Slowly growing things will one day get ridiculously big

“the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”

So says Dr. Albert Bartlett, a professor of physics at the University of Colorado. I stumbled upon a transcript of his well-honed lecture on Arithmetic, Population and Energy.

It is a polished lecture, replete with wisdom and well worth reading. If his statement above is true, then by reading you are getting insight in to the greatest shortcoming of the human race. So, really, it is worth 10 minutes out of your day (or out of your facebook time).

In his lecture he looks at the oxymoron “sustainable growth”. Think about it business people. He offers a very simple trick to understand growth rates and what they mean in terms of doubling time.

You just take the number 70, divide it by the percent growth per unit time and that gives you the doubling time. So our example of 5% per year, you divide the 5 into 70, you find that growing quantity will double in size every 14 years.

He goes on to use this to make us look at population growth, space and the use of natural resources. Using the simple maths, he shows how intelligent people can be rather dumb. It reminds me of an intelligent friend who’s mother was involved in a pyramid scheme. He just couldn’t see that after several levels, there simply wouldn’t be enough gullible (or otherwise) people left in the universe to join the scam.

Anyhow, his main thrust comes back to population. Its worth re-quoting a quote he quotes by Isaac Asimov:

“What happens to the idea of the dignity of the human species if this population growth continues?” and Asimov says, “It’ll be completely destroyed. I like to use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment, and there are two bathrooms, then they both have freedom of the bathroom. You can go to the bathroom anytime you want, stay as long as you want, for whatever you need. And everyone believes in freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the constitution. But if you have twenty people in the apartment and two bathrooms, then no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there’s no such thing. You have to set up times for each person, you have to bang on the door, ‘Aren’t you through yet?’ and so on.” And Asimov concluded with one of the most profound observations I’ve seen in years. He said, “In the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive overpopulation. Convenience and decency cannot survive overpopulation. As you put more and more people into the world, the value of life not only declines, it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies, the more people there are, the less one individual matters.”

And from this he summarises.

“And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognise that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.”

So, there you have it. If you don’t decide to read the article, at least try to work out right now what the doubling time is from a 1.3% growth rate is. Then you’ll know, theoretically at least, when you’ll be sharing the planet with 13 billion others.

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