Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was famous for an essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, written in 1968. He thought that folks who kept their cattle on common lands had little concern for the condition of the pasture, while private pastures befitted from the careful stewardship of wise ranchers. In 1998, in response to critics, he published The Tragedy of the Commons — Extension, in which admitted that a better title for his essay would have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.
I was unsure of his message. Everyone understands that privately owned cropland is degraded with every pass of the plow, year after year, despite being managed by government rules and regulations. Private land is often permanently ruined by mining and manufacturing enterprises. Maybe the root of the tragedy was our civilized mindset — nature was created for human use, and the future doesn’t matter.
For years, I dismissed Hardin as a free enterprise gadfly. I discovered I was wrong when I read Living Within Limits. He was an enthusiastic critic of economic growth and population growth. In this book, Hardin had a heroic goal — radically reforming industrial civilization before it disintegrated. He read mountains of books, and generated an enormous stream of rational ideas and recommendations.
He plowed through multiple editions of Malthus, and concluded that the good Reverend was 95 percent right, which delighted me. Hardin summarized the message of Malthus as, “Disaster is a natural outcome of perpetual population growth, but disaster can be forestalled if society can find the will to put an end to population growth.” Poor Malthus has been widely hated for 200 years, most commonly by those who have never read him. His great sin was in questioning the trendy belief that civilization was in the fast lane to utopia, where humankind would achieve flawless perfection.
Hardin learned that enlightening the befuddled world was a frustrating endeavor. Questioning sacred norms instantly turned you into a dangerous nutjob. Alas, the modern world was as rational as a loony bin — despite the fact that we were the most highly educated generation that ever walked the Earth. The notion that there were limits was impossible to accept. He believed that the only thing that’s truly limitless is debt.
Here we are, well into the twenty-first century, still pissing away billions of dollars in the ridiculous pursuit of colonizing other planets. We need more space to grow, more resources to mine, fresh ecosystems to destroy. Would you volunteer for a 400-year voyage in a small metal capsule?
Here we are, still feverishly determined to pursue economic growth by any means necessary. Almost all economists suffer from the hallucination that endless economic growth is possible and desirable; resources are infinite. The sun is setting on the cheap energy bubble, which will eventually bring growth to a halt, and shift it into reverse. Well, let’s not think about that.
Here we are, several years beyond the peak of the global production of conventional oil, paying no attention to the foreseeable challenges ahead — production will continuously decline, whilst prices will continuously rise. M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist, predicted this in 1948, and the crowd chuckled. Hardin included a stunning graph that charts annual energy use, from 5,000 years past, to 5,000 years forward. At the center of this 10,000 year timeline appears one icicle-shaped spike, lasting a few hundred years, then dropping back to normal (a chart of population would look about the same). Of all the oil we will ever consume, 80 percent of it will have been extracted during a 56-year binge, roughly from 1969 to 2025. Let’s not think about that.
Here we are, still refusing to seriously consider the huge problem of overpopulation. Our boundless optimism has no doubt that miraculous technology will solve any problem. For almost the entire hominid journey, the rate of population growth has been close to zero. The rate rose a bit when ancestors got interested in tools, it rose more with the advent of agriculture, and it skyrocketed during the fossil fuel disaster — a reality that we consider to be normal. Hardin imagined that we will be happier when the herd shrinks to a half billion or so, as it was in 1492.
The problem is that, one by one, we’ve eliminated many of the controls that used to keep our population in balance. We killed off most man-eating predators. We developed a food production system that reduces the risk of famine. We built sanitation systems to prevent pandemics of fecal-oral diseases. We invented vaccinations and antibiotics to cure or prevent contagious diseases.
The remaining birth control options are voluntary, and Hardin insisted that voluntary efforts have always failed in the long run. An effective solution can only be based on coercion. We’re coerced to stop for red lights, aren’t we? Talking about reproductive rights without equal regard for reproductive responsibilities is foolish. Why hasn’t Congress fixed this problem already?
Hardin also detested immigration. America is a high waste society, and it’s highly overpopulated. Is it truly our obligation to care for everyone? There are two billion poor folks in the world. Shall we invite them all to join us? Or, should we send them lots of food?
Overpopulated poor countries are living beyond their carrying capacity, and this cannot not fixed by sending them food. More food reliably results in even more hungry people. Hardin thought this was dumb — we should simply mind our own business, let nature take its course, and allow balance to be restored. He thought that the leaders of poor countries had an obligation to take responsibility for their overpopulation, and develop appropriate solutions. It’s their job.
It’s been 20 years since Hardin’s book was published, and everything has rapidly gotten worse. There is clearly a sense of frustration and despair in his words. We’re heading for a bloody disaster, and nobody cares! The problems are obvious, as are intelligent responses. (Scream!)
I used to feel that pain. The pain was rooted in the expectation that modern society should behave in a rational manner, as we were taught in school. I’ve since realized that this expectation was absurd and harmful. We are who we are, and we’ll change when we run out of options. The pain has faded.
In theory, humankind is not fatally flawed. Almost all of our ancestors lived in a relatively sustainable manner. They developed voluntary methods of birth control that worked quite well. Genetically, we are purebred hunter-gatherers, beautifully evolved for a low-impact life in the great outdoors. Our experiment with civilization has been purely unnatural. Our current problems emerged in the last few thousand years. In theory, we can learn from our mistakes, and return to living in balance. In the long run, it’s either balance or bye-bye.
By definition, an unsustainable population can only be temporary. The same is true for continuous economic growth. Time will fix these mistakes, with or without our assistance. We should have listened to Hardin, but we didn’t, so we’ll leave more scars on the planet. The scar of an unbalanced climate may not heal for a long, long time. It’s quite possible that warming will force the human journey into a new and very different direction. Should we think about it?
Hardin, Garrett, Living Within Limits — Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.