Tragedy of the Commons
The “Tragedy of the Commons” is the title of a famous venture by a biologist into the field of ethics. In 1968 Garrett Hardin published an essay thus entitled in Science. Its basic thesis is that population growth is a problem which requires radical moral solutions, because it is a situation in which individual self-interest will inevitably lead to catastrophic consequences due to an unchecked population explosion. Why revisit this essay 30 years down the track? Well, for one thing, I wasn’t born until 1975, hence my opportunity to engage in the debate that ensued was somewhat limited. More importantly though, the late 1960′s saw the beginning of our contemporary ecologist movement, and this movement still rests upon the shoulders of its pioneers. Though Hardin was overshadowed in 1968 by Paul Erlich’s doomsaying book – The Population Bomb, I intend to focus on Hardin’s essay, as it is much shorter.
Why is Population Growth a Problem?
Hardin’s argument runs like this :
As Malthus pointed out in 1798, population size tends to grow exponentially. Why? Because, if every offspring has multiple offspring (each female has two or more offspring) then there will be more additional offspring in each successive generation. (assuming the offspring live to reproductive age).
“In a finite world, the per capita share of the world’s goods must decrease. Is ours a finite world?”
Hardin argues that though a case could be made that our world is not finite, or that we simply don’t know whether it is or isn’t, it is prudent to act is if it is.
“A finite world can only support a finite population.” Therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.
When we do arrive at zero population growth, what will be the condition of mankind? Can we achieve the utilitarian goal of “the greatest good for the greatest number?”
Hardin contests that we cannot. Firstly, he appeals to mathematics – that we can’t maximise for two variables at the same time. His more appropriate explanation is that since it takes 1600 calories a day for the maintenance of each individual life, any calorie intake above that level will limit the number of individuals we can sustain. This directly follows from the assumption that the world’s capacity to provide nutrition is finite. Since, calories are required for activities ranging from work, to sport, to playing music and writing poetry – we could do none of these activities. Since it is reasonable that such activities contribute to our happiness, then it follows that our goal of the greatest good for the greatest number cannot be achieved.
Therefore, the optimum population for achieving the greatest good for the greatest number must be less than the maximum. What level is optimum? Here Hardin runs into the problem of comparing and evaluating different values. What is deemed “good” by one person is not necessarily deemed good by others.
Hardin resolves this problem by suggesting that nature does have a method of judging alternative notions of the “good”. Nature’s criterion is survival, as evidenced by the process of natural selection. Hardin advises that man should follow Nature’s example. Hardin notes that no group in history has consciously reached an optimum population, or it would have zero growth. Nevertheless, an optimum can be found for every group, based on the weightings it gives to various goods.
Do Populations really grow exponentially?
At this point, let us stop to consider the argument thus far. Firstly, does population actually grow exponentially? Certainly, the proposition seems plausible enough, and if the growth of the human race was graphed, it definitely appears to bear this out. However, if one were to examine the growth of any other species, one would find that in the absence of appreciable environmental changes, their population remains very stable.
This brings us to focus on a very significant point, namely that exponential population growth only occurs under non-constrained conditions. Only if there are no limits to the number of organisms an environment can sustain, will population grow exponentially forever. So our next question must be – how long does it take for populations to hit these environmental boundaries, such as food or space to live? The answer is – very, very quickly. Which is why there is no species on Earth (apart from ourselves) which is still growing exponentially. Every other population has come to the “crunch”.
What happens at one of these crunches? The population hits its upper ceiling, and the limit on the resource required for survival means that some organisms will miss out. These organisms either die themselves, or their offspring die, thereby halting the exponential growth of the population. Whilst the population may increase (in absolute terms) above its sustainable level in the short term, this can only happen at the cost of the depletion of the stocks of the limiting resource. Thus, more offspring will die in the next generation, and the population will fall below the sustainable ceiling. These fluctuations around the ceiling will occur for a time, until the population settles at the sustainable level. At this point, population growth will be zero.
