The myth of sustainable growth

Google “population control” and you’ll return 5.32 million results. Most of these seem to advocate limits and artificial controls to stem the growth of the human population.  I am no fan of this kind of thinking.

The enduring aspiration these days is that we continue to grow – the economy, technological advancement….  Failure to grow equates with stagnation, or recession in the global economy. These are terms we have learned to fear.  So the soft way of saying we must limit (technological) growth is to say we must “grow sustainably”, “reduce our environmental footprint”, do more with less.  However, a little bit of arithmetic shows this to be bunkum, unless you don’t really mean “sustainable” – something that can be sustained for a very long time.

Fear-mongering of “running out of…” some raw material, or access to clean water, or energy is another familiar refrain these days.  It’s possible to think that human ingenuity, technology and market forces will combine to find new ways of doing whatever limits us, yet limited, at some stage, we must be. Something, sometime will limit human numbers.

The following is a series of eight videos from a retired Professor of Physics Albert Bartlett. This runs for over an hour, yet is strangely compelling.

There’s more here too – an essay.  I find this all rather uncomfortable and I’ve had a few email exchanges about it.  There’s no getting away from the maths.  I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about this, but for the moment I’m just going to see what others think.

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18 Responses to The myth of sustainable growth

  1. Anteros says:

    I’ve always thought Albert Bartlett was quite nutty – what he says about the exponential function is fine…..except it doesn’t apply to human lives – population, resource use, whatever. It never has and never will. It just looks uncannily like it – for a short period of time. The test is to get a graph of the annual percentage increase in, say, population and check if it is completely flat. If it isn’t (and it isn’t with population) then the population isn’t increasing exponentially. I stopped worrying about population increases when I realised that the 50 most developed countries in the world had all gone through the same process – reasonably stable government, very moderate standards of living and education for women – and all headed for (or mostly arrived at) zero population growth.

    I have my own issues with the dreaded concept of sustainability because to me it sounds like a fear of innovation, risk and adventure. It really is about being timid and leaving such a small footprint that we don’t leave any mark at all. Something about having been told by our parents not to waste things or ‘use things up’. Nothing we’ve ever done has been sustainable – but each and every thing has been a stepping stone to something more creative…. Perhaps I’m saying that I think if a society is ready to hang up it’s boots it’ll start to worry about sustainability – thriving parts of civilisation have a boldness and courage about them.

    One other thought….it’s possible to think of growth as an increase in value rather than an increase in the amount of physical objects we can possess, and value is not something finite or bounded. Therefore we need not be (overly) concerned with the ‘Limits to Growth’.

    P.S. Apologies for not introducing myself earlier – I’ve been reading your blog for a while and enjoy it greatly ! 🙂

    [Reply – Thanks – lovely to ‘meet’ you. Verity]

  2. Anteros says:

    Apologies if in my rush I used a slightly different interpretation of ‘sustainable’ ….
    Didn’t the whole idea come from the concern that fossil fuel use was ‘unsustainable’ and therefore we should endeavour to get used to using what people called ‘renewable’ energy? And then the concept just spread out and ended up in places to which it probably wasn’t best suited?
    I think the UN’s prediction is for the world’s population to level off at about 9 billion between 2050 and 2060. I wonder how long it’ll be before fear-mongering gets it’s teeth into the possibility that a dwindling population……if the trend continued……..could end up in ……extinction!

  3. Anteros says:

    There’s an interesting little essay here about demographic transition –

  4. Organisms that have favorable conditions usually grow in an exponential fashion. This growth continues until something happens to limit it, for example a reduction in the availability of food.

    The human population is currently growing exponentially and is likely to continue that way until something changes. Albert Bartlett is surmising that our growth will be limited by the availability of energy. He may be right but that is pretty low on my list of things that could clip humanity’s wings. We were running out of whale oil to light our houses when kerosene was found to be better and cheaper. Then we replaced our kerosene lamps with incandescent electric lamps, fluorescent lamps and eventually LED lamps.

