Colorado and the Population Problem

Albert A. Bartlett

This is a slightly modified version of the piece that was published in the Perspective Section (Section I, Page 6) of the Denver Post on Sunday October 10, 1999.


The year 1986 was the year the world population reached 5 billion people (Y5B). This year (1999) the world population is estimated to be 6 billion people (Y6B). The problems of Y6B are infinitely more serious than the better-known Y2K problems. The good news is that since 1986 the annual growth rate of world population has dropped from 1.7 % to 1.3%. The bad news is that part of this drop is due to the expanding tragedy of the high death rates associated with AIDS in underdeveloped countries. In spite of this drop, the world population is growing today by about 80 million people a year.


The U.S. population is growing annually by about 2.5 million people, (1% per year) while the countries of Europe are at zero or negative population growth rates. It is estimated that over half of the current growth of U.S. population is due to immigration, most of which is legal. Most of today's world population increase is in underdeveloped countries where growth rates of 2% per year or more are encountered. But where is the world's worst population growth problem? Because of our high per capita consumption of resources, the world's worst population problem is right here in the United States.


Example: The world per capita petroleum production in 1999 is less than half a gallon per person per day, while in the U.S. we consume more than four times as much. In Scientific American for March 1998 two petroleum geologists write that we can expect world petroleum production to peak before the year 2010. My own analysis confirms this. When this peak occurs, petroleum production will start its inevitable decline toward zero, but we will be faced with a growing world population and a growing per capita demand for petroleum. This decline can be expected to trigger a major escalation of petroleum prices. (Crude oil prices doubled in the first 6 months of 1999.) What would big increases of gasoline prices do to tourism, transportation, trade, commerce, and to the economy of Colorado?


We can't urge other countries to stop their population growth if we don't act to stop our own population growth. Yet population growth in Colorado is actively promoted by our leaders even though our Colorado population growth rate is about 2% per year. (This matches the growth rate of some of the underdeveloped nations to which the U.S. sends family planning assistance.) There is a shortage of labor at all levels in Colorado, yet we see continuing vigorous and successful efforts to bring more in more employers to exacerbate the shortages. We also see prominent advocacy of efforts to bring more unskilled people to Colorado to work at slave wages to to the "grunt" work of our increasingly elite society.


Costs of population growth in Colorado range from the necessary big tax increases which tend to displace the fixed-income elderly, to crowded schools, poor phone service, traffic congestion, road rage, anti-social behavior, the loss of agriculture, down to the annoyance of having to dial the three-digit area code with every local phone call. The greatest cost of growth is the loss of freedoms and democracy. In 1950 Boulder had a population of 20,000 and had 9 members on the City Council. In 1999 the population is approaching 100,000 and there are still 9 members on the City Council. For the average citizen, democracy in Boulder has been diluted by a factor of five in just 49 years! Isaac Asimov was correct when he wrote: "Democracy cannot survive overpopulation."


Growth during maturity is either obesity or cancer. As subdivisions metastasize throughout the Front Range, more and more Colorado citizens are speaking out about the many ways in which the continued population growth is destroying our treasured way of life. Yet our leaders never identify population growth as the fundamental cause of all of our problems; they just prescribe aspirin (such as more highways) to try to ease the pain. When confronted with the need to appear to be doing something about the ravages of continued population growth, our leaders have latched onto the concept of "Smart Growth." Whether new developments are smart or dumb, they will destroy parts of the environment. Smart growth just destroys the environment with good taste.


Many people frequently recite the word "sustainable" as though saying the word often enough will solve our problems. We need to know the First Law of Sustainability: "Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained."

Let's increase our efforts to educate our leaders to the facts of sustainability and to the fact that growing numbers of Colorado's citizens want to get Colorado off the present destructive path of population growth so we can focus our efforts on making Colorado truly sustainable.