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The Tragedy of the Commons
Garrett Hardin (1968)

"The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin, Science, 162 (1968):1243-1248.

At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, J.B. Wiesner and H.F. York concluded that: "Both sides in the arms race are confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security. It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation.'' [1]

I would like to focus your attention not on the subject of the article (national security in a nuclear world) but on the kind of conclusion they reached, namely that there is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.

In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy, it takes courage to assert that a desired technical solution is not possible. Wiesner and York exhibited this courage; publishing in a science journal, they insisted that the solution to the problem was not to be found in the natural sciences. They cautiously qualified their statement with the phrase, "It is our considered professional judgment...." Whether they were right or not is not the concern of the present article. Rather, the concern here is with the important concept of a class of human problems which can be called "no technical solution problems," and more specifically, with the identification and discussion of one of these.

It is easy to show that the class is not a null class. Recall the game of tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, "How can I win the game of tick-tack-toe?" It is well known that I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put another way, there is no "technical solution" to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word "win." I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can falsify the records. Every way in which I "win" involves, in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course, openly abandon the game -- refuse to play it. This is what most adults do.)

The class of "no technical solution problems" has members. My thesis is that the "population problem," as conventionally conceived, is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. 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. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way, any more than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-toe.

What Shall We Maximize?

Population, as Malthus said, naturally tends to grow "geometrically," or, as we would now say, exponentially. In a finite world this means that the per-capita share of the world's goods must decrease. Is ours a finite world?

A fair defense can be put forward for the view that the world is infinite or that we do not know that it is not. But, in terms of the practical problems that we must face in the next few generations with the foreseeable technology, it is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite. "Space" is no escape. [2]

A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations above and below zero is a trivial variant that need not be discussed.) When this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham's goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number" be realized?

No -- for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern, [3] but the principle is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D'Alembert (1717-1783).

The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example, food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man maintenance of life requires about 1600 kilocalories a day ("maintenance calories"). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as work, and is supported by "work calories" which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art; I think that everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham's goal is impossible.

In reaching this conclusion I have made the usual assumption that it is the acquisition of energy that is the problem. The appearance of atomic energy has led some to question this assumption. However, given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation, as J. H. Fremlin has so wittily shown. [4] The arithmetic signs in the analysis are, as it were, reversed; but Bentham's goal is unobtainable.

The optimum population is, then, less than the maximum. The difficulty of defining the optimum is enormous; so far as I know, no one has seriously tackled this problem. Reaching an acceptable and stable solution will surely require more than one generation of hard analytical work -- and much persuasion.

We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing one good with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.

Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment and a system of weighting are needed. In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the values of the variables.

Man must imitate this process. There is no doubt that in fact he already does, but unconsciously. It is when the hidden decisions are made explicit that the arguments begin. The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory of weighting. Synergistic effects, nonlinear variation, and difficulties in discounting the future make the intellectual problem difficult, but not (in principle) insoluble.

Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time, even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves that none has: there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of zero. Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes and remains zero.

Of course, a positive growth rate might be taken as evidence that a population is below its optimum. However, by any reasonable standards, the most rapidly growing populations on earth today are (in general) the most miserable. This association (which need not be invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that the positive growth rate of a population is evidence that it has yet to reach its optimum.

We can make little progress in working toward optimum population size until we explicitly exorcise the spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography. In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized the "invisible hand," the idea that an individual who "intends only his own gain," is, as it were, "led by an invisible hand to promote the public interest." [5] Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers. But he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez faire in reproduction. If it is correct we can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce the optimum population. If the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.

Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons

The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known Pamphlet in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852). [6] We may well call it "the tragedy of the commons," using the word "tragedy" as the philosopher Whitehead used it [7]: "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." He then goes on to say, "This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama."

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 numbers of both 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 animal, 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 decisionmaking 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 his herd. 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.

Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural selection favors the forces of psychological denial. [8] The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers. Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.

A simple incident that occurred a few years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts shows how perishable the knowledge is. During the Christmas shopping season the parking meters downtown were covered with plastic bags that bore tags reading: "Do not open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the mayor and city council." In other words, facing the prospect of an increased demand for already scarce space, the city fathers reinstituted the system of the commons. (Cynically, we suspect that they gained more votes than they lost by this retrogressive act.)

In an approximate way, the logic of the commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture or the invention of private property in real estate. But it is understood mostly only in special cases which are not sufficiently generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen leasing national land on the Western ranges demonstrate no more than an ambivalent understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces erosion and weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the "freedom of the seas." Professing to believe in the "inexhaustible resources of the oceans," they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction. [9]

The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent -- there is only one Yosemite Valley -- whereas population seems to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek in the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the parks as commons or they will be of no value to anyone.

What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property, but allocate the right to enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might be on the basis of merit, as defined by some agreedupon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all objectionable. But we must choose -- or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.


In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something out of the commons, but of putting something in -- sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and dangerous fumes into the air; and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.

The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge them untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed, our particular concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream -- whose property extends to the middle of the stream -- often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door. The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.

The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. "Flowing water purifies itself every ten miles," my grandfather used to say, and the myth was near enough to the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.

How to Legislate Temperance?

Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density uncovers a not generally recognized principle of morality, namely: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed. [10] Using the commons as a cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because there is no public; the same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred and fifty years ago a plainsman could kill an American bison, cut out only the tongue for his dinner, and discard the rest of the animal. He was not in any important sense being wasteful. Today, with only a few thousand bison left, we would be appalled at such behavior.

In passing, it is worth noting that the morality of an act cannot be determined from a photograph. One does not know whether a man killing an elephant or setting fire to the grassland is harming others until one knows the total system in which his act appears. "One picture is worth a thousand words," said an ancient Chinese; but it may take ten thousand words to validate it. It is as tempting to ecologists as it is to reformers in general to try to persuade others by way of the photographic shortcut. But the essence of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally -- in words.

That morality is system-sensitive escaped the attention of most codifiers of ethics in the past. "Thou shalt not" is the form of traditional ethical directives which make no allowance for particular circumstances. The laws of our society follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world. Our epicyclic solution is to augment statutory law with administrative law. Since it is practically impossible to spell out all the conditions under which it is safe to burn trash in the back yard or to run an automobile without smogcontrol, by law we delegate the details to bureaus. The result is administrative law, which is rightly feared for an ancient reason -- Quis custodies ipsos custodes? --Who shall watch the watchers themselves? John Adams said that we must have a "government of laws and not men." Bureau administrators, trying to evaluate the morality of acts in the total system, are singularly liable to corruption, producing a government by men, not laws.

Prohibition is easy to legislate (though not necessarily to enforce); but how do we legislate temperance? Experience indicates that it can be accomplished best through the mediation of administrative law. We limit possibilities unnecessarily if we suppose that the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies us the use of administrative law. We should rather retain the phrase as a perpetual reminder of fearful dangers we cannot avoid. The great challenge facing us now is to invent the corrective feedbacks that are needed to keep custodians honest. We must find ways to legitimate the needed authority of both the custodians and the corrective feedbacks.

Freedom to Breed Is Intolerable

The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of "dog eat dog" --if indeed there ever was such a world--how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds. [11] But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.

If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if thus, over breeding 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, [12] and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.

In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts over breeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? [13] To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action.

Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some thirty nations agreed to the following: "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows 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.'' [14]

It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the seventeenth century. At the present time, in liberal quarters, something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is "our last and best hope," that we shouldn't find fault with it; we shouldn't play into the hands of the archconservatives. However, let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: "The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the enemy." If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it is promoted by the United Nations. We should also join with Kingsley Davis [15] in attempting to get Planned Parenthood-World Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.

Conscience Is Self-Eliminating

It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather's great book. The argument is straightforward and Darwinian.

People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others. Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences. The differences will be accentuated, generation by generation.

In C. G. Darwin's words: "It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus. [16]

The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no matter which) is hereditary-but hereditary only in the most general formal sense. The result will be the same whether the attitude is transmitted through germ cells, or exosomatically, to use A. J. Lotka's term. (If one denies the latter possibility as well as the former, then what's the point of education?) The argument has here been stated in the context of the population problem, but it applies equally well to any instance in which society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good -- by means of his conscience. To make such an appeal is to set up a selective system that works toward the elimination of conscience from the race.

Pathogenic Effects of Conscience

The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to condemn it; but it has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist "in the name of conscience," what are we saying to him? What does he hear? -- not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but also the nonverbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: 1. (intended communication) "If you don't do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen"; 2. (the unintended communication) "If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons."

Every man then is caught in what Bateson has called a "double bind." Bateson and his co-workers have made a plausible case for viewing the double bind as an important causative factor in the genesis of schizophrenia. [17] The double bind may not always be so damaging, but it always endangers the mental health of anyone to whom it is applied. "A bad conscience," said Nietzsche, "is a kind of illness."

To conjure up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to extend his control beyond the legal limits. Leaders at the highest level succumb to this temptation. Has any president during the past generation failed to call on labor unions to moderate voluntarily their demands for higher wages, or to steel companies to honor voluntary guidelines on prices? I can recall none. The rhetoric used on such occasions is designed to produce feelings of guilt in noncooperators.

For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable, perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the civilized life. Now, in this post-Freudian world, we doubt it.

Paul Goodman speaks from the modern point of view when he says: "No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence, policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests, which might make sense, but to their anxieties.'' [18]

One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist to see the consequences of anxiety. We in the Western world are just emerging from a dreadful two centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more effectively by the anxiety-generating mechanisms of education. Alex Comfort has told the story well in The Anxiety Makers; [19] it is not a pretty one.

Since proof is difficult, we may even concede that the results of anxiety may sometimes, from certain points of view, be desirable. The larger question we should ask is whether, as a matter of policy, we should ever encourage the use of a technique the tendency (if not the intention) of which is psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk these days of responsible parenthood; the coupled words are incorporated into the titles of some organizations devoted to birth control. Some people have proposed massive propaganda campaigns to instill responsibility into the nation's (or the world's) breeders. But what is the meaning of the word conscience? When we use the word responsibility in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own interest? Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get something for nothing.

