Dr. Garrett Hardin: Human Overpopulation, Survival, and Morality

In this stark interview, University of California biologist Dr. Garrett Hardin explains the concept of a Commons and why human overpopulation is depleting the planet's ability to support human life.
By Bruce Woods
May/June 1979
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Drawing on his boyhood growing up on a farm and his later training as a biologist, Dr. Garrett Hardin foresaw in the 1960s that human overpopulation was rapidly using up the resources civilizations needed to survive.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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Those people who can't "swallow" ecology unless it's served with a sugary coating of optimism don't generally appreciate what Dr. Garrett Hardin has to say. You see, this University of California (Santa Barbara) biologist seems to have a penchant for tackling the most controversial subjects aroundsuch as human overpopulation, abortion, and evolution—and his conclusions are often intended to shock people into realizing that there are few, if any, easy answers to the question of human survival on an increasingly overcrowded and ecologically ravaged earth.  

Though Hardin's career has spanned a third of a century (and shows no signs of slowing down yet), it wasn't until December 13, 1968when his revolutionary article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," was published in Science magazinethat he achieved a position of prominence (some would say of notoriety) among American ecologists. That single essay (subtitled "The population problem has no technical solution... it requires a fundamental extension in morality") raised a number of topics that are being hotly debated to this day.  

Many other publications have followed the 1968 landmark article (Hardin has a authored or coauthored upward of a dozen books that are now in print), and there is a unifying theme that runs through all of these works: It is time for humanity to plan for the future and to abandon many of our present political and social policies ... courses of action that the ecologist compares to "a man [jumping] off the World Trade Building with a bag of hardware in the hope that he [will] figure out how to build a parachute on the way down." 

What exactly is the "tragedy of the Commons"? How does our established moralityespecially in the form of humanitarianismlead to further overpopulation and ecological disaster? Is it, in fact time for the ''rich" nations of the world to decide which poor countries will be given enough aid to survive, and which must be left to the fates dictated by their deforested and hopelessly over-crowded lands'?  

MOTHER EARTH NEWS felt that her readers deserved answers to these questions, especially if those explanations could come from Hardin himself, a man who possesses (in Paul Ehrlich's words) "one of the most analytical minds "among living biologists. So staffer Bruce Woods visited Garrett Hardin (in the scientist's southern California home. The discussion that took place during their meetingpresented here in edited form—may, at times, anger you. But it might also cause you to think about the changing demands of human responsibility in our finite world.  


PLOWBOY: Dr. Hardin, your writings—which have caused some people to refer to you as the "black sheep" of American biology—often demonstrate a clear understanding of the capabilities, and limits, of the land that feeds us all. Would I be correct in assuming that you were raised in a rural environment?

HARDIN: You could say that, although I was actually brought up all over the Midwest. You see, my father worked on the railroads and in the course of his job had to move from one place to another every few years. So, on the one hand I had the sort of childhood that could make a person somewhat alienated; that is, I never lived in an established family home. On the other hand, however, I spent every summer during those early years on a farm owned by my grandparents and two uncles. That experience was very important to me, as it not only provided me with the sense of a fixed, permanent place, but also gave me some appreciation of what it really means to be a farmer.

Now, I never farmed for a living myself, but I did have a number of responsibilities around my relatives' place. For instance, I was put in charge of the chicken flock—which numbered anywhere from 500 to 1,000 birds in any given summer—and I helped with the wheat harvest and so forth. I think many of the ecological concepts I've developed and expounded can be at least partially attributed to that rural experience. After all, a good farmer is—by necessity—a kind of ecologist.

PLOWBOY: When did you decide to make biology your field of study?

HARDIN: I didn't really settle upon a career as a biologist until my sophomore year at the University of Chicago. Up to that point I'd just diddled around with one subject or another, as most students do, debating the advantages of several possible fields. But, in my second year in college, I committed myself to the study of zoology and came under the influence of Professor W.C. Allee. He is a very important figure in American ecology, one of our true pioneers.

I would have gone on to do my graduate work with Allee in fact, but I felt the need to move to another area. So the professor kindly lined up a position for me at Stanford. While I was at that institution, I did my doctoral studies on the ecology of protozoa.

