Al Bartlett and the Essential Exponential

Al Bartlett, January 2005

Al Bartlett in January 2005. Photo by Marty Caivano/Daily Camera

Al Bartlett, Boulder physics professor emeritus who dedicated his post-retirement career to preserving Boulder and trying to get people not as smart as him (which was pretty much everybody) to understand the exponential function and its environmental and social impacts, died over the weekend. Brittany Anas, my former colleague at the Camera, did a very nice piece on him, so I won’t belabor the big picture. Except, I guess, to say that without Bartlett and the Blue Line he backed, Boulder’s foothills would look like those north of Phoenix, crawling with single-family homes until too steep to build.

Al was a great guy, and he was present at creation during the University of Colorado “Rocket Project” that spawned both today’s LASP, the largest university-based space science and engineering house in the world, and  Ball Aerospace, builder of Hubble instruments, spacecraft and other dizzyingly complex hunks of space hardware. He helped me understand the lay of the land around the CU physics department and its personalities for the book, too.

I did a feature on him in early 2005, back when he had only given his “exponential” talk  1,540 times (he got to 1,700, ultimately, and according to Brittany, there’s a team of followers poised to carry the message onward — though Al’s already immortal on YouTube. Nearly 5 million views.).

Many don’t like the message. But the it’s just math. Others choose to turn Bartlett’s pessimism on its head, and that works, too — see Ray Kurzweil. Fact is, we misunderstand the exponential regardless of application, whether it has to do with our impact on the planet or the pace of innovation that might stem that impact.

Here’s my old piece, courtesy the Daily Camera:

Professor talks at exponential rate – Bartlett has given speech on growth 1,540 times

January 24, 2005

Albert Bartlett has given the same presentation 1,540 times.

That’s the equivalent of once a day, every day, for more than four years. But the 81-year-old physics professor emeritus at the University of Colorado has spread things out a bit. He has been teaching his lesson on the power — and danger — of exponential growth since 1969.

This week, he’s presenting “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” four times — twice at CU in Boulder, once at CU-Denver, and, on Friday, at California State University, Fresno. He expects to present it between 30 and 40 times this year, mostly at CU-Boulder.

He has been busier. In 1979, he gave the speech 132 times.

“That was too much,” Bartlett said last week from his Boulder home.

In 1987, he gave it seven times in a single day, to high school students in Brush. At that pace, he could have knocked out all 1,540 in about seven months, including weekends.

These statistics — and many, many others — are in a book published last year. It’s called “The Essential Exponential!: For the Future of Our Planet.” Compiled by Bartlett devotees at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, it is a compendium of journal articles by Bartlett and others with the same message: exponential growth of human population and natural-resource consumption can`t happen forever.

It’s all in the mathematics of compound growth. For investors, a constant 7 percent return doubles your capital in 10 years. But the same dynamic can be calamitous to the environment, Bartlett contends.

For example, a population of 10,000 growing at a constant 7 percent rate will hit 10 million a century later.

Robert Malthus, who in a 1798 essay predicted mass starvation because population growth was outstripping food production, was a major intellectual influence on Bartlett .

The agricultural revolution has only delayed the problem, Bartlett says. More people are starving today than ever, and per-capita global grain production has been falling since the 1980s, he said. Further, the engine of all this crop growth is petroleum-based fertilizer, and oil is a finite resource whose production peak could be happening now, Bartlett said. (More sanguine forecasters estimate global peak oil production in 2035.)

He likes to cite the late economist Kenneth Boulding’s “Dismal Theorem,” which says: “If the only ultimate check on growth of populations is misery, the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.”

Boulding, for the record, also had a “Moderately Cheerful Form of the Dismal Theorem,” which says, if humanity can react to forces other than misery and starvation, we’ll be just fine.

Bartlett believes such proactivity hinges on ending the widespread “innumeracy” — illiteracy with numbers — with respect to the hard truths of exponential growth.

He says capitalism can survive without population growth. The fertility rates in Italy and Spain have long been below replacement, he notes.