If the word responsibility is to be used at all, I suggest that it be in the sense Charles Frankel uses it. [20] "Responsibility," says this philosopher, "is the product of definite social arrangements." Notice that Frankel calls for social arrangements -- not propaganda.

Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon

The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank robbing. The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow Frankel's lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.

The morality of bank robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity. We are willing to say "Thou shalt not rob banks," without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.

Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. 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.

To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it. Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of the commons.

An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance-that those who are biologically more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes a mockery of the doctrine of "like father, like son" implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions, and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust -- but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.

It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out, [21] worshipers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (1) that the status quo is perfect; or (2) that the choice we face is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we wait for a perfect proposal.

But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produces evils. Once we are aware that the status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience. On the basis of such a comparison, we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems are tolerable.

Recognition of Necessity

Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all, is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had to be abandoned in one aspect after another.

First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are still not complete throughout the world.

Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.

In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music, without its consent. Our government has paid out billions of dollars to create a supersonic transport which would disturb 50,000 people for every one person whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and television and pollute the view of travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of pleasure. Is this because our Puritan inheritance makes us view pleasure as something of a sin, and pain (that is, the pollution of advertising) as the sign of virtue?

Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody's personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity."

The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment, to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.

The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon. "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" -- and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.


by Beryl Crowe (1969)
by Garrett Hardin and John Baden
W.H. Freeman, 1977; ISBN 0-7167-0476-5

"There has developed in the contemporary natural sciences a recognition that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war, and environmental corruption, for which there are no technical solutions.

"There is also an increasing recognition among contemporary social scientists that there is a subset of problems, such as population, atomic war, environmental corruption, and the recovery of a livable urban environment, for which there are no current political solutions. The thesis of this article is that the common area shared by these two subsets contains most of the critical problems that threaten the very existence of contemporary man." [p. 53]


"In passing the technically insoluble problems over to the political and social realm for solution, Hardin made three critical assumptions:

(1) that there exists, or can be developed, a 'criterion of judgment and system of weighting . . .' that will 'render the incommensurables . . . commensurable . . . ' in real life;

(2) that, possessing this criterion of judgment, 'coercion can be mutually agreed upon,' and that the application of coercion to effect a solution to problems will be effective in modern society; and

(3) that the administrative system, supported by the criterion of judgment and access to coercion, can and will protect the commons from further desecration." [p. 55]


"In America there existed, until very recently, a set of conditions which perhaps made the solution to Hardin's subset possible; we lived with the myth that we were 'one people, indivisible. . . .' This myth postulated that we were the great 'melting pot' of the world wherein the diverse cultural ores of Europe were poured into the crucible of the frontier experience to produce a new alloy -- an American civilization. This new civilization was presumably united by a common value system that was democratic, equalitarian, and existing under universally enforceable rules contained in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

"In the United States today, however, there is emerging a new set of behavior patterns which suggest that the myth is either dead or dying. Instead of believing and behaving in accordance with the myth, large sectors of the population are developing life-styles and value hierarchies that give contemporary Americans an appearance more closely analogous to the particularistic, primitive forms of 'tribal' organizations in geographic proximity than to that shining new alloy, the American civilization." [p. 56]

"Looking at a more recent analysis of the sickness of the core city, Wallace F. Smith has argued that the productive model of the city is no longer viable for the purposes of economic analysis. Instead, he develops a model of the city as a site for leisure consumption, and then seems to suggest that the nature of this model is such is such that the city cannot regain its health because the leisure demands are value-based and, hence do not admit to compromise and accommodation; consequently there is no way of deciding among these value- oriented demands that are being made on the core city.

"In looking for the cause of the erosion of the myth of a common value system, it seems to me that so long as our perceptions and knowledge of other groups were formed largely through the written media of communication, the American myth that we were a giant melting pot of equalitarians could be sustained. In such a perceptual field it is tenable, if not obvious, that men are motivated by interests. Interests can always be compromised and accommodated without undermining our very being by sacrificing values. Under the impact of electronic media, however, this psychological distance has broken down and now we discover that these people with whom we could formerly compromise on interests are not, after all, really motivated by interests but by values. Their behavior in our very living room betrays a set of values, moreover, that are incompatible with our own, and consequently the compromises that we make are not those of contract but of culture. While the former are acceptable, any form of compromise on the latter is not a form of rational behavior but is rather a clear case of either apostasy or heresy. Thus we have arrived not at an age of accommodation but one of confrontation. In such an age 'incommensurables' remain 'incommensurable' in real life." [p. 59]


"In the past, those who no longer subscribed to the values of the dominant culture were held in check by the myth that the state possessed a monopoly on coercive force. This myth has undergone continual erosion since the end of World War II owing to the success of the strategy of guerrilla warfare, as first revealed to the French in Indochina, and later conclusively demonstrated in Algeria. Suffering as we do from what Senator Fulbright has called 'the arrogance of power,' we have been extremely slow to learn the lesson in Vietnam, although we now realize that war is political and cannot be won by military means. It is apparent that the myth of the monopoly of coercive force as it was first qualified in the civil rights conflict in the South, then in our urban ghettos, next on the streets of Chicago, and now on our college campuses has lost its hold over the minds of Americans. The technology of guerrilla warfare has made it evident that, while the state can win battles, it cannot win wars of values. Coercive force which is centered in the modern state cannot be sustained in the face of the active resistance of some 10 percent of the population unless the state is willing to embark on a deliberate policy of genocide directed against the value dissident groups. The factor that sustained the myth of coercive force in the past was the acceptance of a common value system. Whether the latter exists is questionable in the modern nation-state." [p.p. 59-60]


"Indeed, the process has been so widely commented upon that one writer postulated a common life cycle for all of the attempts to develop regulatory policies. The life cycle is launched by an outcry so widespread and demanding that it generates enough political force to bring about establishment of a regulatory agency to insure the equitable, just, and rational distribution of the advantages among all holders of interest in the commons. This phase is followed by the symbolic reassurance of the offended as the agency goes into operation, developing a period of political quiescence among the great majority of those who hold a general but unorganized interest in the commons. Once this political quiescence has developed, the highly organized and specifically interested groups who wish to make incursions into the commons bring sufficient pressure to bear through other political processes to convert the agency to the protection and furthering of their interests. In the last phase even staffing of the regulating agency is accomplished by drawing the agency administrators from the ranks of the regulated." [p.p. 60-61]

An Abstract of "A General Statement of Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons"

Although "The Tragedy of the Commons" is widely acclaimed, activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics continue to act as if the essay had never been written. They ignore the central thesis that traditional, a priori thinking in ethics is mistaken and must be discarded. Hence the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement--one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles. In essence Hardin's essay is a thought experiment. Its purpose is not to make a historical statement but rather to demonstrate that tragic consequences can follow from practicing mistaken moral theories. Then it proposes a system-sensitive ethics that can prevent tragedy. The general statement of the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that an a priori ethics constructed on human-centered, moral principles and a definition of equal justice cannot prevent and indeed always supports growth in population and consumption. Such growth, though not inevitable, is a constant threat. If continual growth should ever occur, it eventually causes the breakdown of the ecosystems which support civilization. Henceforth, any viable ethics must satisfy these related requirements: (1) An acceptable system of ethics is contingent on its ability to preserve the ecosystems which sustain it. (2) Biological necessity has a veto over the behavior which any set of moral beliefs can allow or require. (3) Biological success is a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for any acceptable ethical theory. In summary, no ethics can be grounded in biological impossibility; no ethics can be incoherent in that it requires ethical behavior that ends all further ethical behavior. Clearly any ethics which tries to do so is mistaken; it is wrong.

February 26, 1997 Herschel Elliott Emeritus Philosophy University of Florida Gainesville, FL 32611l


A General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons by Herschel Elliott

Almost everyone recognizes that we must preserve our national heritage -- our parks and wildlife, our farms, our wetlands and forests. And few dare to doubt that equal justice and universal human rights are essential axioms of morality. Simultaneously people accept the necessity of protecting the environment and they also assume the moral obligation that every human being has an equal right to health, education, and employment, regardless of where a person is born or from where that person is fleeing hardship or persecution. To satisfy these demands it becomes a moral necessity to create more jobs, to build more housing, to expand the infrastructure, to produce more food and water, and to provide more sanitation, health care, and educational facilities. The only problem is that success in attaining these worthy goals is possible only in an infinite world where no conflict need ever arise between individual, societal, and environmental needs.

Only stubborn and muddled thinkers, however, can make believe that the world is infinite. The delusion of its infinity blinds them to the fact that all human activity must take place within the narrow range of resource use that the Earth can sustain. The ethical implications of the Earth's finitude are made clear in one of the world's great essays.

The author conducts a simple-seeming thought experiment in which he proves that any ethics is mistaken if it allows a growing population steadily to increase its exploitation of the ecosystem which supports it. Such an ethics is incoherent because it leads to the destruction of the biological resources on which survival depends; it lets people act in ways that make all further ethical behavior impossible. The essay in which this fundamental flaw in modern Western moral thinking is demonstrated is Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968).

Activists in environmental causes as well as professionals in ethics have long applauded Hardin's essay. But then they go on to ignore its central thesis. They accept the environmental goals and then, acting as if the essay had never been written, recommend behavior which will cause the environmental commons to collapse. Consequently Hardin's refutation of traditional moral thinking still seems to be not understood. And the need remains to give the tragedy of the commons a more general statement -- one which can clarify its revolutionary character, one which can convince a wide public of the correctness of its method and principles.

