Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Implications of Steady Growth

This gentleman is Dr. Albert Bartlett. He is a retired physics professor. He taught at the University of Colorado. He gave a lecture entitled, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy that is making its way around the internet. He first delivered this lecture in 1969 because he knew that people did not understand the implications of steady growth.

Since then he has given this lecture hundreds of times. He has modified it of course to fit current realities. It was given to address the issue of population but it has been mostly used to talk about Peak Oil. You can read the transcript of his lecture but I suggest watching the video.

You can find it on YouTube in eight nine minute segments. After each segment, click the link below the video to take you to the next segment.

In 2007, Dr. Bartlett talked about this lecture in an interview. You can follow the links on this page to hear that interview.

Steady growth is a way to measure how often a quantity doubles in time. The formula is to take the percentage growth and divide into 70. For instance something that grows at 1% per year will double every 70 years. 70/1 = 70. Something that grows at 7% per year will double every 70/7 = 10 years.

This is important knowledge to have. Whenever we hear about percentage growth it doesn't register. We need to think in terms of doubling. You may have heard this story about the guy who presented a king with a chessboard. The king was impressed and wanted to give him a present. The guy said just put one grain of rice on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on. That will be enough.

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096....

By the time he got to the 21st square--boom--a million grains. By the time he reached the 41st square a trillion grains. There wasn't enough rice in the world for the remaining squares.

What does it mean for example for our economy to grow every year, or to increase population at a steady rate, or to increase our use of resources at a steady rate? In a world with infinite space and resources, no problem. The problem is that Earth is finite.

Our economy is based on economic growth. Every year it must grow. Pick a percentage x growth per year, divide into 70 and that is how many years it will double. That new amount will double again and again until...checkmate: no more rice.

For some implications watch this short video,
Are Human Beings Smarter Than Yeast? Then check Albert Bartlett's lecture.
You can watch it in segments. It will take you a little over an hour.


  1. Strangely, I would rather have someone like Dr. Bartlett tell me we are heading for hell in a handbasket than someone like Cheney tell me he can lead us into the "New American Century".

  2. To answer some of the concerns. When you have growth in a finite system, you cannot have steady growth forever. What you have is called an S-curve.

    So don't be concerned about "increase population at a steady rate" or
    "increase our use of resources at a steady rate" since both are impossible.

  3. The problem with that whole line of thinking is assuming everything is reducible to one catagory (i.e. grains of rice). With human populations that is just not the case. Humans have this amazing gift to create new catagories. Just look at the economic history of the 20th century. At the outset your were a farmer, a laborer a capitalist or clergy. By the end less than 2% engaged in agriculture. The labor movement claimed less than 15% of the private workforce. The total population exploded, yet we are more materially blessed than ever. All those crazy new catagories - everything from plastics to web designer. OK, even if we admit oil runs out, that just means we get the energy from some other source. The only natural limit is the output of the sun absorbed by the earth less and loss to heat by efficiency. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we've only just seen the start of invention of catagories of economic activity.

  4. Humans also have an amazing gift for spreading diseases that may wipe out significant segments of a given population, and of damaging habitat to the point where it can no longer sustain life. These things are likely to bring our population under control, but at what expense?

  5. I have taken a cue from Republicans and learned that concepts can be marketed to anyone as long as their self-interest is addressed. So, speaking on such terms, I can say that we should not be concerned about "saving the planet". I have often said that nature will out. This planet will survive. But will it allow us to do so as well? It is in our best interest to do everything we can to see that the planet is capable of sustaining us.

    Feel free to whistle "Don't Worry, Be Happy", but do so understanding what is at stake.

  6. Liberty (Paul):

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, in a finite system steady growth is impossible. This is really the point.

    We will at some point have zero population growth. The question is whether or not it will be imposed by the brute fact of natural means (disease, war, starvation, etc.) or whether we will make choices to stop it now by limiting births.

  7. Thanks, Mark for the comment.

    Not only are we dealing with energy that must increase each year as demand and population increases.

    We are also dealing with environmental stress (food, fish, all of that).

    Bartlett says the real issue is population. I tend to agree. Material things cannot continue to grow in a finite environment.