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Albert A. Bartlett: Ode to a Gentle Giant

Sept 12, 2013
by Jan Lars Mueller

I learned last night that Al Bartlett, a longtime friend, advisor, and guiding light for ASPO-USA, had died over the weekend. The news did not come suddenly. Al had shared that a previous illness had reasserted itself and that he and his family were preparing for his passage.

Dr. Albert Allen Bartlett enjoyed 90 years of rich life on this earth; moreover, thousands of people have enjoyed and been touched by Al's life.

He is of course most widely known as a tireless, eloquent, and supremely caring voice for charting a sustainable path for humanity. With seemingly endless determination, he applied his training in math and physics and skills as a master teacher to focus attention on a simple but paramount idea — on a finite planet, "growth" is unsustainable. "Sustainable growth is an oxymoron" is how Al is sometimes quoted.

His most renowned quote, however, is, "The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function," referring to the accelerating rate exhibited by anything growing as a constant percentage increase.

As a professor of physics at the University of Colorado, Al developed a now famous lecture that illustrates the power and importance of this mathematical phenonomenon, and reportedly delivered that lecture more than 1,700 times over the following decades. That one man would be compelled to devote much of his career to the understanding of a basic, unassailable fact of life speaks volumes about the world we live in, as well as Al's great character.

ASPO-USA is proud to have had Al as a longstanding member of our advisory board, and I was exceptionally fortunate to be acquainted with him in his latter years. While the nature of our relationship was professional, what I will always remember is the warmth, humility, and quiet joy that he brought to his work and his relationships with his colleagues and students.

For those that dare to concern themselves with the monumental issues that concerned Al, there is a risk of gloominess creeping into our outlook on life and humanity. Al is a beautiful reminder that need not be the case.

The note that Al wrote to us after he visited his doctor was filled with the peace and happiness of a man who had understood long ago what was important in life and had lived his own life accordingly. We should all be so blessed, and some of us were also blessed to know Al.

In honor to Al, inspired and informed by his life and his friendship, we re-commit ourselves to continuing and building on his legacy.

Click here to view Al's famous lecture "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

For more information about Al and his contributions, please see:
Tribute from the University of Colorado
• Story in the Denver Post
Denver Journal article
• Tribute in the Huffington Post

Jan Lars Mueller is the executive director of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil & Gas USA. This article originally appeared on the website of ASPO-USA.