At the replacement level (zero growth), species will overproduce, but the excess offspring produced will be eliminated due to the normal conditions of the existing environment (eg. predators). But if the environment itself changes after this plateau (eg. an increase in predators), it will mean that the sustainable population level may increase or decrease. If it increases, this natural tendency towards overproduction will continue, but less organisms will die, and the population will rise. If the sustainable level decreases, more offspring will die, and the population will fall.
Now we have an explanation for the state of every other species in nature. Their population growth will be zero in a stable environment, once they have found their sustainable level. If environmental change occurs, their population will rise or fall according to the new sustainable level. And only if environmental change continues, will the population continue to rise or fall. The natural tendency of every other species is to zero population growth, as they are either at a sustainable level, or moving towards a new one. It is therefore no surprise that their populations remain so steady in the absence of radical and continuing environmental changes.
With this in mind, we can look with renewed insight at what must now seem to be a very surprising anomaly. If in actual fact the tendency of populations is towards zero growth, as they very quickly reach their ceilings, why is the human species still adding more members every year? Why are we out of step with every other species on the planet? There is only one conclusion which can be drawn, that being that we have yet to reach our population ceiling. Yet, the enigma and the questions don’t end there. Why is it taking so long for us to reach our sustainable level? Is there possibly something different about our species? And if there is, doesn’t this have implications for anybody who wants to draw parallels between our species and every other species?
These are all intriguing questions. Certainly, you would think that anyone seeking to address the issue of population growth, would consider them and provide some answers. Yet, every ecological prophet of doom I have come across has failed this simple requirement. Why? Perhaps, because books which bear optimistic tidings do not sell as well. More likely is that in the rush to turn anthropocentricism on its head, some scientists lost their perspective too. Interestingly, this runs contrary to some biologists claim to have a superior perspective to the social sciences, as they are a few steps further back, and see homosapiens in relation to the rest of the animal kingdom. Indeed this distant view may put the differences between our species and other in perspective, but they no doubt also risk getting blurred. Maybe they should consider taking a few paces in occasionally.
Do we live in a finite world?
It is in answering this question, that the implicit dangers of viewing human beings as “just another animal species” become critical. As noted above, an analysis of any other species will indicate that they have reached their population ceilings. If human beings are just another animal species, it makes sense to conclude that we do have a population ceiling ourselves. But are we essentially the same as any other animal? Is it possible the world could be finite for every other species, but not finite for us? Let us consider the evidence for both these propositions.
Fundamentally, animals cannot change their environments. That may seem a rather contentious statement, but let me elucidate it. Yes, birds build nests. And in the same environment, we may build homes out of trees. One may argue that there is no radical difference, apart from one of degree. However, we can plant trees, as well as chop them down. Animals can at best, manipulate features of their environment to their advantage. We can change the environment itself. Animals seek out their food. We plant, cultivate, and produce our own. Animals huddle together in burrows when it is cold. We learned to build fires and manufacture clothing. Examples are numerous, and require little imagination, therefore I do not intend to dwell on this point. The distinction is clear though – other species are limited to the given, we can create.
This has momentous implications for our second proposition. That the world may be finite for every other species, but infinite for us. If we can create what we need to survive, then a population ceiling may not exist, and the population “crunch” may not be so inevitable after all. No doubt, this proposal will raise considerable objections. It is certainly counter-intuitive. We are always hearing gloomy reports and forecasts about the problems of a growing population. Thus, the “burden of proof” is on me, at least initially, to demonstrate the radical distinctions between our species and every other species. And I am confident I can. What is more, I only intend appealing to two things – common sense and common experience.
Take a look around you. Now point out something in your immediate environment which is naturally occurring. Quite probably you are having trouble. I found nothing myself. But do not stop there. Imagine a normal day of your life. I am willing to bet that nothing you eat, drink, wear or use is “naturally occurring”. Now you might protest that the orange or apple you had most certainly occurs in nature. Indeed it does. But did it come from a wild fruit tree? Or did somebody plant it? I haven’t even seen a wild fruit tree in my life. In fact I don’t think I have ever eaten any food which wasn’t produced by man (apart from a few blades of grass when I was 5, and I don’t suppose that was especially nourishing). One might also appeal to water. But where did your water come from? A stream that just happens to flow past your house? I have never drunk any water which didn’t come from a dam, cachement or well, either.
