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Remembering Al Bartlett

Too few environmentalists and sustainability advocates are willing to eschew political correctness and put “smart growth” into the unsustainable dung heap in which it belongs, right next to “dumb growth.” Too few scientists have been willing to take respected journals and magazines to task for engaging in a conspiracy of “silent lies,” leaving overpopulation unmentioned in discussions of various crises. You could never accuse notable physicist Al Bartlett of beating around the bush or tap-dancing around the clear truths about the unsustainability of growth.

Two years ago today, the celebrated professor passed away, at the age of 90, succumbing to a second battle with cancer. I was lucky enough to visit Al’s bedside a month earlier. He was in good spirits, with a lot of his mental spunk intact.

Dr. Bartlett had a very healthy respect for the laws of physics and limitations of humankind, so I think he was at peace about his life drawing to a close. But he had not stopped observing (and lamenting) the folly of our quest for everlasting. He wondered if I was keeping up on the latest political maneuvering of the growth boosters in Boulder where he lived. He wanted to talk about it. His work was not finished.
Al Bartlett and Dave Gardner Al Bartlett had long been an articulate critic of cornucopian everlasting growth mythology. In his adopted hometown of Boulder, he was a vocal champion for rational behavior and public policy acknowledging both the costs of growth and the physical limits to growth. He played the same role as a planetary citizen on a global scale.

I don’t recall how I first discovered him, but the day I got the high-definition video camera I needed to begin filming my GrowthBusters documentary, I was making an appointment to film an interview with Al Bartlett. I sat down with him in his tiny, cramped office at the University of Colorado in the Fall of 2005. He was the first of many interviews I would film over a 5-year period – one of the most charming, and certainly one of the most ardent. I found it very frustrating that time forced me to leave so many wise and witty gems from that interview out of the film.

There is good news, however, as on this, the second anniversary of his passing, I am able to share that interview. Two weeks ago we launched the new syndicated radio series and podcast, Conversation Earth, and the second episode features the wit and wisdom of Al Bartlett. As we remember and honor Al Bartlett this week, I invite you to enjoy the best of that 2005 interview, much of which has never been heard by anyone outside of the film production team.

soundcloud player snapshot

Al was best known for his lecture on exponential growth, which he delivered nearly 2,000 times. It always began with this now-famous statement:

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

He was invited to deliver it to government officials, governing bodies, conferences, and on college campuses around the world. When I finally managed to film him delivering the lecture to a CU class in 2010, he was slowing down a little. He sat in a chair while speaking to the class. He still used transparencies on an overhead projector to make his points. His bacteria-in-a-bottle demonstration of the unappreciated power of exponential growth astonishes almost everyone. It is one of the most remembered moments from my GrowthBusters documentary.

What is less known about the outspoken professor is that he wrote a series of Laws Relating to Sustainability. I don’t know why they aren’t shared more widely; perhaps we just can’t handle the truth. Read them all; you’ll find them to be so obvious and unassailable that they amuse you and frustrate you at the same time.

First Law: “Population growth and / or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.”

GrowthBusters poster starring Al Bartlett I hope you enjoy this conversation with Al Bartlett. Each week we’ll be publishing a new interview in the Conversation Earth series. I encourage you to subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. You can do that at iTunes, SoundCloud, or explore the new Conversation Earth website and subscribe to the series via a weekly email.

That day in August, 2013 as I visited Al at his bedside, he kindly mustered the physical energy to sign a limited number of small GrowthBusters movie posters I had printed, featuring Al as the lead GrowthBuster. As we honor and remember Al Bartlett this week, you may obtain one of these. I’ll send you one as my thanks when you make a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more to the GrowthBusters or Conversation Earth project. Donate here, and I’ll get in touch with you to let you know your poster is on its way.

Dave Gardner
Filmmaker & GrowthBuster

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