Sierra Club Referendum

Letter by Prof. Al Bartlett

It is truly astonishing that leaders of the Sierra Club and distinguished members of the California State Legislature could oppose the referendum that has been initiated by members of the Club to recognize that the environment in the U.S. and the world cannot be saved if population growth continues.

If the earth is flat (instead of spherical), then the earth can be infinite in lateral extent and in depth, so that areas and environments can be preserved, resources can be extracted forever, and population growth can continue throughout all of the future.

In contrast, if one believes the earth to be spherical, then the earth is finite in extent, and population growth can continue only at the expense of the environment. Should we vote to determine whether the earth is flat or spherical?

The world's worst population problem is here in the U.S., because of our high per capita consumption of the world's resources. The average American consumes 30 to 100 times as much in a lifetime as does the average person in an undeveloped country. Our obligation as Americans to the people of the world is to reduce our resource consumption by the only two avenues that are open: we must reduce our per capita consumption, and we must stabilize our population size and ultimately allow the U.S. population to decline to a sustainable size, which is much less than the present size.

As a nation, it is immoral and unjust for us to continue our profligate consumption of the resources of others to support our high level of living. For example, today, the world per capita production of petroleum is about 1.7 liters per person per day, and it is falling from a high of around 2.2 liters per person per day in the 1970s. Any day that any of us use more than 1.7 liters of petroleum or petroleum-based products, we are using more than our share of this incredible resource. Note that 1.7 liters is less than half a gallon. What will the people of the underdeveloped world say at some time in the future when they are developing economies that will be dependent on petroleum and they find that Americans have used all of their petroleum, leaving little or nothing for them?

We cannot save the environment by having "smart growth." Smart growth and dumb growth both destroy the environment. The only difference is that smart growth destroys the environment less rapidly than dumb growth, and smart growth destroys the environment with good taste. Its a little like buying a ticket on the Titanic. If you are smart, you go first class, and if you are dumb, or broke, you go steerage. But the end result is the same. Given the choice, we would all chose to go first class, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we will be saved by going first class. But remember, the Titanic was sunk by decisions that were made by people in the first class cabins, and not by the poor people who were down in steerage. As the world goes, we Americans have been traveling first class, for a long time now.

Albert A. Bartlett
Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado, Boulder

Copyright 1998 Albert A. Bartlett
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