Contrary to popular sentiment I do not live in a natural world. My world is man-made. And I am very glad about that! Imagine if I did have to spend my life camped out next to a wild fruit tree. If I had to trek miles to the nearest stream. And every day was a constant struggle for survival. Contrast my existence with that of any other animal. Their world’s are natural. With some minor exceptions, they do not create anything. Their requirements for life are limited to what they can find in nature. To reiterate, every other species is constrained to the given, human beings alone have the capacity to create.
Consequently, every other species must inevitably come to a population crunch, because the resources required for life are finite. But they are finite as an actual, not a potential. To put it simply, the world is finite for other species because they do not have the capacity to create. The world is not finite in of itself. This is why the world can be finite for every other species, and infinite for our species. Life for homosapiens is not a zero-sum game. Life for every other species is. When goods are fixed, life inevitably becomes a struggle for existence, where one can only gain at another’s expense. Thomas Hobbes was right when he said the life of man in the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Fortunately, man is not condemned to live in the “state of nature”. Man is different, and because of that difference, our world is not finite.
Man’s unique gift
In the above section I outlined the case for differentiating between our species, and every other species, concluding that our ability to create that which we need to survive, means that our world is not finite. However, there is an obvious contention that needs to be answered. We do not create out of nothing. Therefore, it can be argued that if we are ultimately dependent on finite resources (like other species), then our world is still finite. If this is the case, then Hardin is right to argue that it is prudent to aim for zero population growth and possibly even to move to a lower level in the future.
It is true that we do not create that which we need to survive out of nothing. But it is fallacious to infer from this that we must live in a finite world. The reasoning is counter-intuitive, and this is where analogies fail. For instance, the usual comparison is with pie – probably because it makes things easier to picture when we talk of carving things up. One might conclude by analogy that we may not have a fixed pie, but that our ingredients are fixed, and hence there is a limit to the number of pies we can make. This is a specious analogy. To dispense with it, I will examine each of our basic needs in turn and demonstrate its shortcomings. But first let me identify the critical flaw in the analogy, and the solution to this puzzle.
The missing piece of this puzzle is that man does not create his values out of finite resources alone. In fact the critical “ingredient” is not fixed in measure. That ingredient is man’s mind. This is what makes us so radically different from every other species. Man’s mind is not finite. It is the intangible, inexhaustible resource. And it defies comparisons. It is the resource which never runs out. A baker might run short of flour, but man can never be said to be short of ideas. And ideas not physical resources are the source of man’s creative potential. The wellspring of man’s created values is man’s mind.
Ideas are the intangible, inexhaustible products of man’s mind. Yet, it is important to remember that man’s mind is purely a potential source of ideas. Only a potential can be infinite. This is why this crucial element has eluded so many scientists. Materialists deny the existence of man’s mind. This makes it very difficult to recognise the existence of an intangible, non-physical potential. And those who are not materialist’s generally draw no category distinction between our species and other animal species possessing consciousness. Other animals do not deal with abstractions, and form and integrate concepts. They exist on the perceptual level. Man is a conceptual animal. The rational animal.
Here it is necessary to address an error which those who grasp too eagerly at this fundamental distinction are apt to make. That error is in seeing man’s rational, conceptual faculty as an automatic instrument. Let me reiterate then, man’s mind is a potential. Every individual must choose to think. Choose to reason. Choose to abstract from concrete objects and perceived reality, form concepts and integrate them. Ideas are not the product of an algorithmic machine. Thought is a conscious, self-directed, volitional process. And the outcomes are not guaranteed. To think and to reason – these are man’s highest virtues. For they are the source of every created value man requires to satisfy his needs and his wants. This may not be a popular notion of virtue, but every individual on the planet owes their life and their happiness to these two actions (no not attributes – actions!).
