Furthest Right

An Ecolate view of the Human Predicament (Garrett Hardin)

This is the talk that was latter developed into Hardin’s book Filters Against Folly (1985).

How should rich nations respond to the demands of poor nations? Economist Jan Tinbergen, arguing for a redistribution of the world’s wealth, has said:

Apparently you cannot convince nations that they should assist others voluntarily. But people should realize that if no solution is found, the future looks rather bleak. If the rich countries will not share their wealth, the poor people of the world will come and take it for themselves.1

Tinbergen presents two arguments for the redistribution of wealth, one implicitly based on moral grounds, the other an explicitly practical argument that we should bow gracefully to the inevitable. I challenge both arguments.

The influential anarchist-­communist (a common hybrid, by the way) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), said flatly that “Property is theft.” This assertion has led in our day to the conclusion that need creates right, catalyzing the creation of such international redistributional devices as easy credit banks and demands for world food reserves and a “New International Economic Order.” The United States, like every rich nation, stands to suffer direct loss from redistribution, but that is hardly an adequate reason for rejecting such proposals if in fact they might achieve their primary goal (sharing the wealth) as well as their more important secondary goal of creating a peaceful and stable world order. It is my contention that redistribution will do neither. Poverty can be shared, but it is doubtful if wealth can. Although universal poverty might, when achieved, make high technology war impossible, the intermediary process of impoverishment would trigger the very kinds of military action we hope to avoid. I will return to these practical matters later.

First let me take up the theoretical reasons for rejecting redistribution as a cure for the poverty of nations.

I think we can find no better guide to inquiry than an aphorism of August Comte (1798-­1857): “The Intellect should always be the servant of the Heart, and never its slave.” Comte was the first proponent of “Positivism,” a philosophical approach generally regarded as “hard-nosed. ” Note, however, that the philosopher gave first place to the Heart. Values are paramount: it is the role of the Intellect to find a way of achieving what the Heart desires. But the Heart, by definition, can scarcely be expected to be very intellectual; its uninstructed impulses may, in fact, be counterproductive of its goals. The task of Intellect is to examine these impulses and, in its role of faithful executive officer, restructure them productively.

The most popular policies now proposed for diminishing poverty among nations are counterproductive in that they all fail to take account of what I have called “the tragedy of the commons.” In embryonic form the idea can be found as far back as Aristotle: “That which is common to the greatest number gets the least amount of care. Men pay most attention to what is their own: they care less for what is common. “2 A true statement, but not forceful enough; by neglecting to emphasize and quantify the mechanisms of choice Aristotle failed to reveal the tragedy of the process. In 1968 I attempted to rectify this shortcoming in the following words.3

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the number of 60th man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long desired goal of social stability becomes a reality At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” This utility has one negative and one positive component.

(1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from the sale of the additional animals, the positive utility is nearly + 1.

(2) the negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since however, the effects of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision making herdsman is only a fraction of – 1.

Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to this herd. And another; and another…But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit-in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

As a result of discussions carried out during the past decade I now suggest a better wording of the central idea: Under conditions of overpopulation, freedom in an unmanaged commons brings ruin to all. When there is no scarcity, as is the case in a pioneer community with ample resources, an unmanaged commons may in fact be the best distribution device since it avoids the costs of management.4 It must be pleasant to live in such an uncrowded world; but when shortages develop the prospect of tragedy has to be faced. Even with crowding and its consequent scarcity, the experience of such religious communes as the Hutterites shows that formal management does not necessarily have to be invoked if the informal power of shame is available. Apparently shame works only if the community does not exceed about 150 people; beyond that number this informal control is not effective enough to prevent “freeloading” and the drift toward the tragedy of the commons.5

In larger communities, under conditions of scarcity or overpopulation—two words for the same situation—either the commons must be broken up or it must be managed. We may speak of privatism when the commons is broken up into units of private property, and socialism when it is retained as one piece and managed by agents of the community, i.e., by bureaucrats. The name commonism has been proposed6 for the system in which the commons is not managed, but is freely available to all. (The older term “communism” is unfortunately ambiguous: it sometimes refers to commonism—as here defined—and sometimes to socialism. One suspects that some who use the older term cherish its ambiguity.)

The comparative merits of privatism and socialism need not concern us here.7 Depending on other factors either privatism or socialism can work, more or less; but, under populous conditions, commonism cannot possibly work. The aim of commonism was neatly expressed by Karl Marx in 1875: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”8 Marx did no more than express very well what most Christians regard as their ideal—which is ironic, considering the low opinion Marx had of religion (“the opium of the people”).

The commons of English pasture lands is no longer of great practical importance, although 600,000 marginal hectares are still being maltreated in this way.9 More important are numerous other examples throughout the world. Let me cite a few. The desertification of the Mediterranean basin, particularly the southern and eastern portions, is due to a large extent to the grazing and browsing of goats in the commons; so also in Iran. These are old evils. Not so with the galloping deforestation of Nepal, which dates from the 1950s when the government put an end to the feudal control of land, thus opening up the forests to fuel-hungry people.10 In the U.S., grazing lands in the national forests are nominally socialistically controlled, but the U.S. Forest Service is so obsequious to private herdsmen that the governance is de facto commonistic. That the oceanic fisheries are a commons, and that they are headed for disaster, is now widely recognized; a slight improvement in the situation has been created by the recent extension of national rights out to the 200­mile limit. The assertion of national privatism will have little effect on wide-ranging species, but it may help others, provided the area protected against international encroachment is not commonized nationally.

