Fifty years ago, in December of 1968, Garrett Hardin published his seminal article “The Tragedy of the Commons” in Science magazine.
This essay has been republished thousands of times in environmental publications around the world, and it's almost never noted that the whole thing is a racist lie.
I do not say this lightly.
To be clear, I personally knew Garrett Hardin and I liked him as a person. He was instrumental in my going back to graduate school in demographics. He was instrumental to the architecture of how I think. But not what I think. So, to put a point on it, we ended up with a fundamental disagreement on something important, even if I thought of him as a friend.
So, to come back to it, was Garrett Hardin pushing a fairy tale eagerly lapped up by know-nothing racists?
Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons is an essay in which he somewhat disingenuously couches the enclosure system of the 18th Century as being a parable about the environment.
In Hardin's version, fences were erected to protect the land from greedy and overly fecund people who, if left unrestrained, would rip apart the environment upon which all life on earth depended.
According to Hardin, the only way to protect the "commons" is to end reproductive freedom ("Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all") and embrace laws which encourage fewer births or, as he refers to it, to "legislate temperance."
Why is such legislation needed?
According to Hardin, the problem is that humans no longer have a "negative feedback" to control their "fecundity" like birds do. If humans ever had it, it was ruined by the rise of the welfare state.
Hardin goes on to postulate a kind of race and class "group think" about population and family planning in which "they" (the poor) think quite differently than "we" (the rich) do.
"In a welfare state," he writes, "how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement?"
Notice that according to Hardin poor people have "adopted overbreeding as a policy to secure [their] own aggrandizement!"
Really? Is that how the poor people are getting rich? By making "policy?"
In fact, like Malthus, Hardin's essay appears to be framed as a scientific-sounding rationale for preserving the social and economic status-quo of his day.
Just as Malthus ignored the fact that the enclosure system of his day was driving poverty in England, so too does Hardin ignore the fact that tractors were driving the rise of poverty in American cities.
Just as Malthus ignored subsidies for the large estates of his day and instead focused on reasons to cut the "poor tax," so too does Hardin ignore corporate subsidies and tax credits for the landed rich. Instead, like Malthus, Hardin zeros in the need to cut welfare to the poor.
Like Malthus, Hardin is not passive. He writes that "It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience," and he says that instead we must embrace "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon."
In later writings Hardin drops the notion that coercion should be "mutually agreed on." In his essay on Life Boat Ethics, Hardin (like Malthus before him) argues that aid should be withheld from the poor so that misery will rise and they will be forced to be more temperate and less fecund.
Ironically, while "The Tragedy of the Commons" is still widely quoted, and while it quotes Malthus, very few people know why the enclosure system was really put into place, or what Malthus's essay actually says.
Nor do most Americans know enough about the rise of urban poverty, or the social pressures of the era in which Hardin was writing, to fully understand the undertone of what he was saying or why it was so warmly received by so many social and economic conservatives of the day.
Ironically, like Malthus, many folks have HEARD of "The Tragedy of the Commons," but relatively few have read it and even fewer seem to notice how demonstrably wrong it is.
Remember, according to Hardin, appeals to "conscience" will not work to reduce birth rates and only "coercion" will work. In reality, within 5 years of writing "The Tragedy of the Commons," birth rates in the U.S. had dropped to below-replacement levels and they have remained there ever since.
No new coercive laws were needed.
The same phenomenon of dropping birth rates has occurred all over the world -- in Europe, Japan, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Brazil to name just a few countries.
In almost all cases, coercion was not needed -- conscience and persuasion alone did the trick.
For those that have not read "The Tragedy of the Commons," or who want to refresh their memory as to what it says >> click here.
More than "human doom" scenarios attract environmentalists to Malthus, however. There is also a shared intellectual construct - a construct based on STASIS.
Most environmentalists are believers in stasis: trees should not be cut down, dams should not be built, introduced species should be exterminated, climate should not shift, and genetically-modified crops should not be created. No animal or plant species should decline in numbers, nor should they dramatically increase in numbers. If a mountain appears to be "naturally' bald (as in the Smokies) it should not be allowed to reforest. Animals from widely different locations, such as two species of parrot, should not be allowed to hybridize, nor should humans engage in mining or aquaculture. And, of course, there should be no human population growth or increase in natural resource use.
In fact, environmentalists have more than a small point.
Very rapid population growth is forcing very rapid change to the environment -- change that is, undeniably, doing harm to much of the world's wildlife and wild places.
