Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Tuesday Review: Arithmetic, Population and Energy (video)

A new standing feature starting last Tuesday will be the Tuesday Review. This review will be of either a video, television show, video series or book. Last week, in the unheralded kickoff of this series was a review of Freedom From Oil. Previously this site has reviewed episodes of the e2:energy PBS series.

This week, the video series Arithmetic, Population and Energy, a lecture by Dr. Albert Bartlett and available on YouTube (player embedded below the jump) will be examined. Dr. Bartlett is emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This is a talk by an academic, and is somewhat dry, but not difficult to focus on. As is pointed out in the comments, the professor is somewhat disparaging of the understanding of other commentators, particularly what is apparently one of his pet peeves, the lack of understanding of exponential growth. Watch the series if you want a refresher on exponential growth and gain a better of understanding of how to read headlines and reports critically.

Dr. Bartlett opens the with a refresher of the mathematics of exponential growth rates. He proceeds by calculating rates of doubling for everyday topics like crime statistics from a new headline. The math is explained succinctly, and the plethora of examples makes it very easy to start moving with him into analyzing statements of facts later in the lecture.

He spends a too much time on this topic re-illustrating the point with the population of Boulder, CO, the growth of bacteria in a jar and visual representations. He also takes these doubling rates to absurd ends, such as how long at 1999 growth rates it would take for there to be one person per square mile of land surface. However, while this is an absurd calculation, it does point out and reinforce his point that 0% growth is eventually inevitable when faced with a limited resource. From his bacteria example, I found it interesting to note that while it isn't pointed out, it is difficult or impossible to see when or if something will run out unless it is also possible to see the limit of the resource being consumed.

He the closes the first portion of the lecture by applying the exponential growth and doubling to oil and coal production. He also points out the fallacy of the misrepresented statement that there is enough coal to last 500 years. He clarifies that the caveat is "at current levels", but he also points out that statement is disingenuous because it is extremely unlikely to be true, unless growth is cut to 0% and all known coal is recoverable.

Part 2 begins in video segment 4 and focuses on energy and the miscalculation and misrepresentation prevalent in news media as well as science and educational resources. He also discusses the fallacy that to improve our situation by increasing production. In response, he covers Dr. M. King Hubbert's oil production growth and decline hypothesis and graphs, now commonly referred to as Peak Oil.

He continues with an analysis of petroleum reserves, production and consumption. It would be interesting to see the slides updated with further data past 2000 and see if the peak has showed up. Some of his analyses are misleading, such as of the headline "oil field ready to produce...it will last 50 years" about an oil field off the coast of Newfoundland. His assumes that the oil can be pumped and consumed instantly to meet the rate of consumption and as such, even with the 1 billion that may be present, would only serve the US oil needs for 56 days. The headline makes no claim that the deposit contains 50 years of US oil consumption, rather it likely reflects two factors: the actual daily extraction rate combined with the estimate that there are up to 1 billion barrels of oils in that deposit.

Dr. Bartlett ends his lecture linking all global problems to population growth. Energy and resource consumption growth cannot be addressed without addressing the problem of unrestrained population growth.

The largest take away, aside from the professor's polemic on the misunderstanding of exponential growth versus limited resources and population growth, is to think for oneself and analyze the numbers and estimates and predictions that are published.

The player embedded below is configured to play only the 8 videos in this series (9 min. 30 seconds each). Thanks to wonderingmind42 for providing this resource on YouTube.

And I just kept waiting for Paul Harvey to tell me the rest of the story while watching this series.

Found on Celsias.