Although a commons tends toward a tragic outcome, the seriousness of the danger depends on quantitative factors. The common wealth of the atmosphere as an absorptive resource for pollutants was not a matter of great concern so long as population and industrial activities were at a low enough level. Now the situation is different. Since privatism is hardly an option for the air and waters of the world, socialistic or semisocialistic regulation is called for. Within national boundaries we know something about the requirements of good management,11 even though we are often unwilling to meet these requirements, but how we are to secure the international cooperation of many sovereign states is still a mystery.

The more crowded the world becomes, the less tolerable are the commons. There is now a large literature pointing this out, yet still old commons survive and new ones are created.12 Part of the pathology is due to the fact that short term gains generally weigh more heavily in decision making than do long term losses. Mr. Micawber is always with us: “Something will turn up,” say the technological optimists, among whom the economists are preeminent. We are especially tempted to create a new commons when the short term effect is a diminution of suffering. Thus we created a World Bank for making “soft loans,” most of which will probably ultimately go into default and have to be covered by rich governments, principally by the U.S. (The word “loan” becomes a euphemism for the privilege of drawing on a commons.) So also do we move spasmodically toward a world food bank on which overpopulated countries can draw according to need. It should be obvious that a world food bank governed by the Marxist-Christian principle is a commons headed for tragedy,13 and yet this destructive distribution system has many supporters. What has gone wrong with the world that [its] Intellect could be so much the slave of its unthinking Heart?

At the deepest level our problem is an educational one. In the Western world literacy has been taken as almost synonymous with education; yet a generation ago some insightful person (I don’t know who), asserting that literacy is not enough, said that we need also numeracy, the ability to handle numbers and the habit of demanding them. A merely literate person may raise no question when a journalist speaks of “the inexhaustible wealth of the sea,” or “the infinite resources of the earth.” The numerate person, by contrast, asks for figures and rates. Perhaps it takes more imagination to think with figures than with ambiguous, airy generalizations, but the mind can be helped by graphs, which Bishop Ores me invented in the 14th century. Graphing is a precious resource of numeracy. What a commentary it is on the slow progress of education that today’s leading journals, generally referred to as “intellectual”—Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, Kenyon Review, and the like—never use graphs to illuminate ideas. (“Have you noticed,” asked the mathematician G.H. Hardy, “how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition which certainly doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd, don’t y’know.”14) Six centuries have passed since Oresme—six centuries of glorious progress in scientifically enriching our vision of the world: is it not time that our self styled “intellectuals” become numerate as well as literate?

I think a good case can be made for a third level of education, the level of ecolacy. This is the level at which a person achieves a working understanding of the complexity of the world, of the ways in which each quasistable state gives way to other quasi­stable states as time passes. The three levels of education can be epitomized by three questions:

Literacy­ What is the appropriate word?

Numeracy­ How much/how many?

Ecolacy­ And then what?

The basic insight of the ecolate citizen is that the world is a complex of systems so intricately interconnected that we can seldom be very confident that a proposed intervention in this system of systems will produce the consequences we want. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring15 is a monument to this insight; so also are the many contributions in Farvar and Milton’s The CarelessTechnology16. Like the Sorcerer’s apprentice, we learn the hard way that we can never do merely one thing.17,18 In building the High Aswan Dam engineers intended only to produce more water and more electricity. They succeeded in their expressed goal, but at what cost? Deprived of the fertilizing silt of the Nile flood waters the sardine population of the Western Mediterranean has diminished by 97 percent.19 The rich delta of the Nile, which increased in area for thousands of years, is now being rapidly eroded away by the Mediterranean because the Nile is depositing no more silt at its mouth. Until Aswan, the yearly flooding of riverine farms added 1 mm of rich silt to the land annually; now that the floods are stopped the previous silt is piling up behind the dam, diminishing its capacity. Soon the poor Nile farmers will have to buy artificial fertilizer (if they have the money). Moreover, irrigation without flooding always salinates the soil: in a few hundred years (at most) the Nile valley, which has been farmed continuously for 5000 years, will have to be abandoned. In the meantime year-round irrigation favors snails and the debilitating disease they carry, schistosomiasis; control of this disease is now much more expensive.

How did all this come about? A not inconsiderable cause of disasters like this is our semantic befuddlement. We speak of “developing” a backward country the implicit metaphor is biological. A tadpole develops into a frog because this individual-historic change is programmed into the genetic code of the creature. But human history has no discernible program (Human will could negate it if it had. Q. E. D. ) The belief that history has a program is a fallacy that Karl Popper calls “historicism,” the moral dangers of which he ably demonstrates.20 “The Future,” as the engineer philosopher Dennis Gabor has said,21 “cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.” When a rich country intervenes in the affairs of a poor country it is not acting as a mere midwife, facilitating a development that is inevitable anyway. The intervener, knowingly or not, is attempting to invent the future of the client. If the word “responsibility” is taken in its ordinary meaning, a rich country is surely responsible for whatever good or ill follow from its presumably well intentioned interventions.