    When it comes to energy, technology has a habit of coming to our rescue. In the field of electric power generation even existing technology (nuclear fission) can assure at least 1,000,000 years of electrical consumption at current rates. That should buy us enough time to develop practical thermo nuclear fusion.

    If you are looking for a more likely threat to human population growth here are the ones that worry me:

    1. Pestilence. Especially dangerous if a cold climate stresses the population. Plagues like the “Black Death” had much less impact during warm periods than during the cold periods.

    2. Famine. Even in recent history, famine has been a major problem in what we think of as the “Developed World”. France alone had 13 major famines in the 18th century owing to the cool conditions that prevailed during the “Little Ice Age”. A reduction of average global temperatures of only one degree Centigrade would restore LIA conditions; devastating famines would follow.

    We should all pray for more “Global Warming”.

  5. Pascvaks says:

    Thoughts (in no particular order) –
    – Concern about population is usually expressed most strongly by those who perceive a danger to themselves or their own. Folks normally don’t care too much for “others” not in their Tribe.

    – Old people don’t “enjoy” young people too long; even their own, and especially not someone else’s. The more old people there are (as in developed countries) the more one is likely to hear grumbling about young people or too many any kind of people (especially in third world countries).

    – Everyone needs a reason for breathing. Some people who feel particularly sympathetic or guilty (for whatever reasons) about their own existence take up “Causes” to redeem themselves in their own eyes, and occasionally in the eyes of others, for the “mistakes” or “oversights” or “slights” they inflicted (actually or perceived) during their lives. Some people just need a reason for getting out of bed in the morning; the older they are the more they need.

    – Young people who have enough money (or think they do) from whatever sources (grandparents, parents, government loans) take up Causes to justify their existence. Regardless of their fleeting, momentary, screwy “philosophy” of life, they are driven by hormones and feeble minds to “do something” as an excuse to cut classes or just “let it be” or “save the world” or just “whatever turns them on”.

    – People in underdeveloped countries struggle to survive day-to-day. Kids tend to come naturally. Populations grow. Famines, diseases, pestilence, and mother nature’s whims tend to keep the numbers in check over the long-term. Spikes in numbers tend to happen when the natural balance is “adjusted” by various forces, both internal and external. Sometimes fools from other countries rush in to take advantage of these people and other fools from the same or other countries rush in to help these people and everything gets out of whack and really messed up.

    – I guess the bottom line is that life is a crap shoot and people are the root cause of all evil since everything else is only natural. Human growth and accomplishments are a lot like the Dow Jones Average. Just take a look at the Human Dow over the last 2000 years. It goes Up. It goes Down. We really are overdue for another BIG Downturn. But, who knows, maybe not. Personally, the way the Human Dow has gone for the past two millennium (not to mention the 6,000 before that), I have a feeling it won’t be too much longer before we have a big correction in the number of little old ladies, old men, and kids with too much money (not to mention all the hard working folks just trying to make ends meet). I’m not too bullish on the underdeveloped part of the world either. (Mother Nature is a mean old bear sometimes, keep your powder dry and hope for the best; we don‘t have a whole lot going for us right now! But, then, when did we ever?).

  6. Barlett’s talks about “Sustainers” who push the myth that all we have to do is restrict our consumption to match some resource limitation. When talking about energy this means a civilization based on “Renewables” such as wind, wave, solar, geo and hydro. Barltlett points out that this cannot work if population growth occurs at a constant rate.

    If your are looking for good news in Barlett’s essay, think about the effect that prosperity has on the rate of population growth. For example, fertility in most European countries has declined so much that without immigration populations would be falling. If first world prosperity were allowed to spread we might beat Malthus’ logic because the rate of population growth could fall to zero or even become negative. Any mechanism that does not involve a global scale catastrophe sounds good to me.

    Count me among the people who want to bring cheap electric power to the third world in stark contrast to the Greenies who want to prolong the misery with their “Renewables” that not even the first world can afford.

  7. Verity Jones says:

    Bartlett’s maths is correct as to % growth per year and doubling times. Human population growth 1940-20052000 plotted on a log scale is near enough a straight line – growing exponentially. Probably slowing up as we approach 7 billion. Thanks for the link to the essay on demographic transition – there is a visual way to represent some of the issues she discusses and I am planning a post on that.