“It’s not been a disaster,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett rails against population growth, which, he says, “never pays for itself.” He says building more reservoirs and highways doesn`t solve problems, but rather invites even more growth and bigger hurdles down the road. Politicians lack the will to view population growth as something to be avoided and not invited, he says.

Bartlett has many fans and admirers, especially among scientists who appreciate a scientific message delivered in a memorable, blunt and funny way, said Larry Nation, communications director of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which hosted a Bartlett presentation at a convention in Dallas last year.

“He sat down in a chair and you felt like you were talking to your uncle, who by God is going to tell you how the cow eats cabbage,” Nation said.

But doesn’t Bartlett ever tire of saying the same thing — however interesting — over and over and over?

“I feel sort of like Billy Graham. I`m an evangelist. You’ve got to get it out to the people,” Bartlett said. “I`ll do it as long as I can.”


Randy Udall, energy poet

They found Randy Udall yesterday — he had been hiking alone on a remote trail up in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, a place he knew well. Poles were still in hand, the Denver Post reports.

“Randy left this Earth doing what he loved most: hiking in his most favorite mountain range in the world,” the Udall family said in a statement.

Randy Udall

The initial AP stories on the search kept describing him as the “brother of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo.” This was necessary to distinguish the man from Mark and also cousin Tom Udall, one of Mexico’s U.S. Senators, probably — and also maybe from his dad Mo Udall, his uncle Stewart Udall, his brother Brad Udall…  there are many, accomplished Udalls to keep straight. This is an exceptional family.

I met Randy in 2006, when he spoke to a group of journalists on a one-week jaunt around the mountain states during an Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources fellowship called the Energy Country Institute. Maybe 30 of us were gathered in a back room in a restaurant in Meeker. He had a PowerPoint presentation, but with few words. Just big, evocative pictures and a couple of graphs about fossil energy in the West. He called us the Oil Tribe, the strangest of all tribes. I have the presentation on my hard drive, though I’m not sure how it got there. Eighty megabytes. Nearly meaningless.

It’s nearly meaningless because Randy isn’t delivering it. Not just the content, but the man himself commanded attention. Big, lanky and wiry with a shock of hair just long enough to be unkempt, he spoke as if telling ghost stories around a bonfire. I sat next to him during dinner. He seemed worn down by the fight. He was worried that we’d burned to much already, and that we were going to be burning much more. That was seven years ago, before fracking had exploded.

I interviewed him a few times while I was working at the Daily Camera and on and off after that. Saw him present at an ASPO-USA conference in Denver. Mostly I read his stuff on oil shale, on fracking. He was known as an energy advocate. But he was really a poet — the West’s great energy poet, the best communicator on the issue there ever was.

Oil Shale Decision Right On

The U.S. Department of Interior’s decision to limit land leases on oil shale — a euphemism for rock mixed with kerogen with the energy content of french fries — was wise. I wrote up a story pitch after the Bush Administration decision to vastly expand oil shale leasing  in 2008; it offers some perspective on the new approach, which reflects Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s skepticism of the energy source.

In brief, Interior simply said if Shell and others in the oil business can prove that the costs, water and energy inputs, and environmental damage associated with isolating and cooking —  to like 700 degrees F, for 2-3 years — all that buried kerogen is worth it, then the government will reconsider opening up some portion of the Bush cadre’s 2-million-acre gift. Until then, you’ve got 722 square miles (ten times the area of Washington D.C.) in three states to prove your case.

Doing otherwise is like reserving vast bodies of water for hydrogen fusion startups.

oil shale nugget

Kereogen-infused rock, a.k.a. oil shale

The usual cacophony of oil-bought politicians are expressing outrage. But any claims that oil shale is a realistic fix for our petro-addiction must be taken with extreme skepticism. The Center of the American West did a great write-up on oil shale five years ago, still valid today. And here’s my pitch:

For a century, petroleum reserves triple the size of the Saudi Arabian hoard thwart repeated attempts at its harvesting. Then an obscure scientist at a major oil company comes up with a better way. From solid black rock more than a thousand feet beneath desolate and parched mesas bubbles up crude so light and sweet refineries hardly need to touch it — hundreds of thousands, even millions of barrels per day. Enviros and statisticians skulk back to their yurts and cubicles; with ingenuity and pluck,Americacan indeed drill its way out of its oil problems.