The possibility of causing more harm than good seldom enters the mind of an international intervener. The intervener in Egypt—the U.S.S.R., as it happened, but it would have been the U.S., had we not earlier had a falling out with Nasser—no doubt viewed the goal as one of working toward a maximum of electricity production, or irrigation water (or both). The goal of maximizing a single variable is woven into the fabric of engineering, and it has long seemed an innocent tool. The political scientist William Ophuls, however, calls on us to reexamine this assumption in terms of a bit of modern folk wisdom that has been called Ophuls’ Axiom: Nature abhors a maximum.22 Survival of any system depends on a subtle and incompletely understood balance of many variables. Maximizing one is almost sure to alter the balance in an unfavorable way. So complex is every natural system that the cascade of consequences started by an ill-advised maximization of a single variable may take years, or even generations, to work itself out. This is the reason why proponents of intervention find it so easy to dose their eyes to the consequences of their meddling. The goals of energy maximization, optimum capital utilization, personal utility maximalization, and optimal resource depletion all become suspect under Ophuls’ Axiom.

In the ecolate view of the world, time has no stop: every well meant proposal must be challenged by the question, “And then what?” Refusal to meet this challenge is the commonest cause of the failure of social reforms. Slum clearance, urban redevelopment, and most welfare programs have been generally counterproductive of their goals because their proponents, largely literate and not ecolate in their thinking, did not subject their plans to the acid test of “And then what?”

Wittgenstein once remarked that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.”23 In the realm that we might call “international welfare economics” two particularly bewitching terms are “world hunger” and “shortages.” It is essential that we challenge these usually unchallenged terms if we are to separate fact from interpretation.

There are numerous pockets of hunger and poverty scattered throughout the world. Does that fact justify speaking of “world hunger” or “world poverty”? Earthquakes, too, are widely scattered throughout the world, but we do not speak of “the world earthquake problem.” Earthquakes are local problems, to be handled by local means, e.g., the enforcement of building codes locally. What would be gained by insisting that all the world be concerned with (for example) California’s earthquake problem? A large bureaucracy would be created, which would employ many people—but is that sufficient excuse for globalizing earthquake problems? Would globalizing the problems diminish the damage of earthquakes or reduce the cost of dealing with them? We, the inheritors of the wisdom of Parkinson,24 do not think so.

To speak of “world hunger” and “world poverty” is to globalize hunger and poverty problems—that is, to imply that they must be dealt with by the distributional system of the commons. It may be compassionate to say, ” …to each according to his need,” but it is not wise, because “each,” being a biological organism will, if its needs are well supplied, breed more “each’s,” thus increasing global needs without limit, in a world of finite resources. The phrases “world hunger” and “world poverty” tend to create in the auditor an unconscious commitment to a commons. Since the system of the commons is disastrous under conditions of scarcity we should eschew the terms “world hunger” and “world poverty.”

The idea of scarcity also needs examining, if we are not to be bewitched by words. The problem of poverty is almost invariably seen as one of shortages—shortages of supply. But note: poverty can just as logically be seen as a problem of longages—longages of demand.25 Given these two equally logical modes of expression, why do people invariably choose the first as a guide to action, scarcely even mentioning the second? This is a deep question. The usual choice is tragic because the well documented conclusion from ecology is that only the second approach-attempting to diminish the longage of demand—has any chance of succeeding in the long run. The ecological theory of matching supply to demand is grounded in the concept of “carrying capacity.”

In explaining the meaning and properties of carrying capacity we will first look at non-human animals. This approach does not deny special status to the human animal; experience shows, however, that it is easier to be objective about animals than about ourselves, particularly when the problem is as psychologically threatening as the problem of human poverty. I investigate first the implications of carrying capacity for other animals; then I look at how the conclusions thus reached have to be modified when we apply them to the human predicament.

The carrying capacity of a portion of the environment for a population is a matter of central importance in any species that we propose to exploit, either as game animals or domestic animals. Several characteristics of carrying capacity merit discussion

1. The environment is variable from season to season, year to year, and perhaps over longer periods; momentary carrying capacity likewise varies.

2. If policy is to be based on a unique estimate of the carrying capacity, the figure chosen should be neither the maximum nor the average: it should be somewhere near the minimum (at least the minimum for the year; perhaps for longer periods). Why? For the following reason.

3. Transgressing the carrying capacity for one period lowers the carrying capacity thereafter, perhaps starting a downward spiral toward zero. David Klein’s classic study of the reindeer on St. Matthew Island illustrates the point.26 In 1944 a population of 29 animals was moved to the island, without the corrective feedback (negative feedback) of such predators as wolves and human hunters. In 19 years the population swelled to 6,000 and then “crashed” in 3 years to a total of 41 females and one male, all in miserable condition. Klein estimates that the primeval carrying capacity of the island was about 5 deer per square kilometer. At the population peak there were 18 per square kilometer. After the crash there were only 0.126 animals per square kilometer and even this was probably too many once the island was largely denuded of lichens. Recovery of lichens under zero population conditions takes decades; with a continuing resident population of reindeer it may never occur. Transgressing the carrying capacity of St. Matthew Island reduced its carrying capacity by at least 97.5 percent. It is facts like these—repeated over and over again in game management experience—that justify the ecolate game manager in viewing carrying capacity as partaking of the sacred. I do not think it is going too far to assert and defend the sanctity of the carry capacity.

