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PROVOCATIONS
December 1996

"Laws Relating to Sustainability"

by Albert A. Bartlett

excerpted from "Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth, and the Environment," originally published in Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, September 1994, Human Sciences Press, Inc. Used with permission of the author.

The laws . . . that follow are offered in order to define the term "sustainability," which must be understood to mean, "for many millennia."

In some cases these statetments are accompanied by corollaries that are identified by capital letters.

They all apply for populations and rates of consumption of goods and resources of the sizes and scales found in the world in 1994, and may not be applicable for small numbers of people or to groups in primitive tribal situations.

These laws are believed to hold rigorously.

The *hypotheses are less rigorous than the laws. There may be exceptions to some, and some may be proven to be wrong. Experience may show that some of the hypotheses should be elevated to the status of laws.

The *observations may shed light on the problems and on mechanisms for finding solutions to the problems.

The *predictions are those of a retired nuclear physicist who has been watching these problems for several decades.

[*Editor's Note: This article excerpt includes the "laws" only.]

The lists are but a single compilation, and hence may be incomplete. Readers are invited to communicate with the author in regard to items that should or should not be in these lists.

In many cases, these laws and statements have been recognized, set forth, and elaborated on by others.


Garrett Hardin's Three Laws of Human Ecology

We start by repeating three laws of human ecology that are given by Garrett Hardin (Hardin, 1993). These are fundamental, and need to be known and recognized by all who would speak of sustainability.

First Law

"We can never do merely one thing." This is a profound and eloquent observation of the interconnectedness of nature.

Second Law

"There's no away to throw to." This is a compact statement of one of the major problems of the "effluent society."

Third Law

The impact (I) of any group or nation on the environment is represented qualitatively by the relation

I = P A T

where P is the size of the population, A is the per capita affluence, measured by per capita rate of consumption, and T is a measure of the damage done by the technologies that are used in supplying the consumption. Hardin attributes this law to Ehrlich and Holdren (Ehrlich and Holdren, 1971).

The suggestion may be made that the Third Law is too conservative. The Third Law suggests that I varies as p(n) (p to the nth power) where n=1. There are situations where the impact of humans increases more rapidly than linearly with the size of the population P so that n > 1.


Boulding's Three Theorems

These theorems are from the work of the eminent economist Kenneth Boulding (Boulding, 1971).

First Theorem: "The Dismal Theorem"

"If the only ultimate check on the growth of population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth."

Second Theorem: "The Utterly Dismal Theorem"

This theorem 'states that any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the [technical] improvement will enable population to grow, and will soon enable more people to live in misery than before.

The final result of [technical] improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery."

Third Theorem: "The moderately cheerful form of the Dismal Theorem"

"Fortunately, it is not too difficult to restate the Dismal Theorem in a moderately cheerful form, which states that if something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it can be stably prosperous."

Boulding continues, "Until we know more, the Cheerful Theorem remains a question mark. Misery we know will do the trick. This is the only sure-fire automatic method of bringing population to an equlibrium. Other things may do it."


Abernethy's Axiom

Motivation, rather than differential access to modern contraception, is the primary determinant of fertility. Individuals respond to scarcity by having fewer children, and to perceived opportunity by having more children.

Contrary to the demographic transition model, economic development does not cause family size to shrink; rather, at every point where serious economic opportunity beckons, family size preferences expand. (Abernethy, 1993b).

A) Foreign aid conveys to the recipients the perception of improving economic wellbeing, which causes an increase in the fertility of the recipients of the aid.

B) Migrations from regions of low economic opportunity to places of higher economic opportunity result in an increase in the fertility of the migrants that persists for a generation or two.


LAWS RELATING TO SUSTAINABILITY

First Law

Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained.

A) A population growth rate less than or equal to zero and declining rates of consumption of resources are necessary conditions for a sustainable society.

B) Unsustainability will be the certain result of any program of "development," whether or not it is said to be "sustainable," that ignores the problem of population growth and that does not plan the achievement of zero or a period of negative growth of populations and of rates of consumption of resources.

C) The research and regulation programs of governmental agencies that are charged with protecting the environment and promoting sustainability" are, in the long run, irrelevant unless these programs address vigorously and quantitatively the determination of optimal population sizes that can be carried indefinitely and unless the programs study in depth the demographic causes and consequences of environmental problems.

D) Societies, or sectors of a society, that depend on population growth or growth in their rates of consumption of resources, are unsustainable.

E) Persons who advocate population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources are advocating unsustainability.

F) Persons whose actions directly or indirectly cause increases in population or in the rates of consumption of resources are moving society away from sustainability. (Advertising your city or state as an ideal site in which to locate new factories indicates a desire to increase the population of your city or state.)

G) The term "sustainable growth" is an oxymoron.

Second Law

The larger the population of a society, and/or the larger its rates of consumption of resources, the more difficult it will be to transform the society to the condition of sustainability.

Third Law

The response time of populations to changes in the total fertility rate is the length of time people live, or approximately fifty to seventy years. (The consequence of this is called "population momentum."