Then, with my Ph.D. in hand, I went to work for four years with the Carnegie Institution, which maintained its private Division of Plant Biology lab on the Stanford campus. I became involved with a program to research the potentials of algae as a human food source. This work occupied me from 1942 to '46 when, because of the background in population studies that I'd picked up from Allee, the algal research began to seem like a "no win" situation to me. After all, even if we did succeed in producing more food, we would in the end only feed more people ... which would cause the population in question to increase and, in effect, only make the problem worse!

PLOWBOY: So you left your position with the Division of Plant Biology?

HARDIN: Yes, because I realized that my heart wasn't in the research. And—since Stanford was short-handed at that point—I was able to get a temporary teaching job with the university. Incidentally, the "algae for food" program continued for another two years after I left, only to be dropped when it was found to be economically impractical.

At any rate, my dissatisfaction with the algal studies had reawakened my interest in population problems, and it wasn't long before I was actively writing and lecturing about the hazards of overpopulation.

PLOWBOY: Did this work lead to the creation of your course in human ecology at the University here in Santa Barbara?

HARDIN: Not directly, no. I joined the staff of this college in 1946 and spent the next 10 years, more or less, establishing the university's first course in general biology and writing a textbook for the class. Eventually, that biology course developed some population problems of its own—we were swamped with more students than we could handle—so we began offering the class over closed-circuit television.

I learned a good bit from that experience, and when I did establish the human ecology course in the early 1960's—I limited the number of students to between 50 and 100 per term.

PLOWBOY: While you were limiting enrollments in your classes though, your writings were beginning to reach a great many people.

HARDIN: Yes, in 1968 I finished "The Tragedy of the Commons," which wasn't my first publication but has certainly turned out to be among my most important works. It was one of those lucky situations. I happened to be saying the right thing at We right time.

PLOWBOY: Could you summarize the theory of the Commons as it was developed in that article?

HARDIN: Let me describe the thesis as I've refined it with the passage of time. First of all, there are three basic politico-economic systems used by mankind to distribute the earth's resources. We have, first of all, privatism—or private enterprise—in which a person or group owns the resource and harvests it, just as a farmer owns, tills, and profits from his or her piece of land. The other obvious system is socialism, where the community holds joint ownership of the resources and harvests them jointly, but appoints a manager to handle the distribution.

Now, either of these two systems—privatism or socialism— will work. Each has its faults, and both have intrinsic advantages, but either form of government can function without destroying it's resources.

However, there is a third system of distribution that cannot work in a crowded world, and that's the system of the Commons: the resource is jointly owned but harvested by individuals. The classic example of this politico-economic system is a pasture area—tsuch as the Commons of preindustrial England—that is open to, say, 10 different families. Let us assume that the field is large enough to support 100 cows or 10 per household Now, as long as there are fewer than that number of cattle grazing the pasture, no harm is done. But as soon as the area holds its full ''quota" of 100 cows, the problems begin. If at that point another animal is added to the Commons, there will not be enough forage to adequately feed any of the cattle. When one individual ignores the field's capacity and does add an eleventh cow to his or her herd, however, the loss in meat growth and milk productivity per animal caused by the shortage of food is shared by everyone who uses that common field ... while the transgressor reaps all the profits in the form of an extra—though slightly underfed—-beast. In a short time all of the farmers will have to move in and take as big a share as possible of the rapidly diminishing forage by adding additional cattle of their own in self defense.

Of course, during periods of low population—such as in America's pioneer days—the system of the Commons works fine. But, as the number of people in any given area increases, this particular politico-economic system becomes more and more dangerous and will ultimately result in the destruction of the resources in question. So, in a more populous world, we must go to privatism, or socialism, or a mixture of the two, because it is inviting disaster to allow a Commons to exist under heavily crowded conditions.

PLOWBOY: But can't we assume that most men and women have enough social responsibility to avoid overexploiting the shared resources?

HARDIN: Yes, we can probably predict that the majority would not knowingly take too great a share from the Commons, but the assumption does nothing to alter the course of events. You see, the tragedy of the Commons comes about because the end result is dictated by what I call the "overwhelming minority." In other words, if just one or two people are scoundrels, those individuals will do their best to bleed the jointly owned resource dry. Then, as these greedy men or women become richer and richer, others will be forced to follow their lead.

We cannot, you see, rely on voluntary responsibility to control the distribution of a resource, because this always gives a selective advantage to people who elect not to be responsible!