4. How, then, are we to view the concept of “the sanctity of life”? Mere mention of this makes us think of the human situation and our defenses are immediately aroused. I must emphasize, therefore, that we are for the moment concerned only with non-human animals (although we will later examine the human situation). In this limited context the following is unquestionably true: In game management the concept of “sanctity of life” is intolerable. The reason is simple. Once the population has reached the carrying capacity of the environment, the cherishing of each and every individual life will result in a transgression of the carrying capacity and a subsequent degradation of carrying capacity. Cherishing individual lives in the short run diminishes the number of lives in the long run. It also diminishes the quality of life and increases the pain of living it. In terms of its implicit goal—maximizing the number of lives and decreasing pain—the concept of the sanctity of If c is counterproductive To achieve its goal the concept of the sanctity of life must give precedence to the concept of the sanctity of carrying capacity.

(This analysis also throws light on the operational meaning of Comte’s statement that the Intellect should be the servant, not the slave, of the Heart. In effect, the Intellect says to the Heart, “You are on the right track in speaking of the sanctity of life, but the verbalization of your goal has proven injudicious. You must accept another wording that takes account of the passage of time, the needs of posterity, and the conflict of short and long term goals. Paradoxical though it may seem to you (dear Heart!) sanctifying carrying capacity will, in fact, better serve the end you seek when you speak of the sanctity of life. To achieve the end you want you must give up the intuitive ideal with which you began.”)

5. We must not fail to note the bearing of ecological knowledge on the concept of waste. When the consequences of error in the estimation of a limiting figure are very serious the “prudent man” keeps well away from the limit. Engineers have long recognized this principle: thus it is that the traffic permitted over a bridge is kept well below the best estimate of the possible limit. The legal limit of a bridge creates unused capacity. Do we apply the term “waste” to capacity that is unused? We do not. Similarly the legal maximum for a well managed population of animals should leave some food unused—which we should not call “waste.”

The implications of carrying capacity are clear for non human populations. Can they be applied without change to our own species? Before we can answer this we must examine two concepts in detail: technology, and the quality of life.

Technology has permitted the human species to increase carrying capacity greatly in the past, and promises to continue to do so for some time in the future. A qualification needs to be mentioned: not all aspects that we regard as part of the carrying capacity for human beings can be increased to the same extent. We can increase the amount of food energy we extract from the environment, but how do we increase the amount of wilderness for recreation or the extent of lonely beaches and wild rivers needed for the renewal of the spirit. If several variables are included in the reckoning of carrying capacity, maximizing the one that can be most easily maximized, and keying population size to that variable, will necessarily diminish the per capita allotment of all other goods. There are those who claim we shall some day have an infinite amount of energy at our disposal. Before we set out to make that dream a reality we should review Fremlin’s demonstration that an unlimited energy supply without population control would, in fact, cause the extinction of the human race.27

In the human realm the concept of carrying capacity is inseparable from the problem of the quality of life. If we want to eat meat the carrying capacity of the land is less than if we are satisfied with plant food only. If we want everyone to enjoy automobiles, airplanes, and central heating we must settle for a rather small population.28

A particularly bothersome problem is raised by the observation that different human populations now enjoy different standards of living. Mahbub Ul Haq, a World Bank economist, recently pointed out that a child born in a rich country will consume 20 to 40 times as much resources as a child born in a poor country.29 And, he says, “the very small population increases in the rich world put about eight times the pressure on world resources [that] the very large increases in the poor world [will]” To statements like this (and they have been made often) we must reply sharply, So what? and then stay for an answer.

If the moral is, rich people should stop reproducing, we must ask: And then what? Whatever world resources might be freed in this way would soon be completely absorbed by the multiplying poor. So instead of a world divided between rich and poor we would soon have a world of poor people only. Is that what we want?

Or is the moral this: that the rich should reduce their per capita resource use to the level of the poor? If so, this is merely another way of achieving universal poverty. Again we must ask, is that what we want?

Does God give a prize for the maximum number of people? One might think so, to judge from statements made by latter-day Puritans who seem willing to reduce the standard of living everywhere in the world to a bare bones level. Temperance is admirable, but do we really want to reintroduce the sumptuary laws of the past in order to create a straitened lifestyle for all?

Notice that the concept of the commons is implicit in Haq’s use of the term “world resources” for resources that are, in fact, distributed very spottily around the globe. “World resources” is an echo of Proudhon’s “property is theft.” Commonizing the discontinuously distributed resources of the world will, of course, evoke the usual tragedy (unless we can bring about the miracle of a single World State). Why, then, are statements like Haq’s so fashionable?

The answer, I think, is to be found in envy and the fear of envy. Envy moves the poor to demand commonization of resources; fear of envy causes some of the rich to accede. The discussion of envy, as the sociologist Helmut Schoeck has shown,30 is under a considerable taboo, so the word is seldom heard. Instead the talk is of justice.31 Love of justice is fine—but not if it leads to the establishment of a commons in a world ruled by scarcity. No truly ecolate thinker can agree with the motto of the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand I (1503-1564): Fiat justitia et pereat mundus—”Let justice be done, though the world perish.”

