Published: April 26, 1998

The Renewable Resources Journal has devoted an entire issue to an article by Albert Bartlett, a CU-Boulder professor emeritus and one of the world’s leading experts on population growth, that attempts to define the term "sustainability."

Journal editors thought so highly of the article they relaxed their policy regarding editorial length to publish all of "Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth and the Environment – Revisited" in a recent issue. The 13,100-word article, first published in Population & Environment in 1994, is more than three times the journal’s usual 4,000-word limit.

"What I’m trying to do is to get people who use the term "sustainable" to really define what sustainable means," he said. "The word is very carelessly used."

Bartlett argues that sustainable means for a time period much longer than a human lifetime. Bartlett then proposes 18 laws of sustainability, the first of which is that "Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained."

"Sustainable growth is an oxymoron," Bartlett said. "Growth cannot be sustained – period.

"The only difference between planned growth and unplanned growth is that planned growth destroys the environment with good taste."

An award-winning teacher and professor emeritus of physics, Bartlett continues to travel and lecture on physics, population growth, and CU-Boulder history and architecture.

In March, Bartlett delivered his 1,266th lecture on "Arithmetic, Population and Energy" at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. Future talks are scheduled in May in Longmont, Parker and Lyons.

Bartlett's talk warns of the dangerous consequences of "ordinary, steady growth" of population and the consumption of fossil fuels. Understanding the mathematical consequences of population growth and energy consumption can help clarify the best course for humanity to follow, he said.

"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function," he said. The exponential function describes anything growing at a fixed rate, such as 5 percent per year, but most people don't understand the gigantic numbers that result from even small rates of steady growth, he said.

Bartlett first delivered the lecture on Sept. 19, 1969 to a group of CU-Boulder pre-med students.

Bartlett earned his graduate degrees at Harvard University and spent two years as an experimental physicist at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory before starting his teaching career at CU-Boulder in 1950. He has won several teaching and service awards and is a former president of the American Association of Physics Teachers.