By Leon Kolankiewicz
July 30, 2013
“I dropped out of college for awhile. And I worked on iron ore freighters….I used to think, ‘would we ever run out?’ And I can remember saying to myself, ‘Well, Al, you’re just a dishwasher. There are smart people in Washington. If there’s any danger of running out they will act rationally and warn us so we can reduce our consumption.’ And I’m ashamed to admit how many years it was before I realized that my trust was misplaced.”
– Professor Al Bartlett, interviewed for the 2008 documentary Blind Spot
When physics professor Al Bartlett finally realized that his trust in the “smart people in Washington” had indeed been woefully misplaced, he arrived at a simple but profound truth: “We cannot let others do our thinking for us.” Dr. Bartlett (Al to his many friends and admirers) has followed this dictum ever since, and encouraged others to as well.
Indeed, in a phenomenal and unparalleled civic contribution, Al has dedicated more than four decades to educating Americans about the perils and unsustainability of exponential growth – particularly of population and fossil fuel consumption – to which Washington’s politicians and policy wonks seem oblivious.
Our economy and even our diet have become precariously dependent on cheap fossil fuels. “Modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food,” quips Al.
Al has presented his renowned lecture, “Arithmetic, Population and Energy: Sustainability 101,” to audiences ranging from students and corporate executives to scientists and congressmen. The lecture is based on his paper, Forgotten Fundamentals of the Energy Crisis, originally published in the American Journal of Physics.
Since 1969, Al has spoken 1,740 times to audiences in 49 states, several countries and even under the U.S. Capitol dome, reaching about 140,000 folks in person. And via the Internet, he has reached millions more; his lecture has registered nearly 5 million views on YouTube, extraordinary for educational content rather than entertainment.
Al starts his talk with the provocative claim: “The Greatest Shortcoming of the Human Race is our Inability to Understand the Exponential Function.” But he reassures us that in fact one needn’t be a math whiz to grasp it.
Using a combination of humor, wit and great graphics, Al then transports us on a journey to the exotic land of the exponential function, where a mere seven doublings of a quantity, growing at a steady but seemingly unimpressive rate, lead to a product that is 128 times larger than the original amount.
It is the same phenomenon as the compound interest that excites bankers and investors. But unlike the notional dollars of stock markets, things in the real world cannot grow forever; nature imposes limits. And this is anathema to those who fantasize there are no limits to what unfettered human ingenuity and technology can accomplish.
Using examples ranging from the prosaic to the profound, Al demonstrates how the numbers inexorably mount, slowly at first, but then treacherously faster and faster. “Just look at those numbers!” he exclaims in amazement.
Others share that amazement – and dismay. Al’s lecture and writings have influenced such leading thinkers as Richard Heinberg, James Howard Kunstler and Chris Martenson.
What does Al think is the most overpopulated country? The U.S., hands down, due to the combination of our high and rapidly growing numbers and our high per capita resource consumption.
“To be successful with this experiment of human life on earth we have to understand the laws of nature as they are encountered in the study of the sciences and mathematics.”
Al’s lecture and uncommon devotion deserve our appreciation – a million times over.