“Arithmetic, Population and Energy”

I hold firmly to the conviction expressed in John McCarthy’s signature quote that “those who refuse to do arithmetic are doomed to speak nonsense.” Today I came across a set of videos which graphically illustrates the concept: Dr Albert Bartlett’s 8-part series on “Arithmetic, Population and Energy.” (See video below the fold).

As Dr B says, many of our problems arise from the common human failure to understand what exponential growth means. Yet, it is not a very difficult concept to understand since all it is is basic arithmetic. Considering the immense difficulty that too many people appear to have with basic arithmetic, one wonders whether they are actually like the Pirahã — incapable of numeracy.

Here’s part 1 of Dr B’s lecture. (Just disregard the hyperbolic title “The most IMPORTANT video you’ll ever see.”)

(About 1 hour and 20 minutes in total — believe me, that’s time well spent.)

It is good to watch a well articulated and well reasoned lecture. I liked the presentation. I generally agree with the content. But one must remember that in general, technological progress can play havoc with any long-run prediction. Yes, the world is going to run out of fossil fuels — all indications are that the stock is limited. But substitution is a fact and when something becomes scarce, substitutes are found.

In part 7, Dr B quotes Isaac Asimov on population. Asimov’s view is exactly congruent with how I feel. So I will quote it here for the record.

Bill Moyers had asked Asimov, “What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?” Asimov’s reply:

It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want, and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution.

But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet, and so on.

And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.

2 thoughts on ““Arithmetic, Population and Energy”

  1. amity Tuesday April 7, 2009 / 11:08 pm

    So the scientific world that’s so busy with the business of “saving lives” should stop doing its work (cure for this, cure for that, organ donation, GMOs to feed the poor, etc.). The whole premise of modern medical science is predicated on saving lives. Maybe if we let people die instead of trying to save them, there won’t be a population problem. So we created the problem in the first place.


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