That we have a higher regard for human life than we do for the life of other living things requires no apology. But the higher value placed on human life calls for no change in our previous ethical conclusion, namely, that the sanctity of the carrying capacity takes precedence over the sanctity of life. Once we accept this conclusion we discover that contemporary population/environment problems are even more terrible than we previously thought. Erik Eckholm in Losing Ground has painted a graphic picture of the tragedy now overtaking the people in the tropical highlands.32 The energy that they need for cooking their food they get from burning the wood of the trees around them. In addition, some highlanders make charcoal to heat little braziers in winter or to sell to outsiders, as the Kashmiri do to Indians. Modern medicine and more food have enabled highland populations to outstrip the productivity of their lands for timber. As people deforest the land the soil washes off, making reforestation all but impossible on steep slopes. Once transgressed, carrying capacity is progressively degraded. Soil lost to the highlands clogs irrigation systems in the lowlands—often of another nation—and silts up lakes behind the dams, thus diminishing their useful life. The loss of water-holding capacity in the highlands causes floods in the lowlands to peak higher and faster, destroying many more human lives and much more property. Only 10 percent of the world’s population lives in the highlands, but, as Eckholm points out, the harm of their overpopulation affects 30 percent of the world’s people.

What can be done? Conceivably rich countries might ship oil and oil-burners to some 400 million highlanders—but how likely is such generosity now that the rich perceive the “energy shortage” as their major problem? To supply the poor with a great variety of solar heaters and cookers would require an immense diversion of capital. Moreover, do we possess the anthropological expertise to bring about the necessary change in folk-ways? As an alternate solution, people in adjacent lowlands might offer to take in some 200 million immigrants from the highlands: but the lowlanders are themselves mostly wretchedly poor—think of Bangladesh, and the Bihar in India. Again there is an anthropological question: How can one gently uproot a people and persuade them to live a different life elsewhere? Rich nations could more easily afford to take in hundreds of millions of immigrants, but in that case the problem of ethnic adjustment would be even more severe.

The unrealistic character of these proposals is obvious. I think most people, untrained though they be in ecology, unconsciously weigh such proposals in an ecolate way, asking And then what? After we transport the surplus poor to other areas, or ship extra energy into their homelands, will not the present rate of population increase continue unabated? Such populations now typically increase at 3 percent per year, which means that their populations potentially increase nineteenfold per century. It is insanity to view poverty in such circumstances as a problem of shortages: it is a longage problem. And we don’t know what to do about it.

It is time to face the music. Discussing the human predicament in terms of carrying capacity—a concept that originated in animal husbandry and game management—inevitably raises the suspicion that someone is about to propose treating human beings like cattle or wild animals. When a herd of animals is overpopulated we do not hesitate to liquidate the excess, that is, to kill them. Anyone who speaks of carrying capacity in connection with human population problems is suspected of following the lead of Nazi Germany or contemporary Cambodia. We must not repress this suspicion: We must bring it out into the open so that we can discuss the human predicament frankly.

At the barren and heartless level of pure logic a game management solution should work for humans as it does for other animals: but the Heart won’t stand for it. The Heart, too, is an ecologist, and asks And then what? The liquidation of excess lives might be sincerely proposed as a solution for a temporary crisis; unfortunately every act potentially sets a precedent. Liquidation can be both infectious and addictive. It can bring into existence a positive feedback system that is destructive both ethically and politically. It can destabilize society, bringing on a new Dark Age. The ecolate Heart knows this.

But in rejecting a policy of luquidation we must not forget the fact that led us to consider it, namely, the primacy of the concept of carrying capacity in the theory of all populations, animal or human. In the human situation technology can increase the carrying capacity of the environment, but it cannot do so at an arbitrarily rapid rate, and there may be practical limits to what technology can do. Some optimists say that technology can always raise the carrying capacity of the human environment faster than the growth of human population. In some theoretical framework this may be true (for a while), but in the existing political and economic framework (which is resistant to change) it is hard to defend the thesis that the present rate of population increase is nothing to worry about. Justifiably we complain of the population­related ills of poverty, pollution, inflation, and unemployment. We should suspect that the carrying capacity of our environment has already been transgressed.

It was one of the less happy consequences of Malthus’s celebrated essay that it focused people’s attention on food. But man does not live by food alone. A humane definition of an acceptable standard of living includes much more than mere food. A humane and prudent man strongly suspects that the carrying capacity of our environment—as defined by aspirations, technology, and political realities—has already been transgressed. If you doubt this ask yourself the following questions. Is the supply of such natural amenities as wilderness and quiet countryside now increasing? Is the threat to endangered species a figment of the imagination? Is the cost of controlling pollution decreasing? Does inflation show signs of disappearing? Can we forget about unemployment? Is the proportion of the world’s peoples living under democratic governments now on the increase? Is our elbow room for political maneuvering to meet crises increasing?