Hardin himself fully understood the difficulty of his task. In the preface of Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1972), he wrote, For too long have we supposed that technology would solve the "population problem." It won't. I first became fully aware of this hard truth when I wrote my essay "The Tragedy of the commons," ... Never have I found anything so difficult to work into shape. I wrote at least seven significantly different versions before resting content with this one, ... . It was obvious that the internal resistance to what I found myself saying was terrific. As a scientist I wanted to find a scientific solution; but reason inexorably led me to conclude that the population problem could not possibly be solved without repudiating certain ethical beliefs and altering some of the political and economic arrangements of contemporary society (Hardin, 1972, p. ix).

And a bit later on in the same preface, he adds, As I set about securing the logical bases of my argument I was led, ... to go farther and farther back both in time and in logic to make the structure of the argument clear. This book is the result (Hardin, 1972, p. x).

I believe, however, that Hardin's essay not only requires the "repudiation" of certain ethical beliefs but it also requires the rejection of the whole paradigm on which the ethical and political thinking of the Western world is based. By showing that factual evidence can refute systems of ethical belief, the tragedy of the commons repudiates the a priori method which has long been used to justify ethical principles and obligations. By implication it repudiates the purely linguistic distinction between value and fact, that is, it denies that value claims and factual claims belong to such distinctly different domains that they cannot interact. It also denies that human rights are universal, and that specific moral laws and principles make unconditional demands on all mankind.

Specifically, the tragedy of the commons demonstrates that all behavior which is either morally permissible or morally required is system-sensitive whenever it involves the use of land or the transfer of matter or energy. That is, it is conditional on the size of the human population and the availability of material resources.

The more general statement of Hardin's tragedy of the commons which follows is divided into five sections. In the first, the theoretic nature of Hardin's argument is emphasized. In the second, several of Hardin's original assumptions are shown to be restrictive and unnecessary. The third offers four general premises which seem empirically certain. The fourth gives a general statement of the human causes of the breakdown of the commons. It demonstrates the same inbuilt contradiction between what benefits the individual or the human species and what is necessary to the welfare of the whole. The fifth part concerns ethical theory. It shows that the first necessary condition for acceptable moral behavior is to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Inevitably, meeting this goal requires holistic or coerced restraint in order to assure that people never fail to live within the narrow limits of the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain. Thus people's first moral duty is to live as responsible and sustaining members of the world's community of living things.

Part I: The Theoretic Nature of the Tragedy of the Commons

Because the tragedy of the commons is written in everyday language, people overlook its theoretic nature. Mistakenly, I believe, some critics assume that the essay is talking about an actual commons. Such criticisms, however, are completely beside the point that Hardin is making. They confuse a proof of incoherence within a system of thought with a factual claim which they consider to be false. By contrast Hardin's essay can best be understood as a thought experiment. It proves that the unquestioned assumptions of modern ethical thinking are self-refuting; hence they must be revised or discarded.

Indeed Hardin's innovative argument in ethics is analogous to the thought experiment which Einstein used to demonstrate a contradiction within the set of assumptions that define Newtonian physics. To resolve that contradiction Einstein proposed the special theory of relativity. It should be noted that Einstein's thought experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no train could ever be engineered to travel in a Euclidean straight line at near the speed of light. Similarly Hardin's experiment cannot be refuted by showing that no simple commons could ever exist in which villagers maximize their personal gain by steadily increasing the size of their herds -- until they destroy the commons which supports them. In both cases, the thought experiment concerns only the inconsistency of an imaginary but possible state-of-affairs. Neither one makes a historical or a factual statement.

Specifically, Hardin's thought experiment with an imaginary commons demonstrates the futility -- the absurdity -- of much traditional ethical thinking. The sad fate of the imaginary commons on which people pasture their herds proves that moral principles can be refuted by facts -- the consequences caused when people live by those principles. It shows that if any ethics makes it advantageous for individuals or groups to increase their demands on the biological commons while it forces everyone to share equally the damage which that behavior causes, then the demise of the whole -- the ecosystem which supports that behavior -- is inevitable. Surely such an ethics is absurd. It refutes itself in the sense that it requires or allows ethical behavior which denies the possibility of further ethical behavior.

Part II: Three Assumptions which Divert Attention from Hardin's Thesis

Hardin's argument is of great importance and is powerfully persuasive. But, I believe, he has made some unnecessary assumptions. For example, his assumption of individualism and the free market system and his proof of the necessity of some form of societal coercion allows many liberals, humanists, religious leaders, and defenders of democracy (whose never-questioned moral and political convictions take no account of biological principles or physical limits) to reject his thesis without understanding it. Again his concern about over-population allows some people to accuse him of disregarding the environmental damage caused by wealthy nations and their run-away system of production and consumption. By pinning on him epithets like "racist," "elitist," "self-centered egoist," "capitalist," "fascist," and "apologist for private property," these critics find easy excuses for disregarding what is disturbing and revolutionary in Hardin's essay. Misdirected charges allow people to disregard the essential thesis, namely, that physical and biological determinants limit the range of options available for moral and political life.

Three assumptions seem to me to be unnecessary and restrictive. And they are not essential to Hardin's fundamental thesis. When they are removed, his argument can be given a more general statement, namely, that human behavior (whether it is thought to be grounded in economic self-interest or in the traditional moral ideal of self-denying altruism, in conservatism or liberalism, or in religious or secular humanism) incorporates inbuilt feed-back mechanisms which tend to cause constant economic growth and a steady increase in the human population.

Because continual growth is impossible in any finite domain, they all lead to the tragedy of the commons.

One restrictive assumption is that reason entails specific factual conclusions about human behavior. It requires, Hardin says, that "As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain" (Hardin, 1968, p. 1244). By immediate inference, Hardin's claim can be restated in a logically equivalent form: "Any herdsman or person who does not seek to maximize his (monetary) gain is irrational." But clearly this assumption about the nature of reason is false: reason can make no factual claims. In fact some people, who reason correctly, reason from different premises. They may choose to live simply so as to meet the needs of life with the least effort and with the least damaging impact on the environment. For such persons, simplicity and frugality can afford a better life because they allow more opportunity for leisure, for cultural or social activity, and for intellectual development. Such individuals may have no concern or interest in maximizing their material gain. No! One cannot assume, as Hardin does, that reason makes rational individuals seek any specific factual goals.

Another restrictive assumption is that individual self-interest is identified with certain modern conventions about private property, individual freedom, and the utility of maximizing wealth in the free market system. Note Hardin's words: Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he (each herdsman) asks, "What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?"

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 (Hardin, 1968, p.1244).

Clearly Hardin proves that when people in any finite biosystem accept the modern economic ideal of steadily increasing their wealth and consumption, a collapse of the commons which sustains them is inevitable.

But Hardin's proof applies only to a special case. In this passage, he ties individual behavior too closely in with the way of life found in modern industrialized societies. That is, he assumes that human behavior is determined by the commonly unquestioned assumption, namely, that the goal of all individuals is to improve the quality of their lives by steadily increasing their wealth and their consumption of goods and services within a free market system.

Tragedies of the commons, however, can have more general causes. The essential tragedy is not that the self-interest of individuals drives them continually to increase their use of the material resources within a commons. Rather, it is that if any individuals or societies -- regardless of the causes or ideals which drive them -- should steadily increase their exploitation of the finite ecosystem which supports them, then that system eventually will collapse. And the collapse will bring tragedy to the offending individuals or population.

In brief, tragedy is logically dependent only on the assumption that there is steady growth in the use of land or resources within any finite ecosystem; it is not logically dependent on the conventions of any specific political and economic system.

A third restrictive assumption narrows the tragedy of the commons to the problems caused by the unrestricted freedom to breed. Surely, a rapid and drastic reduction in the size of the present human population is the most difficult moral problem facing the world today. Surely, "The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding" (Hardin, 1968, p.1248). Indeed a rapid reduction in fertility is an immediate biological necessity for the two or three billion people who live in the world's poorest nations.

However, the march of events toward biological tragedy is also driven by the excessive consumption of the wealthy industrialized nations. Because of their huge and increasing appetite for luxury goods and travel, for lavish housing and gourmet foods, and for leisure and entertainment activities which have high energy and environmental costs, the citizens of the industrially powerful nations account for most of the destructive exploitation of land and biological resources that is occurring in every corner of the globe.

Nevertheless, the rich nations' contribution to pollution may soon be overwhelmed by the steady small increments in the standard of living of such huge populations as those of India and China. In any case, when driven by the needs of a rapidly expanding world population whether or not in combination with the demands of a growth-oriented consumer economy, a constant increase in the exploitation of the Earth's limited resources can only aggravate the stresses already placed on the Earth's ecosystems. The end point toward which this process tends is a rapid loss of the Earth's ability to support human society in its present form.

Part III: Four General Premises that Entail the Tragedy of the Commons

The conditions that force the breakdown of ecosystems require neither assumptions about the nature of reason, nor ones about maximizing personal gain in a free market system, nor ones about excessive fertility. If such presuppositions are dropped and replaced by four more general ones, Hardin's argument can be strengthened. Then prejudice and ability to rationalize need never give people an easy excuse for denying the conclusions of Hardin's crucial thought experiment. The more general premises seem factually certain and yet they entail, just as inexorably, the tragedy of the commons. They are:

(1) The Earth is finite: it has a limited stock of renewable fuels, minerals, and biological resources, a limited throughput of energy from the sun, and a finite sink for processing wastes.

(2) Although human activity very often does occur on privately owned lands which are not a commons, that and all other human activities take place in some larger natural commons. And that larger commons is a limited biosystem which is in a dynamic, competitive, and constantly evolving equilibrium. The equilibrium of an ecosystem can usually accommodate any activity on the part of its members as long as that activity is limited in amount and/or is practiced only by a small population. But continuous growth in the numbers of any organism or in its exploitation of land and resources will eventually exceed the capacity of the ecosystem to sustain that organism.

(3) Now for the first time on global scale human beings are exceeding the land and resource use which the Earth's biosystem can sustain.

(4) Certainly it is true, as Hardin noted, that individuals who seek to maximize their material consumption contribute to the ever increasing exploitation of the world's commons. But it is also true that all who follow the rarely questioned principles of humanitarian ethics -- to save all human lives, to relieve all human misery, to prevent and cure disease, to foster universal human rights, and to assure equal justice and equal opportunity for everyone -- do so also.