It sounds too good to be true, and it probably is. Still, Royal Dutch Shell and others are selling their oil shale dreams, and the federal government is buying them. Shell’s Mahogany Research Project, into which the company has poured an estimated $200 million, gets its name from the “mahogany zone” shale of western Colorado, where each ton of rock could yield a barrel of oil or more — a million barrels per acre, geologists say. Small test plots have shown Shell’s “In Situ Process” of cooking oil shale where it lies really does work.

Shell in-situ oil-shale extraction schematic

A schematic of Shell's in-situ oil-shale extraction process, courtesy Rand Corporation.

In late November, the Bush Administration issued its midnight regulations related to oil shale. They established, among other things, an initial royalty rate of just 5 percent, amounting to a subsidy of billions of dollars. U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, (D-Colo.) called it a “pittance.” Gulf of Mexico oil platforms pay royalties of 18.75 percent. Underground coal mines pays 8 percent. The new rules have oil shale royalty rates inching up after five years of production, until they match the 12.5 percent onshore oil and gas drillers pay. But the new rules don’t mention that Shell’s new process can extract its million barrels per acre within two years of opening the tap. The regulation also erases minimum lease sizes, such that oil companies could exploit entire leases, one after the other, without ever paying more than this “pittance.”

The Bureau of Land Management formulated its rules despite oil companies’ refusal to disclose production cost estimates or their proposed water or electricity needs, which would be gargantuan should oil shale make a dent ravenous U.S. consumption.

Republicans including Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch trumpet oil shale’s potential and want to start pumping ASAP; Democrats, take pause at the technical uncertainties and potential environmental damage and generally want to take things slow. Fortune and other business publications fawn over the Shell technology and the limitless potential of geologically half-baked oil reserves beneath the sagebrush deserts of Colorado,Wyoming and Utah. The Bureau of Land Management plans to open nearly 2 million acres of federal land, an area roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, to oil-shale leasing. BLM Director Jim Caswell says the 800 billion barrels of shale oil could “meetU.S. demand for imported oil at current levels for 110 years.”

That would, of course, mean cooking enough kerogen to extract some 13 million barrels of oil per day — an impossible volume. The BLM’s recent environmental impact statement lays out its substantial environmental damage estimates based on a 200,000 barrel-per-day industry. A RAND Corporation study for the U.S. Department of Energy study views a 1 million to 3 million barrel-per-day out as possible major-league production numbers. For perspective, the Gulf of Mexico produce about 1.4 million barrels per day; Alaska yields about 700,000 barrels per day; and the entire United States pumps about 5 million barrels per day. If oil-shale development happens, oil companies will make a fortune as the hunting town of Meeker, now in “a dusty corner of northwestern Colorado,” as Fortune put it, morphs into a high-desert Houston.

There would be benefits. Domestic oil shale production would improve trade balances and slow the flow of dollars to hostile petro-states. It would raise tax revenues and create thousands of jobs. But the consequences could be staggering.

Shale production could suck arid western Colorado dry. It would bring land devastation well beyond that of the drill-pad-pocked landscapes scarred by the Wyoming natural gas boom. Powering the heaters of a million-barrel-per-day oil shale operation would mean doubling Colorado’s current electricity production. Even if oil companies eventually harness the natural gas derived from extraction, it would take a dozen behemoth fossil-fuel power plants generate the electricity. There would be transmission lines, pipelines, countless trucks and rigs and the utter devastation of the lands unfortunate enough to overlay the shale. All this to get at rock with the pound-for-pound energy content of potatoes. Randy Udall, a western Colorado energy expert and oil shale critic has quipped: “If someone told you there were a trillion tons of Tater Tots buried 1,000 feet deep, would you rush to dig them up?” (His brother Mark, a Democrat who this month won the open Colorado U.S. Senate seat, supports “a responsible process for oil-shale development.”)