PLOWBOY: It's difficult to imagine a government being run on a Commons basis in the twentieth century. Can you give me some examples of this type of distribution system that are still in existence?

HARDIN: Well, there are a number of Commons around, but they're "silent." That is, we don't always recognize them for what they are. For example, the ocean fisheries are still distributed on a Commons basis. Any person—or nation—can take as many fish from the noncoastal seas as he or she wants. There are already too many groups grabbing oversized shares of that jointly owned resource. We're beginning to see that the "open seas" system won't work, that—without any legislation to control them—the ocean fisheries will be ruined There are attempts being made to manage, through international agreements and so forth, the ocean Commons. It is to be hoped that a solution will be found in time.

PLOWBOY: You've also used the Commons metaphor to discuss world pollution problems. Can you explain how this system applies to the destruction of our environment?

HARDIN: Certainly. The problems of pollution represent almost a reversal of the traditional Commons because this situation is aggravated when people put things into the shared resources. The air is, of course, a Commons. We can't get away from that. There's no way to make our atmosphere private property. So, as long as it's less expensive for a manufacturer to pour smoke into the air than it is for that person to install antipollution devices, then he or she will pollute unless an enforced law prohibits that action.

PLOWBOY: Then, just as in the jointly owned pasture we discussed earlier, the polluter is able to distribute the dangers of foul air among many people, but personally reaps the full benefits of that contamination in the form of increased production, lower costs, and so forth?

HARDIN: That's right. Take, for example, the paper mills that have been terrible polluters of our rivers and streams. If one such firm elects to install a million dollars' worth of equipment to "clean up" its operation, then that company can only recover the money by adding, say, a penny or two to the cost of a roll of paper.

So, when the products reach the stores, customers—who usually pay attention to prices—will buy the less expensive paper produced by polluting firms that weren't forced t o raise the cost of their products. The point is, it doesn't do a manufacturer any good to be public-spirited unless all of his or her competitors are, too. That's why the answer to a Commons is to get rid of it. In other words, the solution comes when people band together to enforce rules and regulations that apply to everyone. Which is why we now demand that industries have pollution control devices and fine those firms that don't comply.

PLOWBOY: So antipollution regulations are examples of what you've referred to as "mutually agreed-upon coercion''

HARDIN: Exactly.

PLOWBOY: Would it be fair to say that pollution—or any problem that might occur in a Commons—can be reduced to a question of population?

HARDIN: That's right. In fact, the concept of "Commonsism"—as I've developed it—is a result of my study of the hazards of overpopulation.

You see, many of our population problems stem from the great increase over the last 150 years or so in what might be called humanitarianism. The growth of compassion—as indicated by the emergence of humanitarian groups and the passage of humanitarian legislation—has been one of the most striking bits of social evolution in the last couple of centuries. And, on the whole, this sort of public concern speaks well of the human race. But it also carries dangers with it, the worst of which show up in the form of overpopulation.

For example, as recently as 200 years ago there wasn't much public concern over the fact that many children died of starvation. The usual attitude was something like this: "Well, that poor family shouldn't have produced more children than it could support." So, if a couple had six offspring and could only feed two, four would starve. In this way, local populations were largely self-controlled.

However, as the humanitarian trend grew, communities became concerned about the welfare of children born into such poor families. Eventually, the group took over the responsibility of feeding tots whose parents couldn't support them. Now, that's fine, but when the impoverished parents insist upon their rights to have more and more babies, the shared burden on the community of caring for them grows. The irresponsible breeders are taking too much out of the Commons both in terms of the aid that the community gives to their children and in terms of the greater share of all resources that those "extra" people will consume. And, though our public-spirited actions are the result of the best intentions in the world, we end up with overpopulation.

Of course, this doesn't present a serious problem in a country like the United States ... at least not at the present time. But the humanitarian organizations that want to make the whole world, in effect, a Commons—by pledging that we'll prevent the starvation of children anywhere on earth—are following a course that could lead to serious consequences.

Consider this: There are—using a loose definition of the term "poor"—about four times as many impoverished people in the world as there are men and women who have adequate food, clothing, etc. And the rate of increase of these poor populations—which are mostly centered in technologically impoverished countries—is about three times as great as the growth of population in "rich" lands. This means that—in effect—poor people are increasing their numbers 12 times as rapidly as are those folks who are well off. And—as long as we continue to accept responsibility for children whose parents are unable to support them—that rate of increase can only go up.