NB : I define values as that which one acts to gain or keep; virtues as those actions one takes to acquire one’s (moral/proper) values. Defining which values are proper, right and moral and which are improper, wrong and immoral is the domain of ethics. I tackle this question in the essay – Human Nature. In brief – if one agrees it is right that man should seek to satisfy his needs (those things man requires to live), then whatever constitutes man’s needs – are moral values. And the actions one takes to acquire these values are virtues. Naturally, the issue is far more complex than the summary I have given. For instance food is a value, but I can work for it or steal it. Both actions are evidently not virtues. This only goes to demonstrate the imperative of having an integrated moral philosophy, and not treating values as stand-alone entities.
That’s fine in theory, but can you prove it in practice?
I have now espoused a logical explanation for the initially dubious suggestion I made early – that all other species may live in a finite world, but we live in an infinite world. However, I don’t expect anyone to take my word for it. Charles Darwin is considered the father of evolutionary theory not because he was the first to envisage and describe the process, but because he complemented his explanation of evolution by natural selection with reams of empirical evidence. The ultimate arbiter of the validity of any proposed theory are the facts of reality. Therefore, let us succinctly review what is commonly known about those values which man requires to live.
Global food production increases every year, both in quantity and quality. That is a fact. A possible objection might be that perhaps that expansion cannot last forever. All those stories about land being cleared in the Amazon may suggest that this increased food production has caused significant costs to the environment and is not sustainable. That is a myth. In the world’s most productive country, the USA, more food is produced from less land every year that goes by. However, the increase in global food production has not been uniform. In what we call “developed countries”, food production has increased dramatically. In many less developed countries it has actually decreased. Why the difference?
The answer is quite simple, because it logically follows from my explanation for our infinite capacity to create our values. The infinite resource which makes this possible is man’s mind. The less it is used, the less values you can expect to create. Technology is the product of man applying his mind to the problem of creating the values he needs and wants. There is no technology without thought, ideas and knowledge. Remember, to think and reason is a choice. The less man applies his rational faculties to the problem of creating the values he needs, the closer he approaches the “state of nature”, and the more his world becomes finite – like the world of other species. Hunter-gatherer societies do live in a finite world. They do not create the values needed for survival, and therefore are limited to seeking them out.
If the answer to the question of the disparity between countries is technology, then one should expect that the countries which create the most food also create and use the most technology. This is demonstrably true. The USA produces many more times the food produced in the whole of Africa, despite having a much smaller population and land area. It should be no surprise then that the USA uses more fertiliser and pesticides in a week than the whole of Africa uses in a year. The food the USA produces is also of much higher quality. And of course, the USA employs much more technology in sowing, harvesting and processing its food.
I believe all the evidence proves that food is not a finite value. Ever since man started applying his mind to the problem of satisfying his needs, food production has always been sufficient. The vicissitudes of nature can at best only lead to a shortage of food in a particular area for a short time. Trade covers this temporary gap. Why are people starving then? Because not every person, group and country is committed to creating their values. I don’t produce food for myself, but I trade for it. Those who are unwilling or unable to either produce food themselves or produce something else that they can trade for food, risk starving. They become dependent on handouts. I have no sympathy for those who are unwilling to create the values they need to survive, and very few people are born without arms and legs – and hence terminally unable. But, these are not the real problems. The real problem is one of technology and freedom.
Human beings are a blessed species. Not only do we have the potential to think, reason and apply our ideas and knowledge to the creation of the values we need and want, but we also have the capacity for language which allows us to capitalise on other’s ideas, knowledge and aptitudes. In short – technology can be transferred, and values can be traded. Famine occurs in countries which use little or no technology, and rely on ancient, inefficient and often irrational techniques for producing their values. But the fault is not all theirs. People in the Third World want to make use of the ideas, techniques and artefacts (ie. technology) of the First World. And there are many in the developed world who would gladly like to help them out. Unfortunately, there is one group which stands in the way.