The problem is not that conservationists want to move slowly after fully examining the options (a VERY good and VERY wise thing!) but that they routinely misrepresent the data and fully discount the future in order to arrive at "human doom" scenarios.
Like Malthus, human "die-off" theorists assume stasis arguments about health care (fertility will not fall fast enough), economics (there will be a shortage of water and energy because prices for these commodities cannot rise), agriculture (the farms of tomorrow will be like the farms of today), and social orders (African countries will stay mired in the pit of despotic tribalism).
In fact, stasis never occurs in the natural world, nor does it occur in human society. If you had told someone in 1880 that the U.S. would have a population of 300 million people today, they would have said "Impossible! Where will you pasture all the horses?"
In fact, at some level many of the energy and water crisis arguments we hear today sound very much like the horse pasturing concerns of 125 years ago. Just as Ford and Benz began to build cars for an energy source that was not yet in production, the companies that now bear their names are making hydrogen-fueled cars for an energy source that is still in development.
Whatever happens with gasoline, one thing is for sure: We are NOT going to do nothing. We are going to find an alternative power source for vehicle transport. In fact, we already have several alternative power sources, and today we are simply experimenting with alternatives and efficiencies -- and we are doing this despite the fact that the price of oil today is about the same, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as it was in 1975. We will not be going back to horses or, God forbid, walking.
While no one can predict what combination of nuclear, geothermal, solar, hydrogen, wind, methane hydride, trash-to-fuel, tidal barrages, wave mills, and hydropower (to name just a few options) will power the Next Economy, there is very little doubt that there is no "energy shortage" per se -- only a surplus of options that involve different tradeoffs that we may, or may not, agree to accept.
Similarly, we see no stasis in the field of water storage, transportation, desalinization, and conservation technologies, nor do we see a stasis in water pricing and international trade, both of which have enormous implications for water use all over the world.
In short, though the natural world may get worse, the human world is likely to continue to thrive.
Humans are remarkable animals in the sense that we have shown a marked ability to change ourselves, and our surroundings, at a very rapid rate.
While the pig of 1703 is very much like the pig of 2003, the human is not. Pigs cannot fly, but today humans can. Humans can also communicate to millions of other humans across the globe at the click of a mouse, grow wheat in the desert and strawberries in the arctic, and mine minerals from the bottom of the ocean.
Humans are also capable of changing the way we live. Since Malthus's day we have moved from 100-acre farms to 600 square-foot apartments, we have changed diets, we have rewritten marriage and inheritance laws, and we have changed the basic unit of social cohesion. And, of course, we have embraced the "vice" (Malthus's word) of voluntary contraception -- just as Condorcet predicted we would, and under the circumstance he envisioned (i.e. after a long period of population growth and relative prosperity).
The adaptive nature of humans is almost totally discounted by environmentalists with a strong Malthusian bent. In fact, a nearly complete discounting of the adaptive nature of humans seems to be a precursor to a fascination with Malthus.
It is not accidental that there are no demographers (i.e. experts on human population change) who are Malthusian DOOM-ographers.
Nor is it an accident that most doom-ographic treatises are written by experts in non-sentient life: Garrett Hardin is a microbiologist; Bill Paddock an agronomist specializing in corn; Paul Ehrlich specializes in butterflies; William Vogt specialized in birds. Among the lay public with a fascination with Malthus, we typically find various kinds of engineers, computer programmers, and bug experts who specialize in non-sentient organisms and systems.
Biologists used to working with butterflies, ants, and yeast often draw parallels between barely sentient wildlife and humans, but in doing so they tend to ignore the unique qualities that humans bring to the table.
A deer on the Kaibab Plateau does not have the written word to use as a predictive tool for what might happen when wolves, cougars and coyotes are extirpated from its habitat, nor does it have laws to govern group conduct, nor does it know how to use irrigation pipe, steel plows, and seed to boost habitat production.
Not so long ago humans were not much more sentient that the deer on the Kaibab Plateau. The people of Easter Island, for example, were without writing and were completely cut off from the rest of the world and living on a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific. Hardin notes that on "Easter Island, they just had too many people and they didn't see the consequences of cutting down all the trees."
This is, of course, correct.
But we do not live on Easter Island anymore. The development of writing several millennia ago, enabled humans to amass experience over time and share it across vast distances (as Condorcet said would happen).
