Bartlett, Albert A. 1994. "Reflections on Sustainability, Population Growth and the Environment." Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 16(1): 5-35.


Bartlett argues that population growth is the number one cause and concern of environmental unsustainability.


In a brief review of the uses of 'sustainability', Bartlett shows a broad spectrum of usages, ranging from 'sustained yields' in agriculture, to the sustainable use of energy, to 'sustained growth', and finally Daly's (1990) use of 'sustainable development to mean "development without growth" (pp.6-7). Some use it with precision to introduce new ways of thinking about the long-term future of the human race. Some use it to modify names of efficiency studies. And some use it as a placebo to lend a positive light to unsustainable activity. There is much confusion among the public on what is meant by sustainable development'.

After outlining the intended meanings of sustainable development in the Brundtland Report, which couples the need to "sustain human progress into the distant future" with meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," Bartlett discusses the Commission's care to be "optimistic and vague" in regard to overpopulation (p.9,10). He argues that "improvements in the human condition cannot be achieved without understanding and recognizing the importance of numbers, and in particular, numbers of people" (p.12).

Environmental problems are often framed as making compromises between the needs of humans, and the needs of natural ecosystems. Bartlett illustrates this as an unsustainable process, by showing how in a series of ten compromises, each of which saves 70 percent of the remaining environment, by the tenth compromise, only 3 percent of the selected environment is saved. Thus, often "the effort to preserve a local environment helps to destroy the preservation that as been achieved" (p.13) and we end up merely "sacrificing the environment in an environmentally sensitive way" (p.16). Bartlett argues that in a context of population growth and compromises, the notion of carrying capacity, as unpopular as it is, "must become central to our thinking" (p.15).

Bartlett then offers a list of laws, hypotheses and predictions intended to define the term 'sustainability'. (pp.17-30).

Bartlett closes with the following recommendations for action (pp.30-33):

The immediate task is to get population issues and family planning programs back at the top of national and global agendas. This will require vigilant citizen participation to hold back the promotion of war and community growth.

On the community level in the United States, we should make growth pay for itself.

On the local and national levels, we need to improve social justice and equity. Money that is spent on promoting 'growth' should be used for community programs for education, justice and equity. (Note, however that Bartlett also thinks that the creation of jobs and social infrastructure, such as new schools, are culprits in promoting population growth in communities).

Keywords: population growth, sustainable development, citizen participation, carrying capacity.