Namely, the environmentalists, ecologists and like-minded denizens of the social sciences. They romanticise the “state of nature”, and hunter-gatherer existence. In fact, they clamour for a return of the developed world to the “state of nature”. Their biggest crime though is in denying those in the Third World access to the technology they so desperately need and want. They will never be happy till human beings live like animals, in a vicious, daily struggle for survival. Our world is not a zero-sum game, but they are intent on making it so. These misanthropists have failed to convince the rest of us in the developed world that we should go back to the “state of nature”. Despite this, they have crippled our national and international policies towards less developed nations, ensuring that they remain languishing in the “comforting and warm” arms of Mother Nature.
Water, Energy, Space, Air
As pointed out above, the facts about food production contradict the argument that food is a finite value. People starve precisely because of the policies of environmentalists and ecologists. National and International agencies (like USAID and the various UN organisations) are crippled by the environmental lobby which denies Third World nations access to the best technology, and condemns them to abject poverty whilst claiming to be their friends. This explanation also applies to the other values required for man to survive – water and energy. The key to creating values is the application of our mind’s. The product of that application is technology. Deny anyone the use of that technology and you deprive them of their right to satisfy their needs and wants.
Of course the environmental movement is not the only hindrance preventing people who lack food, clean water and energy from improving their situation. In fact, they are not even the primary reason, though they do reinforce the status-quo. The biggest stumbling block are the political and economic systems which preside in these less developed countries. Socialism, Communism, anarchy and tyrannical dictatorships cannot ever succeed in yielding productive, wealthy and content societies. A man must be free to enjoy the product of his mind and labour, if he is to bother thinking, creating and producing. Capitalism is the only economic and social system which allows individuals the freedom to think, create and produce; to enjoy the fruits of his mind and labour; to capitalise on opportunities in the market to respond to needs and wants; and to exchange value for value with other individuals such that both may gain by focusing on what they do best. Is it any wonder that the countries which suffer from disease, famine, high mortality and low standards of living also are racked by civil and international wars, lack of political and economic freedom, corruption, nepotism and are governed by socialists and despots?
What I have been trying to demonstrate is that the shortages of values that do exist in some nations are not due to finite resources or a limited potential to create values. These shortages are due to the deprivations of economic and political freedom and access to technology, which are necessary for the creation of values. You will not find a capitalist country in the world which suffers from shortages of food, clean water or energy. Remember, I stressed that man’s mind is the source of his created values, but it is an infinite potential. Therefore, man’s world is potentially infinite. Man does not live by thought alone. But by every value which proceeds from his mind and effort. Certain conditions are necessary for individuals to be able to turn their thoughts into actual values. Where people are free to exploit this potential to their advantage, created values are plentiful. Where people are not, there is scarcity.
To finish substantiating my argument for a potentially infinite world, I am obliged to address the other basic values required for man’s survival – water, energy, air and space. My position is simply this – that given the freedom to exploit the creative potential of man’s mind, we will always be able to produce the values we need to survive. Since the conditions are only available in capitalist societies, I necessarily confine my review to those countries which are capitalist. Let us briefly examine the water, energy, air and space conditions in these societies.
As with food, I am ill-prepared to present a detailed statistical account of our production of these values in capitalist societies. It is also unnecessary in my opinion. Once again, I am confident that common sense and common experience can provide a sufficiently credible conclusion. Nevertheless, if one does want “hard” facts supporting my assertions, I refer them to books and essays by the late Julian Simon. I will delve into some of his work at a later date. For now, I limit myself to two arguments, both of which I consider compelling enough to substantiate my claim, at least until a future date when I can lay out the hard data to prove it.
My first appeal is again to common sense and experience. If we in the developed world did have cause to worry about the continuing supply of food, water, energy and the other values we need to survive, isn’t it likely that they would occupy a good deal of our thought and attention, and cause us some degree of anxiety? Yet, I have never found myself worrying about a lack of food, water or energy, or even experienced any inconvenience in acquiring these essential goods. In fact, far from being concerned or anxious, I have always taken these things for granted. I am confident the same applies to anyone else in a capitalist society. Indeed, I am so utterly complacent about these necessities, that I have never devoted a single hour of a single day of my life to producing the food, water or energy I require to live. Now either I happen to be living under some very powerful delusions, or that complacency is well founded.