We must never forget the role choice plays in defining carrying capacity in the human situation. The desired standard of living and the inferred carrying capacity are inversely related. Given a high standard of living and a low carrying capacity, transgressing the carrying capacity lowers the standard of living. The loss may be painful but it is not lethal. But when a large population existing at a minimal standard of living transgresses the carrying capacity of its environment there is only one direction for both the population and the standard of living to go and that is down. Then is the history of the St. Matthew Island Reindeer translated into human terms. Human dignity is degraded; human lives are lost.

What shall we do when carrying capacity is transgressed by a human population that is still growing? Obviously population growth needs first to be brought to a halt, and then reversed (for a while). How can this be accomplished if we reject (as we should) the policy of liquidation? Fortunately we have a model of a better alternative in the realm of business practice and that is the practice of attrition.

Before seeing how this idea might be adapted to population control let us see how it operates in an area where it is already accepted. It frequently happens that an organization—a business concern or an education establishment—finds that its supply of employees amounts to overpopulation in terms of a realistic estimate of future opportunities. If a business firm is desperately competing with other firms in the same business the management may have to resort to the sort of liquidation we call firing. If, however, business competition is not severe, or if the concern is an educational one living off the commons of tax funds, a reduction of the employee population can be brought about by attrition, i.e., by not refilling (for a while) vacancies created by normal retirements, deaths, and resignations. Attrition is slower than liquidation; it is also gentler and more acceptable. It takes into account the so-­called secondary effects—which are not really secondary—of the mode of population reduction employed. Positive utilities are balanced against negative utilities. In principle, there could be an economic theory of attrition, although I don’t suppose it yet exists. Such a theory would tell us what the optimal path of attrition is, i.e., the path that is the least pessimal.

Attrition theory should be as much a part of social and economic education as the theory and practice of retreat is in the education of the military. Just as death is part of life so also do failures and defeats partake of the essence of progress, although our persistent belief in Providence usually blinds us to what we regard as the darker side of existence. But is it really darker? No defeat is total except in terms of a particular partial goal. Superficial thinkers hold that the proper response to defeat is always “Try harder!”, but it is sometimes more rational to redirect our efforts toward other, more realistic goals.

The application of attrition to population control should be obvious. An excess of population does not call for liquidation; it can be corrected for by attrition through diminished fertility. The normal, inescapable death rate will reduce population size if we see to it that the fertility rate is sufficiently reduced. We don’t need to kill anybody; we just have to make sure that new bodies are not produced at quite so fast a rate. For instance, a program might be adopted of allowing only one birth for each two deaths. Of course, negative population growth will alter the age distribution of the population, thus affecting economic and social processes. The cultural changes required to produce population control will themselves have consequences. It will not be easy to find the least pessimal rate of change, but this should be regarded as a proper task of an as yet unborn theory of attrition.

In the past, what we have called “foreign aid” has almost wholly side­stepped the central problem of carrying capacity; its accomplishments have been equivocal. By any reasonable standard, 2500 millions of the world’s peoples are now poor. The rate of growth of the poor populations has risen fairly steadily during the entire period of foreign aid (1950 to the present) from about 1 percent per year at the beginning to nearly 3 percent at the present time, and the rate operates on an ever larger base of impoverished populations. Current rumors of a significant decrease in the rate are without factual foundations.

To the list of cliches that have bewitched our intelligence during the past generation we must add the term “foreign aid.” When Congress votes billions of dollars to be spent in foreign countries all that we can objectively say about the enterprise is that it is foreign intervention. Calling it aid is prejudicial and will interfere with our observing the true effects of our actions. There is a large and growing body of evidence that past foreign interventions have, on balance, been less than aidful (see reference 16 and 33-39). Aidfulness must be proved, not assumed; until it is we should use only the nonprejudicial label, foreign intervention.

Whenever we are tempted to try to cure the economic illnesses of other nations we should remember the cautionary words of Moliere (1622-1673) with regard to the physical medicine of his time: “Nearly all men die of their remedies and not of their illnesses.”40 It was for this reason that wise physicians before the 20th century followed the rule, Primum non nocere—”First do no harm.” Many an early physician gained a justifiable great reputation by administering nothing but placebos. Now that we have penicillin, physicians need not be quite so cautions; but the profession of foreign intervention has yet to find its penicillin.

Shutting our eyes as we do to the harm that foreign intervention does, it is natural for us to casually assume that our motivation for intervening is purely philanthropic; but I think one can make a plausible case that this is not so. It is not unreasonable to suspect that foreign aid programs are merely the latest manifestation of a national arrogance that exhibited itself earlier in the phrase “manifest destiny, ” which in 1845 was used by Americans to justify stealing Texas from Mexico.41 This act we now admit was one of military imperialism. But what about the words with which President Truman launched “Point Four, ” later to be called foreign aid? In 1949 Truman called on America to “embark on a bold new program” to rescue “More than half of the people of the world…living in conditions approaching misery.”42 43 Thirty intervening years (and billions of dollars) have brought few successes. Let us cast Truman’s proposal into the numbers of the present. Should we now commit some 230 million Americans to the rescue of some 2500 million people elsewhere from the natural consequences of their having transgressed the carrying capacity of their environment? To effect this rescue by ourselves would mean that each American man, woman, and child would have to banish poverty for 10 other people, people of strikingly different cultures, ideals, and ways of looking at things—all this in a world of diminishing resources.

