I’ve been tracking the population debate for the best part of 40 years. So how come I’d never heard of Professor Albert Bartlett before?
Al Bartlett died last year, at the age of 90, after a lifetime teaching Physics at the University of Colorado, and strenuously advocating zero population growth and environmental sustainability. He captured that advocacy in 21 ‘Laws Relating to Sustainability’.
I won’t stick them all in here, but here’s a taste:
 Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.
A population growth rate less than or equal to zero, and declining rates of consumption of resources, are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a sustainable society.
Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping population growth are misleading themselves and others.
The term ‘Sustainable Growth’ is an oxymoron.
In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, the only smart growth is no growth.
 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.
 The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another. The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to stop population growth.
 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.
 One cannot sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while others have low standards of living.
 The benefits of large efforts to protect the environment are easily cancelled by the added demands that result from small increases in human population.
 If, for whatever reasons, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
 The addition of the word ‘sustainable’ to our vocabulary, to our reports, programmes and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programmes, and to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.
Most of which makes a heck of a lot of sense to me.
So I’m very grateful to Marilyn Hempel, Editor of the new book, ‘Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders’ in which I first encountered Al Bartlett and his sustainability laws, and to Malcolm Potts, one of the liveliest and authoritative of those Elders, who I had the privilege of getting to know when we were both on the Royal Society’s Working Group that produced the ‘People and the Planet’ report in 2012.
Marilyn asked Malcolm and 14 other Elders (including Paul and Anne Ehrlich) to write a short piece in answer to the following question: ‘If you could assemble the world’s leaders in a room and address them, what would you say?’
The responses are inevitably somewhat uneven, and inevitably somewhat repetitive, but those world leaders would sure as hell have got the message at the end of the 15 sessions! Collectively, the wisdom of these Elders is mighty impressive.
Al Bartlett himself puts it most succinctly: ‘Every government needs an Office of Common Sense. But don’t venture in there until you understand the arithmetic of population.’
I’m sure that all those Elders will be hoping that their work will be picked up and taken forward by the next generation (and, no doubt, by the one after that!) of population campaigners. Including, I imagine, Emily Maynard, who emailed me recently with a new infographic aimed particularly at public health practitioners. It’s somewhat apocalyptic for my taste, but with 76 million more of us on Earth at the end of every year than at the start of that year – year after year! – the logic is compelling. http://www.mphonline.org/overpopulation-public-health/
‘Facing the Population Challenge: Wisdom from the Elders’, edited by Marilyn Hempel, published 2014 by Blue Planet United, ISBN 9780692212271
The Hon. Sir Jonathon Espie Porritt, 2nd Baronet, CBE (born 6 July 1950), is a British environmentalist and writer, perhaps best known for his championing of Green issues and his advocacy of the Green Party of England and Wales. Porritt appears frequently in the media, writing in magazines, newspapers and books, and appearing on radio and television regularly. He has also written a number of books. His newest title, The World We Made (Alex McKay’s story from 2050) was launched in October 2013. Porritt acts as advisor to many bodies on environmental matters, as well as to individuals including Prince Charles. From 2000 to 2009, he was chair of the Sustainable Development Commission set up by the then prime minister, Tony Blair. He was, however, critical of the Labour government for its environmental record and its pro-nuclear stance, and has campaigned against nuclear power. Porritt is a patron of Population Matters (formerly known as the Optimum Population Trust).