Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos
New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, Garrett Hardin.
Review by Doug Bashford
Population is growing by 1/4 million a day. Is this Big News? No. If population were growing by 100 million a day, would this be Big News? No. The Media and human nature don’t work that way.
Garrett Hardin is perhaps best known for his famous essay; “The Tragedy of the Commons” written in 1968. It is in most Economics 101 textbooks. He is also one of the leaders speaking out against overpopulation for forty or fifty years. He is an economist, a biologist and ecologist. It is rare to find an economist who uses, or knows the philosophy of science! This new breed is leading the argument against growthmania, — both population and economic growthmania.
Without the understanding of science, Economics appears to be based more in religion, historicism, or even wishful thinking. Other explanations are not so polite. Hardin understands that we have been raised to believe otherwise, so he takes great care to first examine our “self-evident truths”. A man is most revealed by what he takes for granted. We have always assumed that a well respected and numerically literate discipline as Economics might be based in science and reality. Hardin destroys this myth. He argues strongly that Economics should adopt the methods and philosophy of science, instead of merely hiring scientists to meet its own fanciful desires.
Yes, many of Hardin’s arguments are rather iconoclastic. He is not at ease with environmentalists because Barry Commoner has argued against the overpopulation problem. Indeed, many of his ideas are likely to sound unusual to the environmental crowd. For example, he argues effectively that since there is no global solution to overpopulation, there is no point thinking about global overpopulation, but rather, national overpopulation. He further argues that we should consider closing our borders to immigration, — immigration only overpopulates us, and stimulates it in the migrating countries. A lose-lose situation, with only short-term benefits. And many are not used to hearing the facts emphasized — neither Nature nor evolution are “nice”. That popular idea may be a left-over from Divine Providence, and could lead to over-confidence in the future. One rule is to NEVER “globalize” a problem or concept if it can possibly be dealt with locally. Roads all over the world may have potholes, but potholes are not best fixed when addressed as a global problem in our world of national governments.
Hardin suggests that the economy has no mechanism to avoid global dis-economy of scale. “Diseconomies of scale have been a central part of the natural sciences since Galileo; under the name of ‘Diminishing Returns’ they have, however, been belittled by mainstream economists ever since Malthus.” All it can do is attempt to increase its own scale, oblivious to all else. Indeed, when our economic systems were “invented” by Smith and Marx, et al, a limitless world was a valid assumption.
Hardin’s solutions to growthmania are education and rewards. He is more to the “Right” than many environmentalists, but his iconoclastic suggestions will upset all who dogmatically cling to “holy” concepts. This includes almost everyone. He does not tread lightly and certainly does not pull his punches. I agree with one reviewer that Hardin is incapable of writing a dull sentence.
While one may not agree with many of his solutions, for a basic understanding of the overpopulation/ overconsumption/ nonsustainability problem, this book may be the best. It should not be missed. In my opinion, those who argue that overpopulation is not a potential dire problem and who have not read this primer are likely incapable of coherent arguments. With no knowledge of the concepts or the terminology, meaningful discussion is futile.
For a more rounded understanding of the problem, I also suggest World Bank economist Herman E Daly’s STEADY-STATE ECONOMICS. While it spends less effort making the prime case, it spends more time on solutions. Hardin focuses on population growthmania, Daly on economic growthmania. We have an understanding the one-two punch of both Population and Consumption in the Sustainability formula: S = Eco/PC, sustainable if S is larger than one.
This is the platform we stand on when we say that ecologists are the only ones who truly offer increased wealth and freedom, shorter work-weeks, decreased unemployment and crime, better family and human values, and an improved quality of life. Growthmania has all but killed those dreams.
It has been my recent observation that fulfilling the above goals are outside the realm of Economics. They are considered potential “positive externalities” of the economic system. Likewise, potential global poverty, famine and war caused by global dis-economy of scale are merely potential “negative externalities” — to be objectively observed, not prevented.
What we take for granted speaks volumes.
Note: This review first appeared on the Earth Pledge web site but can no longer be found.