The solution, of course, sounds somewhat harsh: We must simply decide that the right to bear children hinges upon the ability to care for those children. Therefore, a couple should not produce any child that the family cannot support. If too many poor babies are born , we—as individuals or as a country—can't accept responsibility for them.

As I said, this may seem cruel, but I think the time has come when we must direct our humanitarianism toward future generations even at the expense of poor children today.

There's another, less obvious, factor that enters into this problem, too. The impoverished countries of the world are—by and large—already overdevelop from an ecological, rather than a technological, point of view. There are exceptions, of course, but all around the Mediterranean basin, and throughout southeast Asia, we see poor lands that have been deforested. In some cases the damage was done thousands of years ago The people living in these areas have already surpassed the "carrying capacity" of the land, which can be defined as the number of beings that an area can support, year after year, without degrading its environment. Now, when you exceed that number—as did the farmer in our example, who put an extra cow on the public pasture—you do damage the environment and thus reduce its capacity! So, by saving the lives of children in these areas, we increase the overload and insure that the ability of the land to support human life will decrease more rapidly.

The situation is even worse in the tropical highlands, as Erik Eckholm has pointed out. Such areas only contain about 10 percent of the world's population, yet the events that transpire in the highlands affect 30 percent of the people on this earth! The deforestation that took place in the foothills of the Himalayas, for example, resulted in a loss of topsoil. That soil ran down to the lowlands, where it clogged irrigation systems and caused flooding. So the folks in the lowlands suffer for the sins of the highlands. And the greater the populations in those mountainous areas grow, the more serious and far-reaching that lowland suffering will become. Which is another good reason for not keeping people alive beyond their own ability to survive, especially in the highlands of the world.

PLOWBOY: But isn't there a popular theory which states that a society will produce fewer children as it rises—presumably with the help of foreign aid—to a higher economic level?

HARDIN: Yes, and that's a theory without any factual backing at all. The notion is based upon a correlation that can be seen in the history of Western civilizations. In general, as these cultures moved up the economic scale over the last 300 years or so their fertility rates did go down. However, the causal connection between the rise in income and the drop in fertility is very obscure. It could be argued, for instance, that the populations became richer because they produced fewer children

PLOWBOY: You contend, in your book The Limits of Altruism, that we should make carrying capacity rather than human life our primary ethical consideration. Now, that's a shocking statement on the surface, and some reviewers have reacted to it at that level. However, suppose carrying capacity were given central importance in ethical decisions. Wouldn't the effect of that change of focus actually save more human lives—in the long run—than our established policy of concern for individual life, which doesn't take into account the planet's ability to sustain such life into the indefinite future?

HARDIN: That's right. If we could, for example, stop the trend toward deforestation in poor countries and allow the environments to "mend" themselves, those nations would be able to support reduced populations indefinitely rather than one great lump of humanity today and then fewer and fewer people as the topsoil is gradually washed away. Again, the simple statement—that carrying capacity should be more ethically valuable than human life—appears to be cruel. But it is only so if you don't take the needs of posterity seriously.

PLOWBOY: Haven't you speculated—in your writings—that the lack of concern for ancestry in our Western civilizations is one of the reasons that we seem unable to feel concern for a future that we won't live to see?

HARDIN: I have and I base my feelings about the matter on a statement by Edmund Burke: "People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors." The idea seems plausible to me, and ignorance about the past may be one of the weaknesses of our society here in the United States. We've grown so fast and become so mobile that most of us know very little about our forefathers and mother. In Burke's day, on the other hand, it was not uncommon for people to live in family homes: ancestral dwellings that had probably been around for 200 years or more! There were pictures on the walls of Great-Aunt Gertrude or Great-Uncle Harry, and these paintings represented real people, individuals whose life stories were familiar to succeeding generations. Nowadays, of course, many children don't even have contact with their grandparents.

Yes, a lack of concern for the past may well be one of our failings—a kind of catalyst that aggravates many of out-social problems—but I'm afraid there isn't much we can do about this one.

PLOWBOY: Perhaps, if we can learn to live within our energy "budget," we will find ourselves in a world that allows for more contact between the generations.

