Tribute to Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

Dr Albert A. Bartlett explains the important difference between arithmetic growth and exponential growth.

Dr Albert A. Bartlett explains the important difference between arithmetic growth and exponential growth.

From Marilyn Hempel, Editor of the Population Press

Recently my friend Al Bartlett wrote that his cancer has returned and he has only a few weeks to live. This is a sad day for the entire population and sustainability movement. The Population Press wishes to honor the life and work of Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder. His relentless drive to help people understand population and sustainability issues is an inspiration to us all. Perhaps his most famous work is a lecture titled “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101”. You can find it online, on a YouTube video that has been viewed over 4.9 million times. If you have not already seen it (and if you have a computer) we suggest you watch it and share it with others.

The article below, “Close the Fire Department!” is the last one Al wrote for the Population Press.  In it his typical insights and humor shine through. Thank you Al! We will miss you. We are comforted by the fact that your work will live on in your writings and films.

“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?” —Dr. Albert A. Bartlett



By Dr. Albert A. Bartlett

In February of 2013 I attended the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  This Association publishes Science magazine which is one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The Association’s big annual meeting this year was held in meeting rooms spread through the enormous Hynes Convention Center in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. The meeting consisted of plenary addresses by prominent scientists and dozens of symposia often consisting of four speakers presenting papers on different aspects of a single topic. The meeting was scientifically comprehensive and strongly interdisciplinary. There were topics for every taste.

Many symposia at the AAAS meeting seemed to be devoted to or related to the vital topic of sustainability. This interest in sustainability is understandable because it’s clear that if humans can’t make a transition to real sustainability then we, as a society, face a very grim future. The importance of ‘limits’ and ‘sustainable living’ was projected in the book titled Limits to Growth as early as 1972.  The idea that there might be limits was rarely mentioned in the AAAS symposia even though real sustainability implies a society that depends solely on solar energy with no dependence on finite reserves of fossil fuels.

I attended as many of these symposia as I could and I was struck by common threads. A frequent preface to these discussions was the fact that projections show world population will most likely continue its growth and increase by another two or three billion people by mid-century. For most speakers, this projected population growth was taken as a given. To most of the speakers it seemed to follow then that our society has to meet the food, water and resource challenge that this growth presents. Some of the symposia reported on exercises in thinking about the complex planning that the future will require. It was my impression that scientists love to plan, especially in an atmosphere largely devoid of reality.

Almost without exception, the various plans that were presented never mentioned the fact that reducing overpopulation is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for achieving sustainability.

In the discussion period following one symposium I asked the panelists why the obvious benefits of reducing our present overpopulation were never mentioned. One of the panelists responded with a “picture perfect” recitation of the standard answer that is so often given to annoying inquiries such as mine. With a smile and with suitable restraint, the respondent patiently explained that the United Nations figures show that the growth rate of world population is declining and world population growth is expected to stop on its own later in this century.  So the population problem is under control and there is no need to worry ourselves about it at this time.

I responded by inviting the panelist to come with me to City Hall where we would seek to convince the city government that the city does not need a Fire Department.  It is an established fact that, if left to themselves, all fires, residential, industrial or in the forest, will ultimately go out.  Why rush to put out fires if all fires will ultimately go out on their own?

There was no response. In the meantime, we fiddle while Rome continues to burn.

Leave a Reply