Thus severally and in conjunction, people -- from the most selfish individualists who seek to maximize personal wealth to the most self-sacrificing altruists who devote their lives to the elimination of inequality, injustice, and human suffering -- all work together to take more land, more water, more fuels, and biological resources away from all other living things. In short, all the principles which presently drive human activity steadily increase the destructive exploitation of the Earth's biological resources.

Part IV: The General Statement of the Tragedy of the Commons

Now, for the first time in the world's history, a single species -- man -- has developed the technological and economic means to exploit the resources of all the Earth's ecosystems at once. Human beings can watch the gradual destruction by simplification of the Earth's biosystem. Some tell-tale signs of this global process appear as deforestation, desertification, pollution, climate change, and the rapid extinction of species. Others appear as shortages of land, water, and biological resources. All over the world, scarcity is driving people away from the countryside and out of the regions and nations that can no longer support them. Some make up the flood of political or economic refugees. Others migrate to cities where they cause urban sprawl and an intractable scarcity of jobs, sanitation, housing, and the necessary infrastructure. Even now in the megacities of the world, various forms of natural control are working to reduce the size of the human population and its excessive environmental demands. They include parental neglect, disease, unemployment, hopelessness, drug abuse, gratuitous violence, starvation, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and warfare. This kind of empirical evidence supports the generalization that human beings are now stressing the world's ecosystems.

Bolstered by the a priori, human-centered ethical doctrines of the monotheistic religions, everything that directs human behavior -- cultural and legal traditions, genetic determinants, the free-market economic system, and the material demands of industrial production -- all reinforce each other in producing a steady growth in population and consumption. Indeed as people all around the world go about the business of daily life, they demand more land, fuel, water, timber, and food. It is possible, however, that significant changes can be made in the complex of causes presently directing human activity which can put an end to the steady growth in population and to the constant increase in the production and consumption of goods and services. Nevertheless, if appropriate causal forces cannot be found to maintain human environmental demands in a sustainable equilibrium, then the step-by-step destruction of the Earth's ecosystems will remain the persisting -- and eventually tragic -- characteristic of human activity.

Ecosystems have their own dynamic structure. Feedback mechanisms have evolved to maintain their stability. For example, one species may become dominant and take over much of the land and most of the biological resources in some ecosystem. And continued growth may have no destabilizing effects for quite some time. But as more and more of the system's biological wealth is concentrated in the bodies and artifacts of an exuberant species, other species evolve the means to utilize the abundant food source. Then as the newly adapted predators increase in number, they reduce the population of the prolific species. If, however, such controls should fail, the continued growth of any organism at some point will begin to stress the ecosystem which sustains that organism. Finally the additional stress of continued growth will make the system collapse, suddenly and apparently without warning. Nature does control any exuberant species either by drastically reducing its population or by its extinction.

This sequence of biological events is of decisive importance for ethics. It proves that the two opposing theories of ethics which presently vie for acceptance both lead to tragedy. Both an ethics grounded in a self-centered individualism and an ethics which builds on the need for a self-sacrificing altruism have the same inherent defects. Both have inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which cause a steady increase in the human exploitation of the Earth's biological resources. All such material demands, however, are constrained by the limited resource use which the biosystem can sustain. Exceeding this carrying capacity will cause that system to collapse into a simpler state which is incapable of supporting civilization in its present form and perhaps most of the complex forms of mammalian life as well. This is the tragedy that awaits mankind, if people do not begin to live as responsible members of the Earth's system of mutually sustaining life forms.

Part V: Deliberate Restraint as a Moral Necessity

Hardin has correctly noted that nature has devised the means by which "to commensurate the incommensurables," that is, to resolve the conflicting needs and interests of all of the Earth's various life forms. For example, natural selection has allowed some animals to find their niche by being short-lived but highly prolific. Others compete by being large, long-lived, and highly protective of their few offspring.

Nature also controls the fertility of prolific and irresponsible parents by letting their excess offspring die of neglect, disease, or starvation. In addition, the excess population of exuberant species is curbed by allowing an algae bloom to cause an algae bust. But the means by which nature forces its life forms to live within its limits would be unnecessary in human affairs if people used other means to achieve the restraint which nature demands.

However, avoiding the cruel coercion of nature cannot be achieved as if by miracle or accident. Admittedly, the tendencies which support unlimited growth and which are built into the patterns of human behavior do not inevitably produce growth. But they will do so unless opposing causes can be made to predominate. By analogy, the tendencies to growth are like a window opened on a cold winter's day. A comfortable room temperature cannot be maintained by opening more windows and doors to the cold air outside. Unless more fuel is added to the fire or unless glass traps the sun's heat inside, the room will cool down. Similarly steady growth cannot be countered by doing more of what has caused the growth in the first place. To avoid the cruel coercion of nature, society must discover controls which are warranted empirically by their ability to prevent growth in population and to stop the destruction of the Earth's biosystem by steady increases in the exploitation of biological resources.

Learning the effective means for controlling growth requires the repudiation of important causal misconceptions.

(1) People must reject the doctrine that moral behavior can be justified by a priori thought which requires no knowledge of the causes of growth and no knowledge of its ecological consequences. (2) People must discard the misconception that yet more economic growth and still greater consumption will cause a demographic transition in which the human population will become stable at ecologically sustainable levels automatically and painlessly. (3) They must recognize that the moral obligations to fill all vital human needs can never cause those needs to diminish and can never cause people to stop their destructive exploitation of the environment. (4) They must reject the notion that exhorting people voluntarily to protect the environment and to reduce their fertility is not an empirically effective means for accomplishing these morally necessary goals. (5) They must disabuse themselves of the conviction that, under the conditions of a steadily increasing population, the enforcement of the presently accepted moral system -- defined by its human-centered ideals, its unconditional principles and its egalitarian definition of justice and human rights -- can ever reduce human suffering or prevent environmental disaster.

(6) Finally, the belief must be discarded that an ethics of good intentions, especially those intentions directed to filling individual or human needs, will automatically produce the good of the whole.

These misconceptions must be abandoned, if ever growth in population and in the exploitation of natural resources is to cease to be a persisting -- and eventually tragic -- characteristic of human activity. Means must never work at cross purposes with the necessary ends. They must be proved by empirical evidence to be able to attain -- not to thwart -- the necessary holistic goals.

I believe that Hardin has understood and correctly stated the moral problem of directing individual behavior to attain holistic (i.e., societal and environmental) goals. He bluntly states that controls are social arrangements which create coercion, of some sort. ... Coercion is a dirty word ... . As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment (Hardin, 1968, p.1247).

For example, the payment of taxes is coercion; public subsidies for schools are coercion because those who do not need or use them are forced to pay for the schools of those who do; building permits are coercion because they force home builders to observe building codes whether or not those codes are relevant at an specific site to public health or the needs of an individual. In short, as Hardin uses the term, coercion is the general term which refers to the various means which society uses to direct or control the behavior of individual citizens.

And later on he adds, It is the newly proposed infringements (on our use of a commons) that we vigorously oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity" (Hardin, 1968, p.1248).

Indeed coercion need not be tyranny. On the contrary, effective and unobtrusive coercion in a commons is a necessary condition for having any enduring freedom at all.

Because misconceived coercive means are either ineffective or counterproductive, they often cause oppression and tyranny rather than prevent them. Many examples can be found that illustrate the futility of misconceived means to accomplish holistic ends. (1) My son cannot be expected to learn to control his finances if he is free to run up whatever debt he wants and I have the obligation to pay it. (2) The environment is unlikely ever to be protected when all are free to use as much energy and to consume as many goods and services as they can afford while society honors the moral obligation to supply the material necessities to everyone who lacks money. (3) Significant incentives operate to increase the incidence of disease (and thereby raise medical costs) when all who take good care of their own health are forced to pay a disproportionate share of the medical and disability costs of those who abuse their bodies with tobacco, alcohol, narcotics, uninhibited and unprotected sexual contacts, overeating, and lack of exercise. (4) No population is likely to remain stable as long as individuals are free to have as many children as they want while society at large has the moral obligation to pay for food, medical care, schools, and the increase in sanitary and employment facilities necessary to support all the children of parents who cannot do so. (5) No nation (like North Korea) can be expected to rid itself of an oppressive tyranny or develop an effective economic system if its government is free from all foreign constraint and interference while the rest of mankind is morally obliged to supply food, medical, and financial aid to its suffering citizens and thus bolster that tyranny. (6) The reliance on the free-will decisions of conscientious people is self-eliminating, because it rewards those who have no conscience by letting them do and take what they wish while it punishes the conscientious by making them bear the penalties of depravation. In summary, causation does work in matters of moral behavior. Specifically, systems of moral belief are self-refuting if, when actually practiced and enforced, they subvert the moral goals which they were intended to attain.

Human beings are in a unique and fortunate position among all living things in that they have language, memory, and intelligence. These abilities allow them to accumulate factual knowledge. And this knowledge, in turn, makes it possible for them to break out the patterns of behavior normally determined by habit, culture, religion, and genetic endowment. When knowledge of the structure and limits of the Earth's biosystem is gained and acted on, it can lead people to live as sustaining members of the Earth's biotic community. People can maintain a limited, stable population; they can minimize their use of physical and biological resources. There is, however, no assurance that people will allow ecological knowledge to direct their moral behavior rather than let it be controlled by a priori assumptions or appeals to habit and tradition. Nevertheless the challenging possibility exists: moral behavior can avoid the tragedy of the commons even while it is directed, secondarily, to the task of steadily improving the quality of human life.

As in Hardin's original essay, the general statement of the tragedy of the commons also demonstrates that ethical behavior requires holistic or societal control. In the case of many nations, the most effective means for them to learn the need for societal constraint may be for others to do nothing but stand back and watch. Just as a good parent may let a child fall down and get up and fall again as it learns to walk, so, too, many nations may only discover the need to reduce their populations and to limit their use of natural resources by allowing their people to suffer through the task of learning to live within the carrying capacity of their nation's boundaries.