HARDIN: That may well be the case. When we have to make do on reduced amounts of energy, we will certainly become a less mobile society if for no other reason than the fact that travel will be expensive enough to negate many of the now common reasons for changing one's location.

PLOWBOY: There is, as you know, a growing "back to the land" movement in the United States, and in other nations as well. Do you feel that this trend could lead to a greater concern for the future?

HARDIN: It could. At least it offers that potential. The course of history, though, is so unpredictable that it's hard to guess what the hell will happen even in the next 10 years. But large numbers of people are opting to live in more rural locations, and that change in itself is important.

PLOWBOY: And, if you also consider the increasing numbers of Americans who are attempting to produce some of their own food—even in limited quantities—with backyard gardens and so forth, it does seem that we might be moving away from the ''milk comes from the store'' mentality.

HARDIN: I think that this trend is, at least, providing many people with valuable experience. After all, one of the first tasks that a beginning gardener has to face is crop thinning. He or she sees all those wonderful seedlings come up and wants to raise every single one of them. Yet if the garden is to thrive, the novice ''farmer" has to learn to destroy some life in order to allow other life to flourish. Should that lesson not sink in, the garden will produce—for example—radishes the size of pinheads if the plants survive at all.

PLOWBOY And raising a crop no matter how small, can also give a person a gut understanding of such otherwise abstract phrases as ''carrying capacity.'.

HARDIN: That's true. Many of the ecological concepts that seem vague to a city dweller can become very clear-cut when that individual tries his or her hand at raising food. Farming—or gardening—tends to force one to look to the future, to accept responsibility for the long term results of his or her actions.

PLOWBOY: You've used the word ''responsibility" several times, Dr. Hardin. Can you give me a precise definition of this somewhat vague term?

HARDIN: Put in the simplest way possible, responsibility is accountability. Or, as Charles Frankel has defined it, "A decision is responsible when the man or group that makes it has to answer for it to those who are directly or indirectly affected by it.'' There is, of course, another interpretation of responsibility which relates to an inner feeling, almost a private religion. That second definition often determines how a person lives his or her life, but the first meaning—that of responsibility as accountability—should be a matter of public policy. Especially when we're dealing with a Commons, or with actions that could limit the carrying capacity of the planet.

PLOWBOY: In your own estimation, where do we stand with respect to the carrying capacity of the earth.

HARDIN: That's an impossible question to answer. You see, the concept of carrying capacity was developed to deal with domestic and wild game animals. In such applications, the limits can be very precisely worked out. We simply ask, "How many deer can forage in a given section of grass-and-woodland without damaging that piece of land's ability to feed the same number of animals in the future?" The answer, which can be arrived at through field studies and so forth, will equal the maximum carrying capacity—in terms of deer herd—for the piece of land.

Human beings, however, require much more than physical nourishment to live what is considered a ''good life." Let me put it this way: In the United States, the average person consumes about 3,000 calories' worth of food every day. That same typical American, however, accounts for nearly 150,000 calories a day in other ways by using electric lights, appliances, fuel, and so on. So we require 50 times more energy for nonfood items than we use for nourishment. Now, calories can, in principle, always be converted from one use to another. In other words, we could support a much larger population if we cut down on our use of nonfood calories.

Therefore, an area's carrying capacity—in human terms—depends entirely upon the kind of life its populace wants to lead, and the simplest way to express those differing lifestyles is in terms of calories. If a society wants to live a 150,000-calories per-person-per-day life, then the carrying capacity of that culture's territory will be far smaller than if the group would be satisfied with a 50,000-calorie life.

And many people are becoming convinced that we could lead a better existence, if we had the willpower to manage the transition, by using far less energy than we consume now.

PLOWBOY: Would it be correct to say that energy is one of the basic units of carrying capacity?

HARDIN: It's certainly the easiest to measure or to talk about. Any other means of measuring carrying capacity tends to be hard to pin down, and these alternate ''scales" are largely based upon personal feelings.

I, for instance, have a very high regard for the value of wilderness to the quality of human life. But some people wouldn't agree with me on that. The point is, though, that if you do make the availability of wilderness experience one of the standards for carrying capacity, you drastically limit that capacity. You also run into the problems of defining "wilderness" and so forth.

Energy, on the other hand, is easy to measure. However, I personally believe that the opportunity to enjoy the beauties of nature should be part of the "formula" for carrying capacity.