It is not going too far to say that the language of Point Four is an expression of moral imperialism, an ideal that continues to motivate many of our “best people.” When Robert Kennedy announced that he was a candidate for President in 1968 he did so in these words: “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party, and even our own country, it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.”44 The Greeks had a word for this attitude: hubris, arrogance. The Greeks also said, “Whom the Gods would destroy they first make mad.”

Yet we would like to help other people if we could. How might we help? The goods of this world come in only three modalities: substance, energy, and information. Any distribution of substance or energy by the system of the commons cannot be defended because, if continued, it leads to tragedy. Traffic in substance and energy is a zero­sum game: my gain is your loss, and vice versa. Not so with information, which does not obey conservation laws. Shared information can breed more information. We can afford to be completely generous with information, and I think we should be.

We should not however, be under the illusion that any particular item of information given to another country will necessarily help it; used uncritically it may harm. Our best information is often no more than our best opinion, based on incomplete knowledge and treacherous theory. Although we have a hard time admitting this at any particular moment, we can recognize some of the errors we have made in the past.

There are fashions in foreign intervention as in other activities. Our advice to poor countries in the 1950s was industrialize! When we realized the enormity of the need for capital formation we changed the tune: in the 60s we said Mechanize!, i.e., mechanize agriculture. Then came the “oil crisis” of 1973 and we changed our tune again: Appropriatize! i.e., adopt the appropriate technology philosophy of Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful45. Is this the final word? Who knows? Some would have it that the common imperative running through all these attempts is Develop! But Edward Goldsmith has argued persuasively that the proper goal now is one of dedevelopment.46

I suggest that we would show more respect for human dignity if we said something like the following to any people suffering from a longage of population. “We don’t know the answers to your problems, but let us share with you all the little pieces of information we possess. Pick and choose from among the many ideas. Be prepared to learn from your mistakes: we have found no better for ourselves.”

To minimize the pain of learning, three strategies can be recommended. First, learn from history (insofar as the lessons of history are relevant), and from the observation of other cultures. Second, whenever possible test a proposed change on a pilot plant scale. Third, augment experience with the prosthesis of theory. We don’t have to jump off each new skyscraper to see if the descent is lethal: we can use the prosthetic structure of physical theory (s = 1/2 gt2, and all that) to give us an answer on which policy can confidently be built. Once in possession of a sound theory we can learn a good deal from purely intellectual trials with a minimum of suffering and waste. The most pressing problem for the social sciences is to create credible theory; without it, the human species will continue to suffer on a heroic scale.

The only sensible policy for international relations is to assert that national sovereignty (which every nation claims) mandates national responsibility (which most nations, like most people, will evade if they can). Demanding responsibility of others is not isolationism. Peaceful nations that trade with each other on a quid pro quo basis are involved in the sort of responsible relationship biologists call mutualism. It is parasitism when a nation refuses the discipline of quid pro quo trading and expects to be supported by gifts—euphemistically called “transfers” or “concessionary” rates of interest on “loans.” The worst characteristics of parasitism is that it is addictive. A nation freed of the necessity of taking care of itself has little motivation to put an end to the growth of its population, and of the need that follows therefrom.

In real life all good policies must be compromised somewhat. Although in principle every nation should take care of itself, exceptions can sometimes be safely made, e.g., in the case of an earthquake. We can usefully distinguish between crisis and a crunch47. A crisis is a need that develops suddenly and can be alleviated in a short time by outside help, leaving the community essentially no worse off than it was before. An earthquake creates a crisis, because people don’t intend to make a habit of having earthquakes. A crunch, on the other hand, is a persistent need arising out of overpopulation: alleviating the need creates more need. Bangladesh is caught in a crunch. Jan Narveson48 has expressed well the difficult political issue posed by a crunch:

“We’ll give you food, but on condition that you restrict your population growth to the point where the problem will eventually disappear instead of mushrooming to proportions which nobody can handle.” This type of condition, where it is relevant, seems to me reasonable. It is not reasonable to have a morality which makes it a duty to do self-defeating acts. And if your feeding me now means that in twenty years there will be five more in the same circumstances, then your aid has been self-defeating. (The political objections which have been made against insistence on reasonable programs of birth control impress me, thus far, as despicable hypocrisy.)

A few more words are in order about political objections. We should not be deterred by loud complaints voiced by members of a nation that we propose to deal with only on a quid pro quo basis. “Nation” is an abstraction. It is wrong to say that ” Nation A objects.” Nation A has no voice; only its citizens have voices. Only some of these voices are heard in the world outside.

Who are the people who set themselves up as spokesmen for poor nations? What gifts do they demand? And what will they do with the gifts if we accede to their demands? For a blatant example of how the power element of a demanding country sometimes behaves, consider this account of an event in Gabon, a West African nation of less than 600,000 people. The occasion was a reception for the Organization of African Unity given by President El Hadi Omar Bongo in July, 1977. The words are Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s.49

President Bongo prepared a truly gala affair for his fellow leaders. He had built a reception hall in Libreville for some $250 million, including 52 villas for the delegation heads, two swimming pools, a luxurious night club, a sauna, a gymnasium, and two theatres. The complex had a unique feature: a viewing room between the two theatres which had a rotation floor, so that President Bongo could watch either stage by pushing a button. He did not have to go to the inconvenience of swiveling his chair. According to the New York Times account, the delegates to the conference were escorted from the airport by phalanxes of motorcycle outriders in frock coats (the delegates themselves rode in armored Cadillacs), and the parade route passed by guards in plumed kepis and crimson robes, as well as troupes of singing and dancing women wearing T­shirts with President Bongo ‘s picture on them.