The means which Hardin recommends, for protecting the commons is deliberate, societal coercion. Preferably it is mutual restraint, mutually agreed on, and mutually enforced. Furthermore, knowledge of the most effective and humane means of societal coercion is empirical knowledge. And like all empirical knowledge, it requires constant experimentation, revision, and correction. As such, it can never be certain; it can never be final. And since final truth concerning matters of morality is impossible, the moral choice, as Hardin has so aptly emphasized, can never be between perfectly just coercion and none at all for then people will be free to cause the collapse of the environmental commons and the end of nature's experiment with human kind. Clearly imperfect forms of coercion are preferable to none at all. They are like mistaken theories in science -- at some future time they can be refuted and corrected or discarded. Imperfectly just coercive measures can be improved indefinitely. Thus it is important to note that the need for control does not make any claim about the type of coercion that different societies must practice. The moral challenge is to make the coercion as painless, as humane, and as unobtrusive as possible as long as it accomplishes the necessary holistic goal: it must prevent the tragedy of the commons and preserve the dynamic stability of the Earth's system of living things. And after this primary goal is secure, the secondary moral goal can be addressed -- that of improving the quality of life as people learn to unfold the evolving potential of being human. There is, however, no assurance that people have the will and the intelligence to live within the necessary limits of nature. To do so is the difficult but challenging task of ethics.

A Summary and Overview

Now for the first time in history, the cumulative effect of human activity has become a major and perhaps the dominant force affecting the Earth's ecosystems. Under these novel conditions, a drastic change is necessary in the way in which ethics itself is conceived and moral practices are justified. Just as Einstein's thought experiment called for a revolution in physical theory, so the general statement of the tragedy of the commons proves that a revolution in moral theory is necessary. Both require the rejection of established belief systems.

Einstein's experiment proved that the coordinates of space, time, and mass cannot be simple and unchanging throughout the universe. Hardin's experiment proved that moral principles (such as equal justice, human rights, and moral obligations) cannot be universal and unconditional in all social and environmental contexts. Henceforth, in both disciplines the basic concepts and principles must be recognized to be system-dependent, system-relative.

It should be noted, however, that system-relativity is not the same as skeptical relativism. System-relativity allows unequivocal truth claims to be made, but they must change so as to be appropriate for the context in which they occur. Thus as human activity comes to dominate the Earth's ecosystems, the nature of ethics must be differently conceived.

Correct ethical behavior can no longer be deduced from a set of principles, rights, and obligations which are invariant in time and universal in application. Instead, ethical behavior must be relative to its most important goal -- to protect and sustain the Earth's diverse yet mutually supporting system of living things. Thereafter the secondary goal of ethics may be addressed, namely, to maximize the quality of human life.

The system-dependent nature of moral behavior entails decisive changes in ethical theory or in the decisions that affect the do's and don't's of daily life. Five are worthy of emphasizing.

First, people can no longer assume that moral acts are autonomous, that they are simple consequences of a good will. People can no longer make believe that moral behavior takes place in an infinite domain of thought in which the members of the moral community have duties and obligations which are timeless, necessary, and never constrained by material shortage. Instead moral behavior is complex. Under the present almost universal conditions of crowding, most human acts pull with them a tangled skein of benefit and harm. Simple human acts, acts that are benign or even morally necessary when practiced on a small or limited scale, become tragic, even disastrous, when those same types of act are practiced on a large scale or by everyone. In many cases the morality of as act is a function of the number of people doing that kind of act.

Indeed an individual's behavior can no longer be judged to be moral merely because its motive conforms to unchanging ideals and principles. This traditional subjective criterion for assessing moral behavior must be discarded because it is often irrelevant and even counterproductive.

The second is a corollary of the first. Most people in the Western world hold a serious moral misconception which must be discarded.

Having been brought up or educated under the formative influence of a monotheistic religion, they commonly believe, without question, examination, or discussion, that the ideals and principles of moral behavior can be justified non-empirically, that is by reason or a priori thought. As a result, moral claims are treated as if they were like the conclusion of geometric proof whose truth is a matter of a logical necessity that empirical data cannot refute. However, the tragedy of the commons shows the absurdity of this claim. Because most human rights, laws, and freedoms are contingent on the ability of the Earth's ecosystems to support them, most cannot be universal, necessary, and unconditional. And no a priori arguments -- no appeals to reason, to conscience, to God's Word, or to the logic of moral language -- can make them so. Indeed none of the human-centered obligations of a priori ethical theories can curb the inbuilt, positive feedback mechanisms which are now causing the ever greater impoverishment of the world's ecosystems. And none can be adjusted to meet the holistic needs of the Earth's evolving biosystem. These are the inherent defects which prove the belief must be abandoned that a priori reasoning can determine, for all time, the ideals and principles of ethics as well as the nature of justice itself.

Third, all systems of ethical beliefs are hypotheses about how human beings can live on Earth. As such, they make factual claims. And like all factual claims, their truth or falsity depends on empirical evidence. For this reason, the sequence of biological events which the general statement of the tragedy of the commons describes is of decisive importance for ethical theory. It shows (1) that moral behavior must be grounded in a knowledge of biology and ecology, (2) that moral obligations must be empirically tested to attain necessary biological goals, (3) that any system of moral practices is self-inconsistent when the behavior, which it either allows or makes morally obligatory, actually subverts the goal it seeks. Thus empirical criteria give a necessary (though not a sufficient) condition for acceptable moral behavior. Regardless of the human proclivity to rationalize, any system of ethical beliefs is mistaken if its practice would cause the breakdown of the ecosystem which sustains the people who live by it. Indeed, biological necessity has a veto over moral behavior. Facts can refute moral beliefs.

Fourth, ecosystems are in dynamic equilibrium. In addition, technology and human institutions are constantly evolving in novel and unpredictable ways. Furthermore, living things must compete with each other for space and resources; yet each organism also depends symbiotically on the well-being of the whole for its own survival and well-being. Indeed the welfare of all organisms -- including human beings -- is causally dependent on the health and stability of the ecosystems which sustain them. As a consequence, the stability and well-being of the Earth's biosystem has moral priority over the welfare of any of its parts -- including the needs and interests of human societies and individuals.

Fifth, human beings are in a biologically unique situation: empirical knowledge can guide their behavior. Indeed, intelligent behavior can free people from the rigors of physical and biological determinism. It should be noted, however, that this freedom is not absolute, for human behavior is still determined. But, instead of being determined solely by genes, habit, and cultural conditioning, it can be modified by the memory of individuals' useful past experience augmented by the recorded successes of the human race. Thus although biological necessity has a veto over what people may want and hope, empirical knowledge can guide human behavior. And that knowledge clearly indicates that holistic planning and societally enforced constraint are the means necessary to prevent the tragic breakdown of the Earth's biosystem.

Further experimental evidence is required to disclose the kind of controls which will be most effective, most humane, and most protective of personal life and freedom. Then as people learn the least obtrusive and most effective means for making human activity conform to biological necessity, moral attention can be directed to the narrower human concerns. Human beings and their descendants can learn how best to realize the evolving potential of being human. Moral effort will no longer be wasted in the futile attempt to enforce the status quo of accepted ideals and moral principles as if they were necessary and immutable. When thus grounded in the nature and needs of life rather than in the abstract relationships between the elements of an a priori system of thought, ethics can take its place among all the other human endeavors -- science, medicine, technology, art, music, and literature.

All are on-going and creative human enterprises. All increase steadily in scope, in effectiveness, and in significance. Ethics must do so also.


Capitalism and the Tragedy of the Commons

Capitalism and the Tragedy of the Commons

Capitalism's most dangerous flaw is that it has no inherent method for dealing with the tragedy of the commons.

The tragedy of the commons is the doctrine which insists that we will always add one too many sheep to the village commons, destroying it. In other words, we will always opt for an immediate benefit at the expense of less tangible values such as the availability of a resource to future generations. When you look around you, it is immediately obvious, if your eyes are open, that the tragedy of the commons is an accurate description of human nature; such disaparate human creations and institutions as Times Square, Usenet and Love Canal all represent tragedies of the commons.

Most of capitalism's cheerleaders simply never mention the tragedy of the commons, or deny that such a thing exists. The all wise invisible hand of the marketplace, some claim, is as competent to keep us out of future trouble as it is to grant us future benefit.

But you must truly have blinders on to believe this, as the visible effects of human behavior prove it is not so. To pick an example particularly important to me: I have been diving the coral reefs of Pennekamp State Park in Key Largo, Florida for almost twenty years. In that period of time, the glorious coral heads have given way to spottier, smaller stretches of discolored coral, and fish that were common (such as grouper) are now never seen at all. The degradation of the reefs is painfully visible in two decades of my lifetime and the cause is patently obvious. Each fisherman takes more fish than he should, each dive boat takes too many divers on too many trips, and the shipping companies run too many large ships, including oil tankers, over and eventually into the reefs.

Its all capitalism: the dive operators, the shipping companies, the commercial fishermen. Free market capitalism dictates that they will ultimately destroy the Pennekamp reefs. In an even more stunning example of the same phenomenon, the citizens of the Philippines dynamite their coral reefs so that you can buy brightly colored coral fragments in souvenir shops.

It would be easy and convenient to say that the tragedy of the commons is a modern phenomenon, that humans were not capable of doing too much damage until their population exceeded certain numbers or their technological tools became powerful beyond a certain point. However, this threshold was crossed in human prehistory when it is likely that certain other species, such as the wooly mammoth, were hunted to extinction.

Free market capitalism teaches us how to better our lives, and those of other people, by reaching out and taking, and by doing so more efficiently and productively. Capitalism is very bad at teaching us when to refrain from taking. That part of ourselves which steps forward to suggest that "thou shalt not"--named the "superego" by Freud--simply does not form part of the free market system. Just as the ego and the id in the Freudian paradigm must refer to something outside themselves for the restraint that so often means survival, humans must look outside the capitalist system for the self-restraint that will avoid the destruction of every commons used by us. Our history also illustrates that the destruction of the commons will not be stopped by shame, moral admonitions, or cultural mores anywhere near so effectively as it will be by the will of the people expressed as a protective mandate; in other words, by government.

