries in the coal mine such as Donella Meadows, Garret Hardin, Rachel Carson, and Paul Erlich. Focused on similar systems, Professor Albert Allen Bartlett has tirelessly championed an approach to sustainability that is mindful of the relentless truth of mathematics; that is, the exponential function is oft ignored but never stops being true.

Within that simple mathematical relationship a predictive model of population growth, community development, and resource impacts is logically derived. Sustainabilistas, resiliency advocates, environmentalists, politicians, permaculturists and policy people from every sphere cannot ignore that function. Math never stops.

He illustrates and explains the math behind the hockey stick population growth graph in
compelling ways. We lull ourselves into complacency by forgetting what we learned in Algebra 101. Professor Bartlett makes it vivid and explicable.

For instance, he asks us to imagine an empty soda bottle to which we add one bacteria cell at the top of the hour. If that bacteria divided in two once every minute thus doubling the number bacteria in the bottle, by the 59th minute of the hour the bottle would be only half full. But in the 60th minute all those cells would double again and, presto, full bottle.

We forget these simple math truths at our own peril. By the way, we are in peril. It's called overshoot and collapse. In nature, populations that grow at these rates consume all their food and/or pollute their surroundings so much they become toxic. We're doing both pretty well. The 1970s book Limits to Growth predicted human civilization would hit this wall around the year 2050. A recent check in on that famous study found us to be more or less on the predicted trajectory.

Professor Bartlett has given his now famous lecture on this subject to congressmen, senators, economists, citizens, experts and students of every stripe over 1,742 times from Alaska to Saudi Arabia since he first spoke it in 1969—and one of many videos of his presentation has been viewed on You Tube nearly 5-million times.

Yes, his large countenance includes being outspoken too. Great people many times are.

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

That is his signature quote. Wow.

Likewise, he broke down the population challenge into simple but loaded questions such as:

“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?”

Nope. Can’t think of one.

He carves up sustainability development’s ability to neutralize the effects of this inexorable population arithmetic. He offers his own First Law of Sustainability relative to systems in a finite environment (e.g. Earth):

“Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.”

Professor Bartlett defends this law as follows:

“The First Law is based on arithmetic so it is absolute. Science is not democratic, so the First Law of Sustainability is not debatable; it cannot be modified or repealed by professional societies, by congresses or by parliaments. The First Law implies that the term “Sustainable Growth” is an oxymoron. This is true when this term is used by an untutored person on the street, by an economics professor, or by the President of the United States.”

Then he points out a fundamental defect in Bruntland’s definition of sustainable development (…meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”). He writes:

“Unfortunately, the Brundtland definition contains a flaw. It focuses first on the needs of the present, which have nothing to do with sustainability, and secondarily it mentions the needs of future generations that are vital for sustainability. This sets the stage for intergenerational conflict in which the present generation wins and future generations lose. We need to rephrase the Brundtland definition as follows:

Sustainable development is development that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Indeed, Professor Bartlett’s revised definition of sustainability indeed presents us with a much more daunting path, one that requires significant population reduction alongside resource conservation. Instinctively, we know all this to be true. The math, as he likes to say, “is not debatable.”

We can groan and roll our eyes about this unrelenting math. We can say "don't give me a problem I can't solve." We can resign ourselves to a seemingly inevitable fall with "the planet will be fine, it will survive us." We can go have a beer or two and relax into a self induced stupor. Been there, done all those things. I am as frail as any on this one.

We can also continue to educate of these dynamics. That's what Professor Bartlett told a reporter only yesterday [Aug.2] from his bed. I re-read his papers recently and he points out that those of us in the carbon-emissions abatement business can buy a heck of a lot more carbon reductions with a family planning budget than with an energy conservation budget. And he reminds the major environmental groups they are almost totally absent on this issue. Perhaps reluctant to mix the potent religious issue of contraception with also controversial environmental policy, the Sierra Club et al are basically no-shows on the biggest issue facing civilization as we know it. Let's at least talk about this, he exhorts.

Boulder was lucky to have landed him in 1950 when he and his late wife loaded up the car in Cambridge after he received his Harvard PhD—and drove here to begin his faculty career. He raised his family here and helped shape this university, this state, and what we all need to think about.

Despite what could be a depressing message, Professor Bartlett’s fifty-plus years on the faculty served to inspire thousands of students, staff, and community members. His warmth and passion makes him among the most respected and loved people in our community. His impact in the community has helped make Boulder among the most livable places in the world.

Professor Bartlett usually attended our twice yearly “sustainability roundtables” where we talked through our ongoing campus sustainability efforts. I always asked him to close our meetings with a “benediction” of sorts and he cheerfully did so. He would add some unique and interesting perspective to our work—and then like the loving and devoted father he was, he would gently remind us of the arithmetic we must reconcile.

Daunting message aside, Al Bartlett is a compassionate and loving human being who dedicated his life to making the planet a better place. If somebody wrote that in any obituary, it would be the greatest complement to hope for.

Now, Professor Bartlett’s life is coming to a close. A lymphoma thought to have been beaten five years ago is, in his words, “back with a vengeance.” The oncologist “gave me approximately 30 days, plus or minus.” That was on July 19th, 2013. As he summed it up that day: “well, that’s it.”
I will miss him deeply in my soul but am happy he will soon rejoin Eleanor, his wife of 62 years. He’s home being cared for by his daughters and Hospice. His brain is sharp and will be to the end. May he rest in peace. He's earned that.

Well, that’s it.


Coda: Professor Bartlett died on September 7, 2013 in his Boulder, Colorado home where he lived for over 60 years. He was lovingly attended to by his daughters in his final days. He was 91. He was preceded in death by his wife, Eleanor, and is survived by their four daughters—Carol, Jane, Lois and Nancy. A memorial service was held on the CU campus in October and attended by over 400 of his friends and families. 


  1. Dave -

    Your blog is a continuous delight, and I welcome each new email that alerts me that the Department of Change has a new entry.

    Al Bartlett's videos have been required viewing on every syllabus I've put together since I first viewed them myself. I often put them in juxtaposition with McDonough/Braungart, and supplement with the most recent Lester Brown dispatch that I can find. To me, there's no better combination of vision, reality check, and you-are-here status report. I hate that we're losing another giant in the field, but we should all be so lucky to live such an intellectually full life, and Bartlett himself would remind us that physical immortality is not sustainable. Intellectual immorality, however, is sustainable, and in that sense Bartlett will be with us forever.

    Richard Johnson

  2. I had a guest lecture from Professor Bartlett in my senior year at CU for my Global Issues in Leadership class. Appropriately, overpopulation was identified as the largest single factor of global concern for current and future leaders. I then went on to work for a documentary film called "Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth" where a large segment is focused on Professor Bartlett. He is a great man with a great understanding of this world. I am sad to hear he is leaving us soon.