Now the nation of Gabon is quite wealthy. It has oil and other resources, and a per capita income probably higher than that of the United States two generations ago. Yet its national debt is $1 billion, and the yearly interest on it is 23 percent of its annual budget.

This is no doubt an extreme case of parasitic prodigality, but we must never forget that donor generosity encourages the likes of Bongo. Whenever we yield to the demands of self-appointed spokesmen for poor countries we strengthen these people politically on their own turf. But when we refuse to meet the demands, the demanders lose in local power, and they may—we can assert no more—be replaced by other (and more responsible) spokesmen.

To some the foregoing words will seem no more than the callous theorizing of a comfortable member of a rich country. I assure you this is not so. Many leaders in poor countries are intelligent enough to take an objective view of their true situation. We demean the citizens of other nations when we assume they must always be treated as children. Let us beware of the “white man’s burden” under whatever rhetoric. Mao Tse-Tung, as long ago as 1945, proclaimed that the policy of the new China would be one of tse li kong sheng—”regeneration through our own efforts.”50 Foreign aid was rejected: national responsibility was asserted. China, then one of the poorest of the large countries of the world, stuck to this policy and did very well. Would she have done better had she adopted a parasitic mode of existence? Why then do we encourage other poor countries to embrace parasitism? Is that the best that “compassion” can do?

In closing I return to Tinbergen’s second argument, that we should give things to poor countries before they take them from us. How might they take, and what are the defenses against taking?

First, consider the possibility of war. Two centuries ago, in the Wealth of Nations51 Adam Smith had this to say:

In modern war the great expense of firearms gives an evident advantage to the nation which can best afford that expense, and consequently to an opulent and civilized over a poor and barbarous nation. In ancient times the opulent and civilized found it difficult to defend themselves against the poor and barbarous nations. In modern times the poor and barbarous find it difficult to defend themselves against the opulent and civilized.

Has the continued development of military technology since 1776 refuted this argument? It has not: the “Yom Kippur War” of 1973, ostensibly between Israel and the Arabs but truly financed and supplied by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., lasted only 18 days but it went a long way toward bankrupting its financial backers. If opulent powers cannot finance a modern war, by what magic can the poor do so? By guerrilla actions a poor country can do very well protecting itself against invasion; but guerrilleros cannot themselves successfully invade other lands—which is the issue here.

Of course there is the nuclear bomb, which is now, alas! cheap; however; the missiles required to deliver it are of high technology and expensive. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that a poor country might, by considerable sacrifice, lob a few nuclear missiles over on us. Is it likely? I think not, for this reason. Such a venture could not be financed without the consent of the wealthy and powerful in the poor country. Before they would do that the wealthy would ask themselves what they had to gain by such an adventure. They would conclude: Nothing. They would see that the prudent course for them is to use their wealth to continue to keep their own threatening poor at bay. The idealistic among us may be repelled by this attitude, but I don’t think we can find a really poor country in which the wealthy will sacrifice the well being of their families (the greatest reality to them) for a possible advantage to their nation (which, fortunately for us, they see as a secondary fiction).

However, there is the matter of terrorism and sabotage. That this is a major threat from now on there is no doubt. The faint of heart are always inclined to think they can buy off terrorists by yielding to their demands to redistribute the wealth. If we know anything at all about human nature it is this: yielding to terrorism always fails. Demands escalate. The demands would not even cease when a completely equitable distribution was achieved, because then there would be demand for compensation for the past. Meeting these demands would create a new inequity, and the bloody game would continue with a reversal of roles. The only rational response to terrorism is police action: it is not perfect but it is the best there is. Survival is impossible without police action in times of crisis, and the tacit threat of it at all times. This is the price we pay for civilization.

Now we must take up the third threat, that of forcible redistribution through aggressive, “peaceful” illegal immigration. Tinbergen, in a continuation of the passage quoted earlier, says that this mode of taking “has started already; there are today seven million illegal Mexican workers in the U.S.” (Other authorities would put the number at more than 10 million.)

This, I think is the most telling point Tinbergen has to make. The process of takeover by uninvited guests has indeed started, and there is little sign—yet—that Americans are going to resist. Technically, it is easy to control immigration; politically it is not so easy. All too many of the rich suffer from a moral ambivalence, which has been vividly described in Raspail’s chilling novel, the Camp of the Saints.52 Will America, like invaded France in Raspail’s novel, continue to be immobilized by ambivalence in the face of a silent invasion? If we cannot muster the will to protect ourselves we will find that we have shared not wealth, but poverty with our invaders.53 54 This fate, if it comes, will not be peculiarly American; it is the fate that awaits any nation that refuses to take the tragedy of the commons seriously.


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