Hayek, the philosopher of free markets, admits this when he says, in discussing the importance of government to a free market system:

To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition.

In fact, Hayek is dealing directly with the tragedy of the commons when he says a page later that free market pricing fails when "the damage caused to others by certain uses of property cannot be effectively charged to the owner of that property." He continues:

Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the danger for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism.

Hayek was not a libertarian; he believed in striking the right balance between government and markets. Capitalism may contribute a large part of human welfare and progress, but it cannot do so without some external constraints.

Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity by Garrett Hardin (1977)

It should be clear by now that the idea of the commons did not suddenly arise out of nothing in the year 1968. Passing references to the problem occur as far back as Aristotle, and Lloyd certainly saw it clearly in 1833. H. Scott Gordon's work in 1954 saw the beginning of a new concern with the problems presented by this politico-economic system. Yet the fact remains that a widespread recognition of these problems did not develop until after 1968. Why the delay? Two reasons are apparent.

First, a favorable climate of opinion was needed for remarks about the commons to be noticed. This was created in the 1960's by the rapid growth of the environmental movement, which alerted people to the consequences of distributional systems. Second, it was necessary that the properties of the commons be stated in no uncertain terms if people were to consider the matter seriously. It was necessary that the human tragedy of adhering to a commons-type distribution be emphasized. A good, solid fortissimo minor chord had to be sounded. Before 1968 most of the sounds were either mere grace notes or extended passages played pianissimo. The down-playing was for good reason, of course: the clear message of the commons threatened cherished beliefs and practices. Abandoning any traditional practice requires a political upset (though revolution may be too strong a word).

We have seen how the problem of the commons has been evaded in the exploitation of ocean fisheries. Understandably, it is evaded even more in the question of human populations. Both problems require for their rational resolution a clear understanding of the concept of carrying capacity and a willingness to fashion laws that take this concept into account.

Let us first look at the concept as it applies to other animals and plants, to the non-human populations we would like to exploit for our own benefit.

The carrying capacity of a particular area is defined as the maximum number of a species that can be supported indefinitely by a particular habitat, allowing for seasonal and random changes, without degradation of the environment and without diminishing carrying capacity in the future. There is some redundancy in this definition, but redundancy is better than inadequacy. Using deer as an example, the true carrying capacity of a region must allow for the fact that food is harder to get in winter than in summer and scarcer in drought years than in "normal years." If too many head of deer are allowed in the pasture they may overgraze it to such an extent that the ground is laid bare, producing soil erosion followed by less plant growth in subsequent "years. Always, by eating the grasses that appeal to them, herbivores selectively favor the weed grasses that are not appealing, thus tending to diminish the carrying capacity for themselves and for their progeny in subsequent years.

The concept of carrying capacity is a time-bound, posterity-oriented concept. This is one of the reasons that it threatens the "conventional wisdom" (Galbraith's term) of the present time, which leans heavily on short term economic theory. The theory of discounting, using commercially realistic rates of interest, virtually writes off the future. [1] The consequences have been well described by Fife and Clark. Devotion to economic discounting in its present form is suicidal. How soon is it so? "In the long run," an economist would say, since disaster is more than five years off. "In the short run," according to biologists, since disaster occurs in much less than the million or so years that is the normal life expectancy of a species. Here we see a standing issue of dispute between economists and biologists, with their different professional biases reckoning time.

Game management methods of maintaining the carrying capacity of a habitat impinge upon ethical theory. Officially, Judeo-Christian ethics is absolutist in form, rich in proscriptions such as "Thou shalt not kill." Can we base game management on such principles? Obviously we cannot. Time after time, in an area where men have eliminated such "varmints" as coyotes and wolves, prey species (e.g., deer) have multiplied far beyond the carrying capacity of their habitat, which they then severely damage thus reducing its carrying capacity in the future. [2] Taking for granted the legitimacy of human desire to maximize gains from the deer-pasture, is "Thou shalt not kill" a good ethical rule? It depends. If the herd size is less than the carrying capacity we might insist on this rule; but if the herd has grown beyond carrying capacity we should deliberately kill animals, until the size of the herd is brought to a safe level.

For the maximum yield of venison we should keep the herd at that level at which the first derivative of the population function is a maximum; but for safety, allowing for unforeseen random fluctuations, the population level should be kept a bit above the point of fastest population growth.

This analysis was focused wholly on the interests of man, the exploiter of nature. Much the same conclusion is reached if we focus entirely on the species being exploited. Whenever there are too many animals in a habitat the animals themselves show all the signs of misery, if our empathic projections are to be trusted at all. The animals become skinny and feeble; they succumb easily to diseases. The normal social instincts of the species become ineffectual as starving animals struggle with one another for individual survival.

In a state of nature the unsavory consequences of exceeding the carrying capacity are prevented by natural predation. Putting entirely to one side the exploitative goals of animal husbandry, whenever men maintain a population of animals free of predators they should, if they are humane, pursue a regular program of killing animals so as to keep the herd size below the carrying capacity of the habitat.

We see that the ethics of game management is not an absolutist ethics but a relativistic or situational ethics. [3] The foundation of situational ethics is this: The morality of an act is determined by the state of the system at the time the act is performed. Ecology, a system-based view of the world, demands situational ethics.

Unfortunately, situational (ecological) ethics creates difficult problems for the law. It is difficult to write statute law if we are deprived of the simplicity of flat, unqualified dos and don 'ts. Qualifications can be written into law, but it is hard to foresee all the particularities of future situations. Our insufficiently informed efforts leave "loopholes" for rascals to crawl through. When found, loopholes can be plugged, of course; but that takes time. The legislative process is a slow one. Situational ethics seems almost to demand an administrative approach; by statute, administrators can be given the power to make instant, detailed decisions within a legally defined framework. Rules promulgated by an administrative agency are called administrative law.

On paper, the system may look fine, but the general public is understandably afraid of it. Administrative law gives power to administrators, who are human and hence fallible. Their decisions may be self serving. John Adams called for "a government of laws, and not of men." We rightly esteem this as a desirable ideal. The practical question we must face is how far can we safely depart from the ideal under the pressure of ecological necessity? This is the harrowing Quis custodies problem; [4] it has no easy solutions. [5]

When a well-defined problem is virtually ignored as long as the commons problem was -- more than a hundred years -- we naturally suspect the interference of taboo. This plausible supposition is by its very nature, nearly unprovable. Taboo is a composite thing: [6] there is "the primary taboo, surrounding the thing that must not be discussed; around this is the secondary taboo, a taboo against even acknowledging the existence of the primary taboo."

A taboo may be sustained in part for good tactical reasons: breaking it may open up a nest of problems not yet ripe for productive discussion. We may speculate--we can hardly know--that the long avoidance of the commons problem was due to a subconscious awareness of the intractable Quis custodies problem, which would have been activated by any attempt to depart from the system of the commons.

Moreover, the theory on which the commons problem is based rests on the concept of carrying capacity, which so far we have assumed is static. This is a justifiable assumption when we are speaking of a deer pasture in the wild, a habitat we propose to leave wild for esthetic reasons. But when we talk about cattle pastures, fish culture in fresh water ponds, and oyster culture in estuaries, we are talking about areas in which it is possible to increase the carrying capacity by technological intervention. Much of what we have called progress in the last two centuries has resulted from increasing the carrying capacity of the earth by technological means. Agricultural productivity, for instance, has increased by more than an order of magnitude since the time of Malthus, whose theory clearly assumed a static carrying capacity. Malthus' historical failure has understandably made many intelligent people very skeptical of any theory founded on the idea of a static carrying capacity.

Thus has it come about that many of the decisions made at the present time (insofar as they are explicitly rational) are based on balancing today's demand against tomorrow's supply, a type of bookkeeping that is frowned upon by certified public accountants. For the past two centuries we've gotten away with this practice because Science and Technology have generated miracles. But can such progress continue without end? The chorus of those who say it must come to an end grows ever larger. [7,8] Whom shall we believe: the Technological Optimists, or the Limits Lobby? If we are wrong, which way of being wrong is more dangerous? What is the proper policy for the true conservative? [9]

The concept of carrying capacity calls for the conservative, balanced equation type of thinking that has led to the triumphs of thermodynamics [10] and modern chemistry. But applied to human problems connected with exploiting the environment the concept of carrying capacity has been perceived as a threatening one. As regards populations of non-human animals and plants, we are just now beginning to grapple with the implications of carrying capacity. When it comes to humanity itself, it is doubtful if we yet have the courage to systematically examine all possibilities, as the following report by Nicholas Wade, from Science (1974) makes clear.

The famine that struck the six Sahelian zone countries of West Africa last year is thought to have killed some 100,000 people and left 7 million others dependent on foreigners' food handouts. The same or worse may happen again this year. The essence of the tragedy is that the famine was caused not by dry weather or some putative climatic change but, primarily, by man himself. Could not Western skills, applied in time, have saved the primitive nomads and slash-and-burn farmers from destroying their own land? Western intervention in the Sahel, Western science and technology, and the best intentioned efforts of donor agencies and governments over the last several decades, have in fact made a principal contribution to the destruction.

"One of the basic factors in the situation is overpopulation, both human and bovine, brought about by the application of modern science," says a former Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) sociologist. According to a recent in-house report on the Sahel prepared by the Agency for International Development (AID), "To a large extent the deterioration. of the subsistence base is directly attributable to the fact that man's interventions in the delicately balanced ecological zones bordering desert areas have usually been narrowly conceived and poorly implemented." "Too many of our projects have been singularly unproductive and . . . we have tediously reintroduced projects which ought never to have been attempted in the first place," says Michael M. Horowitz, a State University of New York anthropologist who has studied the nomad peoples of Niger. And, to quote the AID report again, "It must be recognized that assistance agencies have ignored the principles [of effective resource management], and the consequence of indiscriminate support has produced negative results or, on occasion, disaster."

