Garrett Hardin was a lad who not only thought a lot, but could also think well. I recently discovered a Hardin book I had not heard of, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia (1998). Hardin was an interesting blend of an ecological conservative, and a growth-hating political conservative who detested economists. I hoped that this book would provide fresh insights on the huge and difficult problem of overpopulation.
After Living Within Limits was published in 1993, critics noted that Hardin complained about overpopulation, but failed to provide a remedy. Hardin admitted that he had been intimidated by the explosive taboo on the subject, which incinerates every dreamer who blunders into it, foolishly preaching common sense. Hence, the ostrich factor — never touch 800-volt issues that are surrounded by large piles of scorched skeletons. You can’t win, so bury your head in the sand, and have a nice day!
There is a widespread fantasy, drilled into us by cultural myths, that our society is guided by reason and elevated moral principles. It’s silly nonsense, but we have a hard time seeing this. Many people waste their entire lives, sad victims of the tragedy of the consumers — powerful myths that compel us to spend our lives working, in order to move as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills, in order to gain the respect of our peer group, which suffers from the same mass hysteria. Well-trained consumers never question 800-volt myths.
Modern society is focused on the individual, not the community or ecosystem. I am all that matters. If I can gain status and respect by wiping out forests or fisheries, or throwing the planet’s climate out of balance, I will. I don’t care that I’m leaving behind a wasteland for future generations. Of course, if future generations were able to vote today, or if we were raised in a sane culture, our world would be radically different and far healthier.
Hardin was fascinated by the poisonous power of taboos, and he invited an imaginary Martian into his book, to observe our society as an objective outsider. (I wish he had used humans from the future.) The two of them explored uncomfortable notions that will make some readers squirm and snarl. They provide us with intense lessons about the powerful headlock that taboos have on our ability to think. Taboos push many commonsense ideas off limits, severely handicapping our freedom to think, forcing many to live like two-year olds, ecological psychopaths, or chronically depressed shoppers.
Taboos vary from place to place and time to time. I was surprised to see that Hardin only mentioned abortion once, with regard to a quote from 1886, describing a situation where abortion was legal, but contraception was not. In that scenario, many physicians chose to break the law against providing contraception.
It is important to understand that many wild cultures had customs that encouraged population stability. Their ongoing survival depended entirely on food from the surrounding wild ecosystem, and too many mouths led to painful problems. Their utmost concern was the health and stability of the community, not the whims of individuals. They shared and cooperated. It was obvious to them that the carrying capacity of their ecosystem had genuine limits. For us, living in a temporary wonderland of supermarkets, limits are hard to imagine — until we crash into them.
The emergence of agriculture redefined carrying capacity, which varied from year to year, depending on the harvest. Limits on breeding weakened or vanished. Hardin quoted Tertullian, a third century Christian thinker from Tunisia, who was spooked by the misery of overpopulation (when the global population was 150 million).
Tertullian wrote, “As our demands grow greater, our complaints against nature’s inadequacy are heard by all. The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded as a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.”
Like Tertullian, Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) also lived in an era of turbulent growth, and he became a notorious heretic for reminding society about the existence of carrying capacity. Two hundred years later, he remains fiercely detested, mostly by people who have never read him, because he pointed out a serious 800-volt issue, a super-taboo. Never, never, never suggest that there are limits to growth!
Perpetual growth on a finite planet is obviously impossible, obviously insane, and insanely destructive. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. But few goofy myths are more powerful. We are constantly reminded that perpetual growth is the purpose of life. Grow or die! Our official religion is Growth Forever. Fanatical believers are called optimistic, and optimism is “good.” Hardin disagreed, “At the present rate of population growth, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future.”
With regard to population, our culture asserts two rights simultaneously. (1) Right to life. The UN decrees that “every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.” (2) Right to limitless reproductive freedom. “Every woman has the right — perhaps with the agreement of her mate(s) — to determine how many children she shall produce.”
There are no natural rights; rights are legal inventions. Note that these two sacred rights are not accompanied by sacred responsibilities. Hardin concluded that overpopulation would not be resolved by the voluntary choices of individual families. In a finite world, unrestricted freedom is intolerable. Survival is mandatory; freedom is not. Effective solutions should be based on community-sensitive rules, ideally produced by a policy of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.” Our wild ancestors generally succeeded in doing this, because their cultures saw limits as being perfectly normal, not draconian.
Hardin knew that “coercion” is an obscene word in a culture that worships individualism, but he noted that we submit to coercion when we stop for red lights, or when we bike on the right side of the road. Coercion is often reciprocal. Money is coercion. There are many things we will eagerly do for money that we would never do for free. We are often coerced by nothing more than a sweet “pretty please.”
Hardin thought that one world government was impossible, because there is not a single world culture. Trying to get different cultures to agree on anything is a challenge for advocates of multiculturalism. Because of this, Hardin offered no silver bullet solution for the world. Each culture will have to design its own method for limiting population.
Predicaments have no solutions, but problems do. Overpopulation is merely a temporary problem, and there are two solutions. (1) We can make a commonsense effort to live below carrying capacity. (2) We can bury our heads in the sand, make no effort to influence the future, and let Big Mama Nature mercilessly do the dirty work. The commonsense approach saves a lot of wear and tear on the ecosystem, and makes life far less hellish. It is enthusiastically endorsed by the spirits of future generations.
Hardin, Garrett, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.