Without writing we could not perfect social codes, and we could not improve technology in a rapid and methodical manner. Instead, we quite literally "reinvented the wheel" again and again.
Quite literally we lived according to "the law of the jungle" instead of the laws of man.
With the advent of the written word and a rapidly expanding vocabulary, everything changed.
A quantitative leap in the human condition occurred shortly after the advent of movable type and the production of low-cost pulp-based paper.
Further leaps occurred with the advent of public libraries, daily newspapers, and indoor lighting.
Still greater advances were propelled by such electronic communications systems as telegraphs, radios, telephones, movies, television, and the internet.
The revolution is ongoing, of course. Saturday's edition of The Washington Times carries a front page article entitled "Google Knows All", while Google itself tells me that the main town on Easter Island (Hanga Roa) has a modern telephone system and Internet service linked by satellite to the rest of the world. There are even two "cybercafes" in town!
The point made here is not a small one, as the neo-Malthusian cannon of doom gives very little standing to the power of communication, education or legislation.
Consider the simple "I-PAT equation" that is commonly asserted to be a mathematical model of the relationship between population growth and the environment. The IPAT equation is expressed as: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology.
In fact, this "equation" is not an equation at all. Other than population, the components are vaguely defined and nearly impossible to operationalize as meaningful numbers.
Though the I-PAT equation may LOOK like science, it is in fact little more than a rhetorical assertion masquerading as a numerical entity (as was Malthus's assertion that "food grows arithmetically").
The I-PAT equation is also far from complete.
Consider the case of the United States, for example. In the last 35 years we have added 100 million people to our population. During this same period of time our water got cleaner and our air got cleaner. Today we have more forest cover in the U.S. than we did in 1970, and we have more land in protection.
Even as our population grew, and our level of resource consumption soared, the state of the environment generally improved. Today the U.S. has larger populations of whitetail deer, moose, buffalo, coyote, wolf, bald eagle, cougar, manatee, whale, sea turtle, pronghorn antelope, beaver, Canada geese, osprey, ducks, alligators, raccoon, red fox, otters, bobcat, black bear, grizzly, wild turkey and heron than it did just 30 years ago.
How could this have happened?
The short answer is that we passed laws.
In 1864, Lincoln signed an Executive Order protecting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. In 1872, the first National Park (Yellowstone) was created, and in 1900 Congress passed the Lacey Act banning the interstate sale of wild game. In 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act, which resulted in the federal government purchasing vast tracts of denuded mountains, which paved the way for the National Forrest System, which in turn helped launch the National Wildlife Refuge system.
Other environmental laws quickly followed: the Federal Migratory Bird Law, the Bald Eagle Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Protection Act, the "Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act," and the National Forest Management Act, to name just a few.
The end result, when combined with science-based wildlife management, was a surge in wildlife numbers across the U.S. with many species (beaver, turkey, deer, otter, bear) being reintroduced into areas where they had once been locally or regionally extirpated.
Ironically, this great boom in wildlife protection occurred even as the population of the United States grew by 100 million people.
As quickly as the population of the U.S. grew, however, its food-growing capacity grew even faster. In fact, thanks to new crop hybrids, automation, irrigation, and innovative crop-planting schedules (such as winter wheat), U.S. agricultural outputs are now so high that we, quite literally, do not know what to do with the beneficence of the land.
Not only are we exporting vast amounts of food overseas, we have also taken 35 million acres of land out of production through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) -- a swath of land larger than Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. combined.
Instead of being short of food, American taxpayers are now paying farmers to leave land fallow and to plant cover-crops that are beneficial to wildlife -- and we continue to ship vast quantities of food overseas as well.
Does this mean U.S. population growth has not had a negative impact on the U.S. environment?
Of course not.
In fact, the environment of the U.S. might be a great deal BETTER if we had not added over 100 million people to our population since 1970.
That said, there is no doubt that the environment of the U.S. in 2018 is better than it was in 1970, and that this improvement happened DESPITE both a tremendous rise in population numbers and a tremendous increase in per capita resource consumption.
For those wondering how any or all of this fits into the world of working terriers, the answer is "quite well, thank you." To understand that, order a copy of American Working Terriers and find how all of this is linked in to the the rise of the "animal rights" movement, the rise of mounted hunts, and the largest political protest in the history of the U.K. (a protest against a proposed ban on fox hunting!) For those interested in reading the longer post of which this is an extract, click here.