The symptoms of distress in the Sahel are easier to perceive than the underlying causes of the disaster. The six countries concerned -- Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Upper Volta, Niger, and Chad -- are former French colonies that stretch along the southern edge of the Sahara desert. [See Figure 13.1.] The land is mostly semidesert that enjoys only 4 months of rainfall a year. But the grasses are sufficient to support the herds of cattle tended by the nomads, and in the southern regions millet and sorghum are grown, together with cash crops such as peanuts and cotton. By 1970, just before the collapse, the fragile steppe and savannah ecology of the six countries was supporting some 24 million people and about the same number of animals. This burden amounted to roughly a third more people and twice as many animals as the land was carrying 40 years ago.

The agent of collapse was a drought -- the third of such severity this century -- which began in 1968 and cannot yet be said to have ended. The grasslands started turning to desert, the rivers dwindled to a trickle, and by 1972, the fifth year of the drought, people, cattle, and crops began to die. "Our country is already half desert and our arable lands left are extremely reduced," the director of Chad's water and forestry resources told the FAO. By last year, Lake Chad had in places receded 15 miles from its former shorelines and split into three smaller lakes. The ancient cultural center of Timbuktu, a port fed by an inlet of the Niger river, was completely cut off and boats lay in the caked mud of its harbor. The nomads, forced to sell the surviving cattle that afforded their only means of subsistence, were reduced to the status of aimless refugees in camps around the major cities. Probably 5 million cattle perished, the staple grain crops produced low harvests, and nearly a third of the population faced a severe food shortage which, but for a massive infusion of relief supplies from the United States and other donors, would have ended in widespread famine.

Drought has clearly been the precipitating cause of the ecological breakdown in the Sahel, but attempts to blame the desiccation of the land wholly on the dry weather, or a supposed southward movement of the Sahara desert, do not quite hold water. A global weather change may indeed have squeezed the Sahel's usual rain belts southward, as climatologists such as H. H. Lamb argue, or, as others believe, the drought may be no more than an extreme expression of the Sahel's notoriously variable climate. The Sahara desert may indeed appear to be advancing downward into the Sahel-at the rate of 30 miles a year, according to a widely quoted estimate (which works out at 18 feet per hour). But the primary cause of the desertification is man. and the desert in the Sahel is not so much a natural expansion of the Sahara but is being formed in situ under the impact of human activity. "The desertification is man caused, exacerbated by many years of lower rainfall," says Edward C. Fei, head of AID's Special Task Force on Sahelian Planning. According to the French hydrologist Marcel Roche, "The phenomenon of desertification, if it exists at all, is perhaps due to the process of human and animal occupation, certainly not to climatic changes."

Perhaps the most graphic proof of man's part in the desertification of the Sahel has come from a curiously shaped green pentagon discovered in a NASA satellite photograph by Norman H. MacLeod, an ergonomist in American University, Washington, D.C. MacLeod found on a visit to the site of the pentagon that the difference between it and the surrounding desert was nothing more than a barbed wire fence. Within was a 250,000-acre ranch, divided into five sectors with the cattle allowed to graze one sector a year. Although the ranch was started only 5 years ago, at the same time as the drought began, the simple protection afforded the land was enough to make the difference between pasture and desert.

The physical destruction of the Sahel was not an overnight process. Its beginning can be traced to the French colonization of the late 19th century, when the Sahelian peoples lost with their political power the control over their range and wells which was vital to the proper management of their resources.

The Sahel -- a term derived from the Arabic word for border--was once one of the most important areas of Africa. In the middle ages it was the home of the legendary trading empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai.

The key to the Sahelian way of life was a remarkably efficient adaptation to the semidesert environment. Although the nomads' life-style may seem enviably free to those who dwell in cities, there is nothing random about their migrations. The dry season finds them as far south as they can go without venturing within the range of the tsetse fly. Between the nomads and the sedentary farmers who also inhabit this area there is a symbiotic arrangement: The nomads' cattle graze the stubble of the crops and at the same time manure the fields. In exchange for manure the nomads receive millet from the farmers. With the first rains, the grass springs up and the herds move northward. The rains also move north and the cattle follow behind in search of new grass. According to Lloyd Clyburn of AID, "The migration continues as long as the grass ahead looks greener than that at hand, until the northern edge of the Sahelian rain belt is reached. When that grass is eaten off, the return to the south begins. This time the cattle are grazing a crop of grass that grew up behind them on their way north, and they are drinking standing water remaining from the rainy season." Back in their dry-season range the cattle find a crop of mature grass that will carry them for 8 or 9 months to the next growing season.

The traditional migration routes followed by the herds, and the amount of time a herd of given size might spend at a particular well, were governed by rules worked out by tribal chiefs. In this way overpasturage was avoided. The timing of the movement of animals was carefully calculated so as to provide feed and water with the least danger from disease and conflict with other tribal groups.

By virtue of what one writer has called "the essential ecological rationality of the nomadic pastoral regime," the herders made probably the best possible use of the land. The settled part of the population, the farmers, had an equally capable understanding of their environment. They knew to let the land lie fallow for long periods -- up to 20 years -- before recropping, and they developed an extraordinary number of varieties of their main staples, millet and sorghum, each adapted to different growing seasons and situations. Within the limits of their environment and technology, the peoples of the Sahel have, over the past centuries, demonstrated what University of London anthropologist Nicholas David calls "an impressive record of innovation . . . which is quite at variance with the common negative criticism of the African as unduly conservative." In fact, when the Sahelian peoples have been conservative and resisted changes advocated by Western experts, it has often been with reason.

It could be absurd to blame the collapse of this intricate social and ecological system solely on Western interference, and yet rather few Western interventions in the Sahel, when considered over the long term, have worked in the inhabitants' favor. Those who have studied the farmers' and herders' traditional methods, says an FAO report on the Sahel, believe that the destructive practices that are now frequent are due to the cumulative effects of "over-population, deterioration of the climatic conditions and, above all, the impact of the Western economic and social system."

Western intervention has made itself felt in many ways, some inadvertent, some deliberate. Introduction of a cash economy had profound effects on the traditional system. The French colonial division of the Sahel into separate states has faced the nomad tribes with national governments which have tried to settle them, tax them, and reduce their freedom of movement by preventing passage across state boundaries. Curiously, however, it has been the West's deliberate attempts to do good that seem to have caused the most harm. The West in this case means the French, up until 1960, when the Sahelian countries were granted independence, and the French, Americans, and others thereafter. The French should probably not be held particularly to blame; they were only following conventional wisdom, and there is little reason to believe that other donor countries would have handled the situation very differently.

The salient impact is of course the increase in human and animal population that followed the application of Western medicine. The people of the Sahel are increasing at a rate of 2.5 percent a year, one of the highest rates of population increase in the world. If the nomads could have been persuaded to kill more of their cattle for market, the animal population might have been kept within bounds. Not foreseen was the fact that cattle are the nomads' only means for saving, and it in fact makes good sense -- on an individual basis -- for a nomad to keep as many cattle on the hoof as he can.

As a result herd numbers increased hand over fist in the decade following independence, aided by 7 years of unusually heavy rains. According to the FAO, the number of cattle grew from about 18 to 25 million between 1960 and 1971. The optimum number, according to the World Bank, is 15 million.

While the herders were overtaxing the pastures, the farmers were doing the same to the arable land. Population increase led to more and more people trying to farm the land. An even sharper pressure was the introduction by the French of cash crops to earn foreign exchange. With the best lands given up to the cultivation of cotton and peanuts, people had to bring the more marginal lands into use to grow their own food crops. In many cases these ecologically fragile zones could not take the strain of intensive agriculture. The usual process is that the fallow periods of 15 to 20 years are reduced to five or even one. Fertility declines, slowly at first, and then in a vicious spiral. Poor crops leave the soil exposed to sun and wind. The soil starts to lose its structure. The rain, when it falls, is not absorbed but runs off uselessly in gulleys. Desertification has begun. "Let us be under no illusion," President Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal told a symposium on the African drought held in London last year, "the process of desertification had been precipitated since the conquest of Senegal [by the French], since the introduction of growing peanuts without either fallow or crop rotation."

What cash crops have done for the Sahelian farmland, deep borehole wells have done for the pasture. A thousand feet or more beneath the Sahel lie vast reservoirs of water that can be tapped by deep wells. Thousands of these boreholes, costing up to $200,000 apiece, have been drilled across the Sahel by well-intentioned donors. The effect of the boreholes was simply to make pasture instead of water the limiting factor on cattle numbers, so that the inevitable population collapse, when it came, was all the more ferocious. "Few sights were more appalling at the height of the drought last summer," according to environmental writer Claire Sterling in a recent article in The A Atlantic, "than the thousands upon thousands of dead and dying cows clustered around Sahelian boreholes. Indescribably emaciated, the dying would stagger away from the water with bloated bellies and struggle to fight free of the churned mud at the water's edge until they keeled over.... Enormous herds, converging upon the new boreholes from hundreds of miles away, so ravaged the surrounding land by trampling and overgrazing that each borehole quickly became the center of its own little desert forty or fifty miles square."

Overgrazing of the Sahelian pasturelands was a consequence of too many cattle having too little place to go. As the farmers spreading out from the towns took more land under cultivation, they tended to squeeze the nomads and their herds into a smaller strip of space. Moreover, the nomads' ability to manage their own resources was slowly slipping away. Government interference reduced their freedom of movement, and the boreholes threw into chaos the traditional system of pasture use based on agreements among tribal chieftains. With all the old safeguards in abeyance, the cattle numbers began to chew up the ecology across the whole face of the Sahel. First the perennial grasses went. These usually grow up to 6 feet tall and put down roots as deep. If the plant is heavily grazed, its roots make a shallower penetration and, in dry periods, may fail to strike water. The perennial grasses are replaced by coarse annual grasses, but these, under heavy grazing and trampling, give way to leguminous plants that dry up quickly and cannot hold the soil together. Pulverized by the castles' hooves, the earth is eroded by the wind, and the finer particles collect and are washed by rains to the bottom of slopes where they dry out into an impermeable cement.

