Earth Day first took place in 1970. Two 1968 publications greatly influenced the rhetoric: The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich and “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin. Ehrlich, the better known, wrote a best-selling book. Hardin published his essay in the journal Science, but it was frequently reprinted.
Unfortunately, nearly everything they claimed is wrong. As it turns out population is a phony environmental issue, as I will explain. Yet the Farnam Street Blog credits Hardin as one of the first ecologists and “highly regarded by great thinkers.”
It acknowledges that his support of sterilization and opposition to immigration “caused him to be ostracized by many mainstream political and academic thinkers.” In fact, Hardin’s essay and subsequent career did more harm and damage to the world than probably any other Earth Day luminary.
The thesis of “The Tragedy of the Commons”
Hardin starts his essay by asserting that some problems have no technological solution and that the population problem is one of them.
Reaching back to Malthus, he says that population grows exponentially, and that “the per capita share of the world’s goods must steadily decrease.”
No new strain of wheat, he says, will feed a burgeoning population. Since a finite world can support only a finite population, “population growth must eventually equal zero.”
In the course of the essay, he dismisses Jeremy Bentham’s idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number” as unattainable. He also wanted to “exorcise” Adam Smith’s contention that individual choices promote public interest as a result of an “invisible hand.”
To refute Smith, Hardin turns to a forgotten pamphlet written in 1833 by an amateur mathematician. He says to picture a common pasture open to everyone in the community and imagine that it has reached its maximum capacity to feed the animals.
What happens if every farmer, acting in rational self-interest, decides to add one animal to his herd?
Each herdsman derives all the positive benefit from his extra animal. Each herdsman suffers only a share of negative consequence of overgrazing. So they all see their personal benefit but not the collective danger. Therefore, on this theory, the commons will eventually and inevitably fail to support all the animals. The failure will ruin everyone.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued the year before Hardin published his essay, declared that “any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot be made by anyone else”
Hardin categorically denied this conclusion and declared freedom to breed intolerable. And he denied we can appeal to the consciences of people to limit their breeding voluntarily. Those with no conscience will continue to breed and the people who care about the population problem will not—and go extinct. No amount of propaganda will induce the general public to behave responsibly.
What, then, is left to achieve zero population growth? Only coercion.
“The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion of some sort . . . To many, the word coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning. The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.”
Sort of like mutually agreeing to pay taxes, except everyone pretty much accepts the necessity of paying taxes. By what process does any society mutually agree on the necessity of zero population growth?
It won’t happen. Actually, that’s a moot point. Hardin’s essay is wrong in nearly every detail.
By the way, China tried administrative coercion with its one-child policy, and Hardin applauded. The policy had disastrous results. Most Chinese wanted their one child to be a boy. The boys grew to manhood with not enough women for them to marry. And by now, there aren’t enough young people to take on the responsibility of filling jobs and caring for their elders, either.
Why Hardin was wrong
In 1798, Thomas Malthus claimed that population would grow faster than the food supply, leading to mass starvation. World population at the time may have been about a billion people.
Malthus was wrong.
In the past two centuries the food supply has grown more rapidly than the population, largely because of innovations Malthus never thought of.
Yet environmentalists still raise the specter of unregulated population growth for fear that the world cannot produce enough resources to support everyone without limiting population. Hardin’s first and biggest mistake, even before he decided to write, was being a Malthusian.
The population myth
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization defines hunger as insufficient caloric intake for minimal daily energy requirements.
No one appears to have made any kind of chart to trace world hunger over time. It would be difficult; every estimate has been based on different calculations. But in 1970, about 35% of the population of the developing world experienced hunger. Today, that figure is less than 15%. And the world population has increased since then.
World Vision puts the current number of people who go to bed hungry every night at 690 million. I have seen estimates that exceed 800 million. That larger figure is still smaller than the number of hungry people fifty years ago. Famines in the 1920s killed more people than almost any decade since and world population has more than tripled since then.
Most of the recent statistics I have seen say that after falling for decades, the number of hungry people has started to rise in recent years. It obviously has nothing to do with rising population.
Worldwide, about a third of the food grown gets wasted before anyone can eat it. We don’t have to grow more food to feed a growing population. If we can reduce food waste (and improve the distribution network), the world already produces more than enough food. Technological innovations in, for example, food packaging can help that reduction a lot.