PLOWBOY: But wouldn't such "wild" areas have to be controlled?

HARDIN: Of course. You can't just open the wilderness up to everybody at once—as our national parks were doing until recently—because that creates a Commons and guarantees the eventual destruction of the forest, desert, or what have you.

PLOWBOY: In your attempts to explain the concept of the Commons and other such ideas to the public, you've come up with a number of little slogans called "pejorisms." Could you perhaps give us an example of these?

HARDIN: Well, yes. Pejorisms—the word is taken from "pejoration' : a change for the worse—are tough little statements, usually negative, that force people to look at old problems in new ways. One of my favorites—which I can't take credit for—is a reworking of the laws of thermodynamics. You see, a physicist—who regards these rules as the tools of his or her science—would probably state the laws something like this: [1] When mechanical work is transformed into heat, or vice versa, the quantity of work will always equal the amount of heat. And [2] it is impossible—in a self-sustaining process—for heat to move from a colder to a hotter body.

Ecologists, however—wanting to emphasize different implications of these laws—reworked them into pejorisms which state: [1] You can't win, [2] you are sure to lose, and [3] there's no way to get out of the game. The meaning of the rules isn't really changed by this transformation, but they hit harder because they're phrased in everyday language. And the pejorisms are true. We can't get out of the energy game, we always have to have a source of power—which is primarily the sun—and that source is sure, one day, to burn out.

PLOWBOY: The trick, then, is to see how well we can utilize that finite resource.

HARDIN: Sure. We have no control over the sun, so all we can do is make good use of its energy as it comes to us day by day That's all the freedom we have: to make the best possible use of each day's sunshine. Of course, we've cheated considerably by using fossil sunlight: oil, coal, and gas. We're still doing so, but those resources will soon come to an end, leaving us with only sunlight and perhaps nuclear energy. The latter is, of course, a problem of a different sort. I feel that it's a terribly dangerous source of power.

PLOWBOY: There are many people who claim that civilization can't survive without developing nuclear resources.

HARDIN: A civilization that can't survive without atomic energy can't survive with it! The proponents of nuclear development are actually saying that we are unable to live on a constant energy level. And—once their contention is put in these terms—I think it becomes plainly ridiculous. Most societies, in most times, have lived on a constant energy level.

We've only started escalating our power consumption in the past 200 years. Are we to believe, then, that there were no civilizations in existence more than 200 years ago? No, our race has lived within an energy "budget" in the past, and we can do it again. But the transition is going to lead to terrible political battles, some of which may well be going on by the time this interview reaches your readers!

PLOWBOY: In recent years many ecologists have tried to explain the earth's limited energy resources by comparing the planet to a spaceship, using Kenneth Boulding's ''Spaceship Earth" metaphor. In your writing, however, you've developed the image of a group of lifeboats as opposed to a single spaceship. Would you explain the significance of these two different metaphors?

HARDIN: My intention, when I wrote ''Living on a Lifeboat," was to subdivide the world again, so to speak. It seemed to me that the phrase "spaceship earth" was dangerous, as it implied that we were all passengers on one ship and had an equal right to the ship's resources. Which, of course, sets up a picture of a worldwide Commons. By adopting the metaphor of a number of lifeboats—one for each nation—I was able to imply that the people on each of these small crafts are responsible for themselves and should not expect handouts—even if those donations mean survival itself—from the other boats around them.

PLOWBOY: In his review of The Limits of Altruism Paul Ehrlich proposed an alternate image with the rich countries on luxury liners and the poor nations in lifeboats that may soon be equipped with nuclear torpedoes.

HARDIN: I'd have to disagree with the value of that metaphor because it is, I think, misleading. For one thing, the threat in that image—posed by the torpedoes—seems to imply a danger of war or terrorism. These two possibilities are not the most significant hazards that we face.

It is virtually impossible, today, for a poor nation to afford an invasive war. Which is, I assume, the danger that Paul's metaphor alludes to. After all, the United States got clobbered when it tried to fight within the territory of the impoverished country of Vietnam. So how is a poor nation to successfully attack the shores of a wealthy land? We don't, in fact, have to worry about the possibility of attack from the poorer countries, "nuclear torpedoes" or not.

