Dr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: The Australian Example (transcript)

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: The Australian Example

(part 3 of 3: listen to the complete interview)

Andi Hazelwood: Is it possible to mathematically determine when such a catastrophe will occur?

Albert Bartlett: I don't think so. I did some mathematical projections in that paper on Australia and I'm working to refine that paper some more now, I've got some more mathematics I want to add to it. But it sort of says in there, if you have business as usual then your resource consumption versus time will go through a Hubbert curve, which is sort of like a Gaussian error curve. And from the properties of that curve, and a known amount of resource, you can sort of make a reasonable projection of what the future will be. And that's the thing that I projected out for Australian coal and Australian natural gas. Just citing things, quotations in writing in an article by... Ian MacFarlane, who is the Minister of several things including resources there in Australia. And he was quite proud, in the way he wrote, that he was doing this in accord with the program of the government and that this was a program for sustainability. Well when you just look at the numbers that go with it you can see its not sustainable its antisustainable, its exactly the wrong thing to do given a desire to have a sustainable, or work for a sustainable society, you would never do the things that they're doing, and in particular you would never export all of your fossl fuels. He was quoted in the article as saying... "we're the biggest exporter of coal in the world, we have enough for 110 years worth at present rates of consumption, we're so proud of that, and our consumption is growing 5% per year." Well 5% per year, if you could continue that, your resource wouldn't last 110 years it would last something like 40 years. But 110 years, by itself- that should be sounding off alarm bells, because 110 years is very short compared to the life expectancy of a modern society. And if you're going to maintain a modern society, you want to maintain it for more than 110 years. And that is at present rates of consumption- and no one is talking about present rates of consumption. They're talking about 5% growth per year. And then what I did was to factor in the Gaussian error curve so that the thing added up properly. And you find that the peak will be in something like 25 to 30 years, peak production of coal, and then it'll go downhill. And Australia is having population growth... it increased something like a factor of 4 in a hundred years and if it continues to grow at that rate, why the population will be another four times as large as it is now, and that's just outrageous.

AH: And while 110 years may be a very short period of time in the lifetime of coal its a very long period of time compared to a politician's term.

AB: That's right, they're in office for 2 years, 4 years, 6 years, 8 years, something like that, so that's their time horizon, its a bad mismatch. And then you have to realize that in the population system there's a big delay. And if you had for instance a fertility rate which is the number of childeren per woman in a woman's lifetime, if that number is 2 or 2.1 then you can have a stable population. If its greater than 2, why, you have a growing population and if its less than 2 you have a declining population... I didn't understand this until I modeled it on a computer and saw that if you have... a fertility rate say of 4 children per woman, so you have a growing population, and then by magic on the computer you say "okay from now on, two children per woman- period". The curve does not suddenly level off. The size of the population does not suddenly stop growing. It continues to grow but at slowing rates and it is finally stable after every person has died who was living at the time you made the change. So this means then that you make a change and then its like 70 years before you see the full effect of the change. So our population decisions today won't work themselves out through the society for another 70 years.

AH: So we need to get cracking.

AB: Yeah, we need to understand this... And as you point out its a bad mismatch with the... time horizons of our politicians. And I was in Sydney in December of 2005, lecturing a couple times in Australia and I remember newspapers in Sydney- on one page you would see "oh, here's a new big section of Sydney that's going to be built out with 200,000 new homes and here's another section of Sydney that's coming out with 100,000 new homes" and "oh, how wonderful all this was", and then you turn a couple of pages and you find another article that says "but we're out of drinking water and we're going to have to go to desalinization of ocean water in order to get drinking water for these people" and I kept thinking to myself, "don't those two pages in the paper ever talk to one another? Don't the people who are building and improving these subdivisions, don't they ever concern themselves about drinking water?" And that should be the role of the government, to say "hey look, we're out of drinking water, we're having a severe drought, we shouldn't be building anything, we should be stopping our population growth, and trying to shore up our agriculture as best we can so that we don't have to become big importers of food."

AH: The state of QLD here in Australia is going to be amalgamating some of their administrative boundaries. Some of the shires are going to be made into larger shires, and the Premier of the state says that it's because "our population has tripled to 4 million in the past 50 years but our system of local gov't has not moved with the times" and he says that's unsustainable.

AB: Well the tripling in size is not sustainable and that should be his first concern. Not to rearrange the government to accommodate it. The whole goal of urban planning is to make the problem worse, because population growth produces problems. Planners are trained in school to solve problems. So what is a problem? A problem is anything that inhibits population growth and so once you remove that inhibition, you solve the problem, and then it's open for more population growth. And in particular, this going to regional planning and going to consolidating small political units- that's just taking democracy away from the people. Because here in Boulder when I came here the population was 20,000, so I could go to one of the 9 members of the city council and I would be one voice out of 20,000. But now its 100,000, 5 times as large, and still nine members of the city council. Now I'm just one person in 100,000. So I've lost a big sense of democracy here. And population growth destroys democracy.

AH: Is there anything else you wanted to add before we close?

AB: Population growth is the world's worst problem. Now at the world population conference some years ago in Mexico City, the US representative went down there, and they looked at the numbers, you know. Growth of countries in Africa, the rate is much higher than growth in the United States. So they went to the population conference and lectured to the people from these underdeveloped nations and said "you're the problem- your population growth is the problem." And these representatives just laughed at the US representatives and said "look, the average child born in the United States will, in that child's lifetime, have 50 times the impact on world resources as will a child born, say, in Africa. So you're the problem, you go home and solve your own problem." And one of our local politicians, Tim Worth, who was a United States senator at the time from Colorado, he spoke at a meeting at the University and one of the things he said struck me very strongly. He said "we cannot tell other countries that they've got to stop their population growth until we are ready to stop our own population growth and set an example. Then we can go to the other countries and say "you've gotta stop your population growth." So I think we in the United States and certainly in Australia, and in - Europe has mostly solved their problem, I guess much of Europe is at zero population growth or very close to it. But we in the United States, we've got to solve our own problem before we can go lecturing to other countries to say they've gotta stop their population growth.

AH: Dr. Albert Bartlett, thank you so much for taking the time today.

AB: Well I certainly appreciate it, and I hope everything goes well with you and I thank you very, very much.

AH: This is Andi Hazelwood for Global Public Media on the 22nd of June, 2007.

MediaDr. Albert Bartlett In Depth: The Australian Example