    And then the concept just spread out and ended up in places to which it probably wasn’t best suited?”

    It was a concept that was easy to sell, that people could grasp and think they understood, but,as usual, it is easy to gloss over or even hide the true implications. So for example there is the realisation that the cultivation energy and additional water used in agronomy challenges the sustainability of renewable fuels from energy crops.

    Technology does indeed have a habit of coming to the rescue and there is no reason to believe it won’t again. Imagine cracking artificial photosynthesis, or developing supercapacitors that pass ‘the airport carpark test’, or being able to harvest energy from lightening, never mind fusion. Bartlett is right though that our energy used is growing exponentially too, but just think where we’ve come from in terms of energy. Maybe he’s just a pessimist.

    The pestilence angle is a worry. Understanding a little about ‘flu genomes and recombination makes you realise that H1N1 and SARS-type visuses will happen and it is not ‘if’ but ‘when’. All it takes is for recombination of the right strains with sufficient novelty, infectivity, virulence etc. and with current modes of travel….

    As for the thought of famine…one more reason why we need alternatives to biomass-based fuels. We could have enough trouble feeding the world nezermind supplying it with energy too.

    You have some very pertinent comments there. I didn’t know where to start!

    Well said – I’m with you there population growth and prosperity, and on third world prosperity.

  8. PeterB in Indianapolis says:

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Erlich and Holdren (yes the very same Holdren that is Obama’s top science adviser currently) were saying that the earth would be unable to produce food to support the existing population by now. Fortunately they were wrong, but the chances of them being right were pretty slim to be honest.

    I am not saying that the earth can support a population without limit; however, we seem to always come up with something newer, something more effective, or something more efficient (or even combinations of all of the above) which enable us to produce more food, more energy, more products, and make them less expensively.

    Sustainability is really a buzzword for making energy and food more expensive on purpose. Cheap, abundant energy and food are the ONLY things that make a society prosperous. Take a look at North Dakota right now. They are sitting on what is purported to be larger energy reserves than every country in the middle east put together. In Bismark, ND, the population is booming, unemployment is 3%, and there are currently 16,000 UNFILLED jobs. McDonalds is having to pay $15.00 per hour for shift workers just to keep people working there at all. The entire US economy could be having a similar boom if we were simply allowed to develop our domestic energy resources. Maybe oil and natural gas won’t last “forever” but it looks from recent “finds” that they will last a heck of a lot longer than anyone once thought, and probably long before we run out, fusion or something else new and exciting will come along that will produce even cheaper and more abundant energy. LFTRs (Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors) look promising in the near-term, but I don’t know if they will be developed in the US due to the scare-factor associated with the word “nuclear” (even though LFTRs are infinitely safer than Uranium reactors, and the waste is much more manageable by comparison).

    Eventually we will indeed reach population “saturation”. Most sci-fi writers of the early 20th century were optimists and predicted that space travel would allow a human diaspora to other inhabited planets before a Malthusian “solution” occurred. I tend to be the same sort of optimist. “Pessimists are right more often, but optimists have more fun” Robert A. Heinlein.

  9. Anteros says:

    Matt Ridley has a typically sanguine view on population here.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Thanks. That might just inspire me to finish the post I am doing about population. (I really am doing one – honest – I’m just being very slow about it, but then unintentionally perhaps my timing is very good if I have is ‘ready to go’ for the seven millionth billionth birth)

  10. tonyb says:


    ‘7 millionth birth?. Have you tme travelled back to 10,000BC?


    [Reply – thanks for the correction. LOL I guess we so seldom write ‘billion’, Verity]

  11. tonyb says:


    Seldom write a ‘billion? You obviously don’t get the same size cheques from Big Oil as I do.

  12. Anteros says:

    Hi Verity –

    Not sure if you’re notified of comments on old threads…

    I was perusing a link on Facebook and came across this article on population. I remembered your post and thought it might interest you. It’s nothing dramatic – just a few odd ideas.

  13. Pingback: Examining Population Growth | Digging in the Clay

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