Terrorism, however, is another kettle of fish. An act of terror only requires a few people with limited funds, and it can do great harm ... as we've all too often seen. The only answer to this sort of attack is police action. In other words, you cannot buy a terrorist off any more than you can pay a blackmailer, because he or she will come back again and again.

Instead, you must simply institute whatever safety measures are necessary, like the inspections that are held at airports today. And, if the problem continues, the passenger checks will have to be made more stringent. These are police measures: They're all objectionable and none of them works perfectly, but they do function well enough to allow us to survive the threat of terrorism.

No, the dangers ahead are not primarily those of either war or terrorist attack. The greatest risk we face lies in not making each lifeboat responsible for its own occupants.

PLOWBOY: Yet there must be some instances when we can come to the aid of another country without doing some irreparable damage.

HARDIN: Yes, there are, and I can best discuss this matter in terms of the concept of triage, which was first described by a physician in the Napoleonic army and can probably be best defined by using a military example. An army doctor might—during a period of extreme crisis—divide his or her cases into three groups. That three-part division is what is meant by triage. The physician will not treat the "walking wounded," those with injuries that—though they may be terribly painful—are not debilitating. Neither will the doctor care for casualties who are so severely wounded that they would require hours of treatment—under the hands of several physicians—to survive. Instead, the healer concentrates his or her efforts upon the "middle group": soldiers for whom a limited amount of medical care will mean the difference between life and death.

Now, the military institutes triage for purely practical reasons, in order to save the maximum number of soldiers for the next battle. But I think a compassionate doctor—under similar circumstances—would end up following much the same course of action even if he or she weren't concerned about the pursuit of the war.

PLOWBOY: Simply because, by instituting triage, a greater number of lives could be saved?

HARDIN: Yes, and I admit that it's a harsh-sounding means of establishing priorities.

PLOWBOY: Is it possible to make a connection between the use of triage in wartime and the world food shortages and overpopulation that mankind faces?

HARDIN: Yes, it is. However, I want to refer to the work of William and Paul Paddock on this matter, because they were responsible for applying the system of triage to such problems.

The Paddocks have said, essentially, that though we were able to give away quantities of grain in the 1950's and '60's, those days of surplus are over. From now on we'll probably have to sell most of our spare grain to get the money to buy oil. We may have a little bit left—a few million tons or so—that can be used to aid poor countries, but this will be a limited amount of food and there will be many nations asking for it.

At that point, the Paddocks suggest we use the system of triage in order to make sure that the grain goes where it will do the most good. We shouldn't give it to a country that is going to survive without it, and we can't afford to waste such a limited food supply on nations that are hopelessly overcrowded. Instead, we ought to give the wheat—or whatever—to the intermediate lands: those to whom the gift may mean the difference between maintaining civil order—and surviving as a nation—or not!

PLOWBOY: You've also expressed that idea in terms of aiding a country that is in a crisis, but not helping a nation that is in a "crunch."

HARDIN: That's right. Exactly. For example, when Guatemala had an earthquake, it did no harm to send them some food and blankets and so forth because that event was a crisis. It wasn't Guatamala's public policy to have earthquakes.

Whereas Bangladesh—with its 86 million people in an area the size of Iowa—is really a hopeless case. That nation is in the middle of a continuing crunch, and so we can't possibly keep Bangladesh afloat. To even attempt to do so would be—in effect—forcing greater suffering upon those future generations that will inhabit the same territory.

PLOWBOY: A concern for the future of mankind seems to be at the center of most of your ideas. Yet many people—folks who are concerned about ecology—will, when pushed very hard, fall back upon the theory that the human race itself is expendable as long as life on earth—in the form of some other species—continues.

HARDIN: Sure, I've heard that argument many times. You know something, though, I'm not ready to surrender the future to that "other species." I happen to be egotistically—if that's the right word—interested in the human race. I rather have an affection for humanity. I'd like to see us continue for a while.


EDITOR'S NOTE: If you'd like to explore more of Garrett Hardin's ideas, check your local bookstore or library for the following volumes:  

1. Managing the Commons edited by Garrett Hardin and John Baden (W.H. Freeman and Company, 1977).  

2. Stalking the Wild Taboo by Garrett Hardin (William Kaufmann, Inc.).  

3. Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle by Garrett Hardin (Penguin Books, 1972).  

4. The Limits of Altruism: An Ecologist's View of Survival by Garrett Hardin (Indiana University Press, 1978).  


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