The second appeal I wish to make is to submit a useful and accurate measure of the scarcity and “finiteness” of any good or value. That measure is of course – price. If a good is scarce, limited and finite, we can expect it to be worth a lot. Or in other words, we would be prepared to pay (in other goods) a lot for it. It’s price is therefore high. When that good we are after is absolutely essential to everyone’s survival, there can be little doubt that it’s price will very accurately indicate its scarcity or “finiteness”, as the demand for it is a given (everyone needs it – it is not optional). The price of a good we need to survive is consequently an incredibly simple and precise measure of its availability and scarcity.
What then is the price (or cost) of all the values we need to survive? Let us quickly run through them. Food? Not only is food cheap and plentiful, but it is so inexpensive and abundant that I don’t buy it on the basis of nutrition but taste. Food cannot be a finite value. I buy food which is not nutritious. I refuse to eat food that doesn’t appeal to my palate. I pay premiums to eat food made by someone else. And I “waste” food like it is going out of fashion. So much for food being a finite value!
Water is even less finite than food, and it is reflected in its cost. Where I live water is effectively free. It costs practically nothing. I use more water in one shower than I drink in an entire year. Of course I get the water I need in other forms – coke, juice and coffee especially. And let’s not even talk about the amount of water I waste! So, water is not finite either.
Energy is another non-starter in this race to find a value which actually is finite. Electricity is so cheap that it costs less to turn fluorescent lights, and modern computers on and off, than it does to keep them running constantly. I cannot remember a single time I have debated between consuming energy and not consuming it, like I have for purchasing other goods. Unlike water and electricity, petroleum actually does have a cost which isn’t negligible, but it is a very small one relative to the value we derive from it. Petroleum is also not a good we require to survive. It is one of many sources of energy. Petroleum may ultimately be finite, but energy is not.
Finally, there is air and space. Air is a good which no-one on earth pays for. Ecologists may protest about pollution and air quality, but I doubt there are many people in capitalist countries who move around chasing clean air. In fact, air quality is on the whole getting better rather than worse in developed, capitalist countries. Space is also not a finite resource, and hence does not inevitably lead to teeming masses living in poverty. That may sound ridiculous, when you think of all that “overcrowding in Bangladesh”. But, there is no connection between population density and affluence. New York City and Hong Kong have higher population densities than Bangladesh and any other “overcrowded” Third World nation. Places to live cannot only be created, but they are created in areas where people want to live.
It should be clear now that the prices of the values we need to survive demonstrate that they are not scarce, limited or finite. There is still one argument that needs to be dealt with again. That being the notion that these essential values may not be scarce now, but will become so in the future. If this were true, then one would expect to see the prices of these goods increase over time, as they became depleted. Let me dispense with this challenge. The price of food continues to fall in real terms over time in capitalist countries. The price of water remains negligible. Energy costs continue to slide in real terms (electricity and petroleum), with petroleum being cheaper today than it has been for years. In fact the only time petroleum has historically increased in price has been due to factors other than scarcity, such as cartels limiting production, or revolutions in Iran. As far as other resources go – commodity prices in real terms are lower today than they have ever been, and are continuing their long term trend downwards.
An obvious conclusion
All the evidence supports my assertion that we do not live in a finite world. Man has the potential to create his values, and satisfy his wants and needs. We must choose to think and reason; choose to acquire knowledge about the world we live in (both ourselves and from our contemporaries and forefathers); and choose to apply our mind’s to addressing the problem of creating the goods we need and want. However, there are certain conditions required for man to exploit this potential – that being fundamental economic and political freedoms. In short – a society based on capitalism, where social interaction is based on individuals trading value for value to mutual benefit. A true humanitarian would recognise these facts. That man’s rational nature is to be celebrated, not reviled. We are not like other animals. It is unambiguously evil to suggest we live like them. To turn the world into a gigantic and vicious zero-sum game, where I can only gain at someone else’s expense. Where the path to the values I cherish is strewn with the corpse of every unsuccessful opponent I had to step on to get ahead. This is what it means to take sides in the debate about the environment, population and finite worlds. Ask yourself one question – which world do you want to live in? Then choose sides accordingly.