Indeed, shale’s energy content per pound of raw material just two thirds that of wood, 40 percent that of coal, and 20 percent that of conventional crude oil. Its extraction would deliver only about three times the energy required to wrestle it from the ground — with estimates as low as 1.2 times as much. That’s comparable to corn-based ethanol, a fuel much maligned for its paltry energy return on investment. The RAND study concluded that even a massive operation would have little impact on energy security or global oil prices. What’s more, shale oil’s extraction and eventual consumption would pump perhaps half again as much carbon into the atmosphere as conventional oil.

Seventy percent of our richest oil-shale reserves are on federal land. Before the country agrees to oil shale, taxpayers should have the full story.

Peak Oil Happened Already, but also Not

Scientific American’s David Biello, a sharp observer of clean (and less-clean) energy, posted this piece on peak oil yesterday. The long and short of it is peak oil (the moment when we’ve collectively burned as much oil — about a trillion barrels — as is left in the ground) actually happened in 2005.

Peak oil is important because, the thinking goes, the specter of  future scarcity will drive up prices and generally gum up the oil-dependent world’s economic works.

The wrinkle is that the 2005 peak-oil depends on it being defined as (relatively) easy-to-extract oil, or maybe oil reserves as geologists would have recognized them in the 1970s. With unconventional reserves like Canadian tar sands, production has been able to keep pace with rising demand from places like China and India. The pace of consumption also will play a role in how peak oil plays out: the more utterly dependent, the worse the withdrawal, meaning an electrified, or semi-electrified, fleet will help matters. The article’s well worth a look.

Non-green keyboard saves green

My external keyboard, a Microsoft thing, seems to aspire to being an IBM Selectric, clacking so loudly phone-interview sources get self-conscious. So I went online and found this HP Wireless Elite Keyboard on Amazon for $29.

HP wireless elite keyboard

The HP Wireless Elite Keyboard, so flat it disappears into the horizon

It was more or less what I was looking for, and I was on the ragged edge of going for it when pre-buyers remorse struck and I bailed on the cart. And what did I find but a solar-powered keyboard by Logitech. Never needs batteries. Great reviews.’s Justin Yu, CNET’s headphone and peripherals guru, gave it his editor’s choice, a rave rundown. I’m thinking, yes, and it’ll further bolster my green chops — panels on the roof, panels on the keyboard, what more can you ask?

Logitech Wireless keyboard

Behold the solar keyboard

Well, you ask about the price. the Logitec Solar Keyboard is $60. The HP battery-powered version is $29. The HP keyboard uses two AAA batteries. Looks like you can buy 20 AAA alkaline batteries for about $10. HP says a keyboard goes a year on a pair of batteries. (Keyboards obviously don’t take much energy, which explains how a few square inches of solar panels can fuel the Logitech version such that, in two hours of indoor lighting, you get a three-month charge, according to the company).

So the payback on the extra green for solar-powered typing, in this case, is the cumulative life of however many batteries you can buy for $31 (omitting the productivity losses of me digging around for AAA batteries once a year, which will be hours).

Sixty batteries will last the HP keyboard 30 years, then. Landfilling alkaline batteries isn’t the greatest thing, of course, so I suppose I’ll spring for four Sanyo Eneloop batteries for the same $10 the alkalines would set me back. Eneloops can be recharged 1,500 times each and don’t self-discharge too badly (I use them in a voice recorder). So I’ll be typing effortlessly into the 60th century.

In other words, solar panels on the keyboard aren’t like the panels on the roof at all, because there the payback is real (even if it’s several years). CNET might have factored this into their rating. Logitech’s solar twist makes for a cubicle piece de resistance for sure. But it’s environmentally and functionally meaningless.