We needn’t worry about where to put a growing population, either. More and more people are moving to cities. High-rise apartment buildings and condominiums allow high population density in a relatively small geographic area. And as people become more affluent, they tend to have fewer children. So lifting people out of poverty will decrease the rate of population growth without the drastic measures Hardin favored.
Hardin’s ignorance of how a commons operates
Sitting at his desk reading an obscure 150-year-old pamphlet, Hardin composed his tragedy without ever studying how a commons actually works. In fact, communally-owned resources have operated quite well all over the world for centuries.
Hardin illustrated his ideas with a pasture. The same principles also work for such resources as forests, fisheries, and irrigation systems.
The pasture (or other common resource) is a resource system. The way individuals cooperate to use it, the resource governance, makes it work––or not.
Hardin didn’t recognize the importance of the distinction between system and governance. He assumed that everyone had open access to the commons and operated only in their own self-interest. In fact, the community that shares a commons agrees on rules for sharing it. It doesn’t operate on open access, then, but on access governed by the community that uses it.
Elinor Ostrom and others rigorously studied the operation of real commons in countries in Asia (Nepal and Indonesia), South America (Bolivia), Africa (Nigeria), Europe (Spain and Sweden) and the United States. She discovered some communal ownership arrangements and worked and others that didn’t. [Her book Governing the Commons is still available.]
Although her background was political science, she and Oliver Williamson won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics for essentially debunking The Tragedy of the Commons.
Lack of trust in technology
The essay begins with the claim that there is a class of problems with no technological solution. Hardin claimed to be writing about one.
In fact, humanity has been using technology since prehistoric times. Every technology has had unintended consequences, so humanity has turned to technology to find solutions. It would be impossible to quibble with a statement that technological solutions are not sufficient. But that’s not what he said.
And it appears that he knew very well that one technological solution was on the verge of solving the problem of starvation. He wrote,
It is fair to say that most people who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem—technologically. I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found.
Farming the seas has so far resulted only in overfishing. But developing new strains of wheat?
Norman Borlaug had already noticed that farmers growing hybrid wheat suffered less from the dust bowl of the 1930s. And he had already developed a dwarf wheat in Mexico that had a higher yield and could be harvested with less waste. Because of his work in Asia, Pakistan became self-sufficient in wheat production even as Hardin published his essay. India became self-sufficient by 1974.
Surely Hardin knew of Borlaug’s work. His eventual response to it was truly shameful.
The evil consequences of Hardin’s career
Soon enough, food production in India and Pakistan was growing faster than the population. In 1984, Borlaug turned his attention to sub-Saharan Africa.
Alas, Hardin and other Malthusians pressured Borlaug’s chief financial backers to withdraw support. Today, Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of malnutrition in the world: about 22% of its population. Borlaug had other obstacles there besides misguided environmentalists, but it is truly appalling that Malthusians would rather starve people than admit that their arguments were demonstrated false long before they were born.
As Hardin wrote,
If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line––then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.
Because Hardin so completely misunderstood how a commons works, commons all over the world are falling to private land ownership. And it causes the overgrazing that he encouraged people to fear.
I have seen Hardin’s defenders dismiss his critics as right-wingers, but it would be hard to find anyone more right-wing than Hardin. He opposed immigration, considering the US a lifeboat that, if poor people were allowed in, could not accommodate everyone. Therefore, the poor should be thrown overboard so the rich could survive.
In fact, Hardin was a racist and white supremacist who cloaked his ideology in pseudoscience for academic respectability.
With today’s cancel culture trying to root out racism, why do any progressives still regard Hardin as a great thinker? No one ought to quote him with approval anymore.
5 world hunger facts you need to know / Kathryn Reid, World Vision. October 29, 2020
Can humankind escape the tragedy of the commons? / Stephen Battersby, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. January 3, 2017
How the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ ruined herding’s reputation / Wilson Quarterly. Winter 2013
The tragedy of the commons / Garrett Hardin, Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248. Reprinted in The Environmental Handbook, edited by Garrett de Bell (New York: Ballentine, 1970)
The Tragedy of the Commons, revisited / Brett Frischmann, Scientific American. November 19, 2018
The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons / Matto Mildenberger, Scientific American. April 23, 2019
Who is Garrett Hardin? The master ecologist who warned us about population growth / Farnam Street Blog