Pop quiz… If at 11am you have a jar with a single bacteria that doubled every 1 minute, and within one hour the jar was full, what time was the jar half full?
The answer of course, is 11.59. At 11.58 it was only 1/4 full, and at 11.57 it was 1/8 full. The real philosophical question is… what time did the bacteria feel overcrowded and realize they had a problem?
This was an analogy I just came across in a lecture, given in 2002 by Professor Al Bartlett, on Arthmetic, Population and Energy. He gave this talk 1,742 times, starting in 1969 (an average of once every 8.5 days). It is well worth a watch (see below for the video), but I will try and summarize the key concepts here…
His big concern is the impact of overpopulation. I have read various opinions on this, but none that hit me as hard as his simple calculations. The problem comes down to the basic principle of exponential growth.
You see, if something is increasing at just 7% per year, it will double within 10 years. During the second half of the twentieth century, we had a population growth rate of about 1.7%. This means we doubled our population within approximately 40 years.
Here is the real shocking calculation… If we kept that up, within 780 years there would be one person for every 1 square meter of dry land on earth. That is obviously not sustainable by any stretch of the imagination.
The good news is that growth rates have slowed, but even at today’s rate, we will still double the population every 62 years.
In 1815 the population was an estimated 1 billion people globally. (That’s less than either China or India alone today.) By 1915 it was still less than 2 billion. By 2015 we had reached over 7 billion.
Growth of World Population
Each time we double the population the total is greater than the sum of everything that came before it. That is what leads many experts to believe there are now more humans alive today, than have ever lived (and died) before.
Each one of those individuals needs food, water, and shelter. And thanks to global advertising, most want much more.
Another problem explored in the presentation, is the faulty logic used by many ‘experts’ regarding overpopulation or energy usage that get published by the media, (including publications such as Forbes).
For example, the coal reserves in the US have been quoted as being able to last another 500-600 years. But this is based on current usage, and on all total known and expected reserves. Two big problems with this calculation…
Firstly we can only extract about half of the known reserves, the rest is inaccessible. The second much bigger problem is that it does not account for ever-increasing demand – much of which is driven by the population growth. By Dr. Bartlett’s calculations, the number is much closer to a tenth of that, just 50-60 years.
We have been taught since the 1950’s that growth is good. Increasing economic wealth is the measure of any societies, businesses, or individuals success. However, if you ask an oncologist about growth, he will tell you it leads to death. If we are not careful this focus on money, consumption, and even our obsession with preserving individual human life, may well be our downfall as a species.
As businesses we need to find ways to become sustainable. Growth is not sustainable, regardless of the temporary illusion we have created for ourselves. We must find new ways to measure success, and seek to understand and implement true sustainability in all senses of the meaning.
| “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function” |
| Dr Al Bartlett , Professor at the University of Colorado|