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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Implications of Steady Growth

This gentleman is Dr. Albert Bartlett. He is a retired physics professor. He taught at the University of Colorado. He gave a lecture entitled, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy that is making its way around the internet. He first delivered this lecture in 1969 because he knew that people did not understand the implications of steady growth.

Since then he has given this lecture hundreds of times. He has modified it of course to fit current realities. It was given to address the issue of population but it has been mostly used to talk about Peak Oil. You can read the transcript of his lecture but I suggest watching the video.

You can find it on YouTube in eight nine minute segments. After each segment, click the link below the video to take you to the next segment.

In 2007, Dr. Bartlett talked about this lecture in an interview. You can follow the links on this page to hear that interview.

Steady growth is a way to measure how often a quantity doubles in time. The formula is to take the percentage growth and divide into 70. For instance something that grows at 1% per year will double every 70 years. 70/1 = 70. Something that grows at 7% per year will double every 70/7 = 10 years.

This is important knowledge to have. Whenever we hear about percentage growth it doesn't register. We need to think in terms of doubling. You may have heard this story about the guy who presented a king with a chessboard. The king was impressed and wanted to give him a present. The guy said just put one grain of rice on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on. That will be enough.

1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096....

By the time he got to the 21st square--boom--a million grains. By the time he reached the 41st square a trillion grains. There wasn't enough rice in the world for the remaining squares.

What does it mean for example for our economy to grow every year, or to increase population at a steady rate, or to increase our use of resources at a steady rate? In a world with infinite space and resources, no problem. The problem is that Earth is finite.

Our economy is based on economic growth. Every year it must grow. Pick a percentage x growth per year, divide into 70 and that is how many years it will double. That new amount will double again and again until...checkmate: no more rice.

For some implications watch this short video,
Are Human Beings Smarter Than Yeast? Then check Albert Bartlett's lecture.
You can watch it in segments. It will take you a little over an hour.

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