A) If we want the population sizes to be reduced or at least stabilized by the mid-twenty-first century, we must make the necessary changes in the total fertility rates before the end of the twentieth century.

B) We live in a time of short time horizons.

C) It will be difficult to convince people to act now to change course, when the full results of the change may not be apparent in those people's lifetimes.

Fourth Law

The size of population that can be sustained (the carrying capacity) and the sustainable average standard of living of the population are inversely related to one another.

A) The higher the standard of living one wishes to sustain, the more urgent it is to reduce population size.

B) Reductions in the rates of consumption of resources and reductions in the rates of production of pollution can shift the carrying capacity in the direction of sustaining a larger population.

Fifth Law

Sustainability requires that the size of the population be less than or equal to the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for the desired standard of living.

A) Sustainability requires an equilibrium between human society and stable ecosystems.

B) Destruction of ecosystems tends to reduce the carrying capacity and/or the sustainable standard of living.

C) The rate of destruction of ecosystems increases as the rate of growth of the population increases.

D) Population growth rates less than equal to zero are necessary, but are not sufficient, conditions for halting the destruction of the environment.

Sixth Law: (The lesson of "The Tragedy of the Commons") (Hardin, 1968):

The benefits of population growth and of growth in the rates of consumption of resources accrue to a few individuals; the costs of population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are borne by all of society.

A) Individuals who benefit from growth will continue to exert strong pressures supporting and encouraging both population growth and growth in rates of consumption of resources.

B) The individuals who promote growth are motivated by the recognition that growth is good for them. In order to gain public support for their goals, they must convince people that population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources are also good for society. This is the Charles Wilson argument: If it is good for General Motors, it is good for the United States.* (Yates, 1983).

*"What is good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa!" Cited in Yates, 1983, p. 123.

Seventh Law

Growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource, such as a fossil fuel, causes a dramatic decrease in the life-expectancy of the resource.

A) In a world of growing rates of consumption of resources, it is seriously misleading to state the life-expectancy of a non-renewable resource "at present rates of consumption," i.e., with no growth.

B) It is intellectually dishonest to advocate growth in the rate of consumption of a non-renewable resource while, at the same time, reassuring people about how long the resource will last "at present rates of consumption."

Eighth Law

The time of expiration of non-renewable resources can be postponed, possibly for a very long time, by (i) technological improvements in the efficiency with which the resources are recovered and used; (ii) using the resources in accord with a program of "sustained availability" (Bartlett, 1986); (iii) recycling; (iv) the use of substitute resources.

Ninth Law

When large efforts are made to improve the efficiency with which resources are used, the resulting savings are easily and completely wiped out by the added resource needs that arise as a consequence of modest increases in population.

A) When resources are used more efficiently, the consequence often is that the "saved" resources are not put aside for the use of future generations, but instead are used immediately to encourage and support larger populations.

B) Humans have an enormous compulsion to find an immediate use for all available resources.

Tenth Law

The benefits of large efforts to preserve the environment are easily canceled by the added demands on the environment that result from small increases in human population.

Eleventh Law: (Second Law of Thermodynamics)

When rates of pollution exceed the natural cleansing capacity of the ecosystems, it is easier to pollute than it is to clean up the environment.

Twelfth Law: (Eric Sevareid's Law)

The chief cause of problems is solutions. (Sevareid, 1970)

A) This law should be a central part of higher education, especially in engineering.

Thirteenth Law

Humans will always be dependent on agriculture.

A) Supermarkets alone are not sufficient.

B) The central task in sustainable agriculture is to preserve agricultural land. The agricultural land must be protected from losses due to things such as (i) erosion; (ii) urbanization and development; (iii) poisoning by chemicals; (iv) salinization; and (v) waterlogging.

Fourteenth Law

If, for whatever reason, humans fail to stop population growth and growth in the rates of consumption of resources, nature will stop these growths.

A) Nature's method of stopping growth is cruel and inhumane.

B) Glimpses of nature's method of dealing with population that have exceeded the carrying capacity of their lands can be seen each night on the television news reports from places where large populations are experiencing starvation and misery.

Fifteenth Law

Starving people do not care about sustainability. If sustainability is to be achieved, the necessary leadership and resources must be supplied by people who are not starving.

Sixteenth Law

The addition of the word "sustainable" to our vocabulary, to our reports, programs, and papers, and to the names of our academic institutes and research programs, is not sufficient to ensure that our society becomes sustainable.

Seventeenth Law

Extinction is forever.


Dr. Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus, Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder, presented a talk on "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy," to a rapt audience at the 1996 AIA Colorado Design Conference in Aspen. The above article is a further sampling of his thoughts on sustainability and human behavior. You can reach Dr. Bartlett at Department of Physics, University of Colorado, Box 390, Boulder, CO 80309-0390.

PROVOCATIONS is an online journal of architecture and ideas.
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Opinions expressed by authors published in Provocations are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Provocations.

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