Several years ago in November 2009, I picked up this article from the then
The Oil Drum headed "Dr. Albert Bartlett's Laws of Sustainability".
This is a long one at around 2000 words, but more or less saying we are running
into real trouble. They are part of Al
Bartlett's contribution to the anthology “The Future of Sustainability” by
Marco Keiner, published in 2006.
LAWS OF SUSTAINABILITY
The Laws that follow are offered to define the term sustainability."
In some cases these statements are accompanied by corollaries that are
identified by capital letters. They all apply for populations and rates of
consumption of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world
in 2005, and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in
primitive tribal situations.
These Laws are believed to hold rigorously.
The list is but a single compilation, and hence may be incomplete.
Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard to items that
should or should not be in this list.
First Law: Population
growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be
A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero
and declining rates of consumption of resources are a necessary, but not a
sufficient, condition for a sustainable society.
B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of
"development," that does not plan the achievement of zero (or a
period of negative) growth of populations and of rates of consumption of
resources. This is true even if the program is said to be “sustainable.”
C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are
charged with protecting the environment and promoting
"sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant, unless these
programs address vigorously and quantitatively the concept of carrying
capacities and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and
consequences of environmental problems.
D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or
growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.
E) Persons who advocate population growth and / or growth in the rates of
consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.
F) Persons who suggest that sustainability can be achieved without stopping
population growth are misleading themselves and others.
G) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in
population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away
H) The term "Sustainable Growth" is an oxymoron.
I) In terms of population sizes and rates of resource consumption, “The
only smart growth is no growth.” (Hammond,
In a society with a growing population and / or growing rates of
consumption of resources, the larger the population, and / or the larger the
rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform
the society to the condition of sustainability.
Third Law: The response
time of populations to changes in the human fertility rate is the average
length of a human life, or approximately 70 years. (Bartlett and Lytwak 1995)
[This is called "population momentum."]
A) A nation can achieve zero population growth if:
a) the fertility rate is maintained at the replacement level for 70 years, and
b) there is no net migration during the 70 years.
During the 70 years the population continues to grow, but at declining rates
until the growth finally stops after approximately 70 years.
B) If we want to make changes in the total fertility rates so as to
stabilize the population by the mid - to late 21st century, we must make the
necessary changes now.
C) The time horizon of political leaders is of the order of two to eight
D) It will be difficult to convince political leaders to act now to change
course, when the full results of the change may not become apparent in the
lifetimes of those leaders.
Fourth Law: The size of
population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable
average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one
another. (This must be true even though Cohen asserts that the numerical size
of the carrying capacity of the Earth cannot be determined, (Cohen 1995))
A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent
it is to stop population growth.
B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in
the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the
direction of sustaining a larger population.
Fifth Law: One cannot
sustain a world in which some regions have high standards of living while
others have low standards of living.
Sixth Law: All countries
cannot simultaneously be net importers of carrying capacity.
A) World trade involves the exportation and importation of carrying
Seventh Law: A society that
has to import people to do its daily work (“We can’t find locals who will do
the work,”) is not sustainable.
Eighth Law: Sustainability
requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying
capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.
A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and dynamic
but stable ecosystems.
B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and / or
the sustainable standard of living.
C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of
the population increases.
D) Affluent countries, through world trade, destroy the ecosystems of less
E) Population growth rates less than or equal to zero are necessary, but
are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment.
This is true locally and globally.
Ninth Law: ( The lesson of
"The Tragedy of the Commons" ) (Hardin 1968): The benefits of
population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue
to a few; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption
of resources are borne by all of society.
A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong
pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates
of consumption of resources.
B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that
growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they
must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of
consumption of resources, are also good for society. [This is the Charles
Wilson argument: if it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.]
Tenth Law: Growth in the
rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes
a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.
A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously
misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at
present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth. More relevant than
the life-expectancy of a resource is the expected date of the peak production
of the resource, i.e. the peak of the Hubbert curve. (Hubbert 1972)
B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of
consumption of non-renewable resources while, at the same time, reassuring
people about how long the resources will last "at present rates of
consumption.” (zero growth)
Eleventh Law: The time of
expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very
long time, by:
i ) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources
are recovered and used
ii ) using the resources in accord with a program of "Sustained
Availability," (Bartlett 1986)
iv ) the use of substitute resources.
Twelfth Law: When large
efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the
resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resources
that are consumed as a consequence of modest increases in population.
A) When the efficiency of resource use is increased, the consequence often
is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future
generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger
B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all
Thirteenth Law: The benefits of
large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added
demands on the environment that result from small increases in human
Fourteenth Law: (Second Law of
Thermodynamics) When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity
of the environment, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the
Fifteenth Law: (Eric
Sevareid's Law); The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid 1970). This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in
Sixteenth Law: Humans will
always be dependent on agriculture. (This is the first of Malthus’ two
A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.
B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural
land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such
i ) Urbanization and development
iii ) Poisoning by chemicals
Seventeenth Law: If, for
whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates
of consumption of resources, Nature will stop these growths.
A) By contemporary western standards, Nature's method of stopping growth is
cruel and inhumane.
Glimpses of Nature's method of dealing with populations that have exceeded
the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television
news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation
Eighteenth Law: In local
situations within the U.S.,
creating jobs increases the number of people locally who are out of work.
Newly created jobs in a community temporarily lowers the unemployment rate
(say from 5% to 4%), but then people move into the community to restore the
unemployment rate to its earlier higher value (of 5%), but this is 5% of the
larger population, so more individuals are out of work than before.
Nineteenth Law: Starving people
don't care about sustainability.
If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources
must be supplied by people who are not starving.
Twentieth Law: The addition of
the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs,
and papers, to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, and
to our community initiatives, is not sufficient to ensure that our society
Twenty-First Law: Extinction is
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The challenge of making the transition to a sustainable society is
enormous, in part because of a major global effort to keep people from
recognizing the centrality of population growth to the enormous problems of the
and the world.
• On the global scale, we need to support family planning throughout the
world, and we should generally restrict our foreign aid to those countries that
make continued demonstrated progress in reducing population growth rates and
• The immediate task is to restore numeracy to the population programs in
the local, national and global agendas.
• On the national scale, we can work for the selection of leaders who will
recognize that population growth is the major problem in the U.S. and who will initiate a
national dialog on the problem. With a lot of work at the grassroots, our
system of representative government will respond.
• On the local and national levels, we must focus serious attention and
large fiscal resources on the development of renewable energy sources.
• On the local and national levels, we need to work to improve social
justice and equity.
• On the community level in the U.S., we should work to make growth
pay for itself.
I think we might be in trouble. Anyone for an iceberg lettuce?