Desertification has been hastened by the heavy cutting of trees for firewood. Trees recycle nutrients from deep in the soil and hold the soil together. Slash-and-burn techniques--the only practical method available to the poor farmer for clearing land--are the cause of numerous fires which, according to a World Bank estimate, kill off 50 percent of the range grass each year.

Under these abuses, the Sahel by the end of the 1960's was gripped by a massive land sickness which left it without the resilience to resist the drought. A whole vast area which might with appropriate management have become a breadbasket providing beef for half of Africa instead became a basket case needing more than $100 million worth of imported food just to survive.

The future prospects for the Sahel and its people are not very bright. Sahelian governments and the various donors have not reached any kind of agreement on long-term strategy for rehabilitation. Some donors--AID excepted--are still digging boreholes. Most of the development projects now under consideration were drawn up before the drought struck and are based on the unlikely assumption that when the rains return everything can go on as before. (A recent meeting of American climatologists concluded that planners should assume drought conditions in 2 years out of every 3.)

Much of the development money for the Sahel will have to come from the United States and France, but there seems to be little coordination or exchange of ideas between the two countries. Nor is there any general agreement on how the Sahel can be restored to self-sufficiency. Optimists, such as William W. Seifert of MIT, who heads a $1million long-term development study for AID, believe that the Sahel could support its present human population provided that cattle numbers were reduced by a half or more. Unfortunately, there is no way, short of a major social upheaval, that the nomads will consent to reduce their herds. Projects involving controlled grazing, such as in the Ekrafane ranch, are impractical because there is not enough land to go around. AID plans to open up the lands to the south of the Sahel by clearing them of tsetse fly, but this would benefit only 10 percent of the population. Others are not so hopeful. "I don't think there is much optimism that significant improvements can be expected in the short term. All you can do is to try to increase their margin for survival and hope that something turns up," says an agricultural specialist conversant with both the AID and MIT development plans.

"Neither the leverage of modern science and technology," concludes an in-house AID report on the Sahel, "nor the talents and resources of large numbers of individuals and institutions currently being applied to relevant problems has occasioned more than minor progress in combatting the natural resource problems and exploiting the undeveloped potential." Which is another way of saying that Western ideas for developing the Sahel have not proved to be a spectacular success. Its ecological fragility and the vagaries of its climate make the Sahel a special case. But there are many other areas in the world where unchecked populations are overloading environments of limited resilience. The Sahel may have come to grief so soon only because mistakes made there show up quickly. Other Western development strategies, such as the Green Revolution, are, one may hope, more soundly based in ecological and social realities. If not, the message of the Sahel is that the penalty for error is the same Malthusian check which it is the purpose of development to avoid, except that the crash is from a greater height. [11]

A curious feature of this excellent report is that nowhere does it specifically point out that the tragedy in the Sahel is precisely the tragedy of the commons, though the detailed account could hardly be improved upon as an illustrative example. The omission is especially curious because the report was published in Science, the journal in which "The Tragedy of the Commons" was published six years earlier.

The significance of Wade's report did not escape bioethicist Van Rensselaer Potter, who wrote in a letter to the editor: [12]

The report on the Sahelian drought by Nicholas Wade . . . is a dramatic illustration of "the tragedy of the commons" as described by Hardin.

When I first read Hardin's article, I wondered if the users of the early English commons weren't prevented from committing the fatal error of overgrazing by a kind of "bioethics" enforced by the moral pressure of their neighbors. Indeed, the commons system operated successfully in England for several hundred years. Now we read that, before the colonial era in the Sahel, "overpasturage was avoided" by rules worked out by tribal chiefs. When deep wells were drilled to obtain water "the boreholes threw into chaos the traditional system of pasture use based on agreements among tribal chieftains." Thus, we see the tragedy of the commons not as a defect in the concept of a "commons" but as a result of the disastrous transition period between the loss of an effective bioethic and its replacement by a new bioethic that could once again bring biological realities and human values into a viable balance. [13]

The distinction between the old way of treating common property in the Sahel and the new way can be seen in terms of the political responsibility table given in Chapter 9 (Table 9.1). In the old days, the Sahelian environment was managed approximately according to the system of Case II, using informal sanctions ("an effective bioethic," in Potter's words). Then, as a result of intervention by well-meaning men of the European culture, part of the environment -- the grazing land -- was changed to Case III management, with the usual tragic results.

Mind-boggling photographs of the earth from space played an important role in bringing home this tragedy. There is no necessary logical connection between a mere photograph and the idea of conservation; but, as Marshall McLuhan has said, "The media is the message" and in our visually oriented society a striking photograph can become the symbol of an idea or a program.

In 1965, shortly before his death, while he was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson made a most memorable statement:

We travel together, passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.

The "we" of this statement is presumably all of the earth's inhabitants. It became a cliche of environmental activism to place Stevenson's statement alongside a blow-up of a NASA photograph of the earth as seen from space. The message implicit in this justification was evidently something of this sort: "This little blue ball, this unity, this Earth must surely be treated as a unity." What the activists did not realize was that they were calling for treating the earth as a commons -- with all the perils that implies.

The atmosphere and the seas are certainly global commons, but (as we have seen) global methods for managing them have not yet been devised. As regards environmental problems generally, Raymond Dasmann has remarked that "Those of us in international organizations are likely to assume a globalist viewpoint." Dasmann, who is himself a member of such an organization, then goes on to point out that "only a few environmental problems are really global in nature." When one realizes this, one is apt to ask rather interesting questions about the motivation of people who insist on treating nonglobal questions globally.

Faint beginnings of a shift in public attitude could be detected following the reproduction of the NASA photograph that showed the green hexagon in west Africa referred to in Wade's article. The resolution of this photograph from space was not very good, but its meaning was clear. The green part was restricted to the area protected (as private property) from uncontrolled grazing, while the dead-looking area around it was an unmanaged commons. Follow-up ground surveys verified this interpretation and noted the effect of environmental degradation on the grazers, the cattle. As William Forster Lloyd had cogently asked in 1833: "Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?"

For more than three centuries intellectual and emotional fashions have increasingly veered toward the global outlook. Our thoughts have been significantly molded by John Donne's "No man is an island . . ." and Karl Marx's ". . . to each according to his needs." The thoughts engendered by these banners are generous thoughts, whereas speaking of local responsibility for local environments seems to many to be a miserly and selfish way of looking at the world's problems. There are a thousand to praise generosity for every one who has a kind word to say for selfishness. Yet biology clearly tells us that survival requires a respect for carrying capacity, and points to the utility of territorial behavior in protecting the environment and insuring the survival of populations. Surely posterity matters. Surely there's something to be said for selfishness.

Altruism versus selfishness: It is all too easy to polarize the argument, to maintain the univalence of facts. But the facts are ambivalent, as wise men have recognized for millennia. A Talmudic saying puts the matter rather well:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? If not now -- when?


1. Garrett Hardin, 1974. "The rational foundation of conservation." North American Review, 259 (4) :14-17.

2. David R. Klein, 1968. "The introduction, increase, and crash of reindeer on St. Matthew Island." Journal of Wildlife Management, 32:350-367.

3. Joseph Fletcher, 1966. Situation Ethics. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

4. Garrett Hardin, 1972. Exploring New Ethics for Survival The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle. New York: Viking. (Chap. 16)

5. P. MacAvoy, ed. 1970. The Crisis of the Regulatory Commissions. New York: Norton.

6. Garrett Hardin, 1973. Stalking the Wild Taboo. Los Altos, Calif.: Kaufmann. (p xi)

7. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

8. Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel, 1974. Mankind at the Turning Point. New York: Dutton. Unlike the "first report to the Club of Rome" (note 7 above), the "second report" does not aggregate the world's natural resources but seeks to deal with them on a regional basis. In going from facts to implications, however, this second report is not always consistent. See Garrett Hardin, 1975. "Will humanity learn from nature?" Sierra Club Bulletin, 60 (8):41-43.

9. It is one of the ironies of history that those who are generally labeled as economic "conservatives" at the present time are people who believe in limitless growth and hence see no need for what scientists regard as truly conservative thinking, that is, thinking in which the variables are conserved, and in which equations balance. For a particularly emotional defense of the conventional wisdom see Melvin J. Grayson and Thomas R. Shepard, Jr., 1973. The Disaster Lobby: Prophets of Ecological Doom and Other Absurdities. Chicago: Follett.

A book with a similar message, by the editor of the English journal Nature, is more sophisticated but scarcely better: John Maddox, 1972. The Doomsday Syndrome. New York: McGraw-Hill. For the most intellectual criticism of the limits to growth thesis see H. S. D. Cole, Christopher Freeman, Marie Jahoda and K. L. R. Pavitt, 1973. Models of Doom: A Critique of The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books. This, the American edition of the "Sussex Report", has the merit of including a postscript by the Meadows, et al. that throws much light on the nature of the controversy.

10. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, 1971. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. This is the only book published to date that sets economic theory on a firm foundation of thermodynamics, thus bringing together economics and ecology. (Etymologically, this is as it should be, since both words use the Greek root oikos, home. Both are concerned with the management of the "home," which classical economics sees almost entirely as made up of men only, with other organisms and the physical environment playing the role of "givers" -- to which little attention is given. In the perspective of ecology, however, all organisms, as well as nonliving elements of the environment, are viewed as coexisting and interacting variables in this earthly home of ours.)

11. Nicholas Wade, 1974. "Sahelian drought: no victory for Western aid." Science, 185:234-237. Copyright 1974 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

12. Van Rensselaer Potter, 1974. "The tragedy of the Sahel commons." Science, 185:183. Copyright 1974 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

13. Van Rensselaer Potter, 1971. Bioethics: Bridge to the Future. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.