My Comment Regarding Dr. Bartlett's Presentation

by Mark A. Goldman

                                                                                            Dated:       5/3/08

I am writing this in response to Dr. Albert A. Bartlett’s superb presentation concerning the importance of understanding the exponential function.  He invites his audience to think for themselves and to comment on his analysis and its implications if they have something to add to the conversation.

 I would like to add this:  advancements in technology cannot change the reality implications of the exponential function.  But technology can help change the assumptions one makes about growth rates and cultural attitudes about the need for growth.  And Dr. Barlett, in his presentation, makes us aware of how current rates of population and consumption growth would eventually, (and relatively sooner rather than later) overwhelm the supply of just about any non-renewable resource, which in turn would likely have dramatic affects on the quality of life for most humans.  

But technology has in the past and could in the future lend a helping hand in unexpected ways.  Consider that when Dr. M. King Hubbert first announced his findings about peak oil, there was no internet, and if he wanted to complete a phone call from New York to California to tell someone about his findings, it required many millions of pounds of copper wire and a very large number of telephone poles to complete the call.  Today, with cell phones and computer technology, information can be passed along using just a tiny fraction of those materials.  How much oil does it take to make thousands of miles of insulated wires and sink and/or repair thousands of telephone poles, etc.  Science and technology can’t solve all our problems, but they sure can help. R. Buckminster Fuller used to call this doing more with less.  

Now one issue to which I take exception in Dr. Barlett’s presentation is an assumption he makes about which behaviors are likely to make the population problem worse.  He offers a factual error based on a commonly held erroneous belief... at least as it applies to a number of cultures.  We have learned through experience that actually helping people to stay healthy and well fed can, in fact, reduce the birth rate.  The reason being is that in a number of cultures parents have many children out of a fear that only one or two of them will ever survive to adulthood.  It's important to them that their children survive to adulthood because in those cultures there are little or no economic safety nets.  In those cultures it is important for at least one child to survive into adulthood so that that child will be around to take care of his or her parents in their old age. 

It has been found that people actually do voluntarily reduce the size of their families when they have confidence that the children they bring into the world will live their lifetimes in freedom and dignity, free from hunger and want... and also when they have confidence that when they get sick or retire, they will have enough resources to be self sufficient without needing their children's support.

Now this finding is counter intuitive I know, but it is an important thing to know, and knowing it might save us from making some very inappropriate policy decisions.  I.e., advancing the cause of human rights and human dignity can lower population growth and make life more viable for all humanity rather than the other way around.  And that's one more reason we should offer our support to universal human rights. 

And I think it is reasonable to assume that when more people are appropriately educated, we can expect that birth rates will fall even further, for we are more likely to gain voluntary support from citizens who are well fed, happy and well educated, than from people who live in want and fear.  So what our culture needs is better education for all, so that we can inspire citizens to be proactive in limiting the number of their offspring and/or rates of consumption, once they understand what the implications of not doing so would be.

We can see by this example that mathematics can help us identify potential problems, and math, science, and technology will help us mitigate some of them.  But what we need more than anything, if we are to solve our most critical dilemmas, will be truth, honor, dignity, compassion, courage and love… the kind of love, compassion and intellectual integrity that Dr. Bartlett is demonstrating when he shares with us what he knows about exponential functions and what we can learn from their application.

While serendipities can’t be predicted, they do happen.  This doesn’t negate anything Dr. Barlett said, it only suggests that maybe things are not as hopeless as some of us might otherwise surmise.

In fact, I would say that Dr. Barlett himself is one of those fortunate unpredicted serendipities.  By his very existence he is helping us avoid catastrophes we might otherwise experience.  And without ever speaking to Dr. Bartlett I was able to hear his presentation, separated in time and space from when it was delivered, and share it with others who will now have the opportunity to hear it too... because with just a few keystrokes I was able to pass the information along to others, some of whom live as far away as the other side of the planet.

As this information spreads, let's hope there’s a reasonable chance that population growth will, in fact, trend towards zero a good deal earlier than it otherwise would have without Dr. Bartlett’s elegant contribution.  Dr. Bartlett probably saved millions of people from undue suffering and death and did so without making things worse for the rest of humanity… unless, of course, our inept attempts to handle the problem, will only make things worse for reasons we can and cannot yet imagine. 

As for technology and energy:  We get a lot of our energy from the sun.  Most of it we don't use.  There's also a lot of hydrogen available.  I wonder if we might learn to use some of the sun's energy and some of that hydrogen to mitigate the crisis we're about to confront.  In any event, there are sources of energy that we haven't really begun to tap into yet.  

Food:  It takes a lot of water, plants, and energy to grow cattle.  Maybe we should eat more grains, fruits, and vegetables.  The animals might appreciate it and so might our offspring and the rest of humanity too.

Now while Dr. Barlett alludes to certain self-correcting aspects of the marketplace, namely the tendency for price to bring supply and demand into balance, it might be useful to expand the discussion to that related topic.  He mentions at one point that the reason peak oil might have been delayed is that the price of oil went up driving down demand.  That, of course, is why we will not experience consumption following an exponential curve to the point at which it falls off to zero.  Before that happens price will tend to ration the resource and  bring consumption down.  If the price gets high enough its use might be abandoned altogether.

The problem is, that it will be those least financially secure who will be driven to poverty, despair, hunger and even death by high prices... but not without political turmoil.  Surely we can see that the voluntary reduction of population and consumption growth is better than terrorism and war.  And it would be better if most of us were to come to that realization without having to experience what we can already contemplate.  Is anybody listening...?


Note on the math:  financial professionals are often taught to use the Rule of 72 to estimate the doubling of money, rather than the Rule of 70.  A discussion comparing methods can be found at





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