Updated 9 June, 2003
Book review - The Ostrich Factor
by Garret Hardin
The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia, Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0195122747, (180p).
In the 1st century A.D., Pliny the Elder said that the stupid
ostrich thrusts its head and neck into a bush, imagining "that the whole of
the body is concealed." Not until the 14th century was sand substituted for
...The following sort of logical path: "My world is what I see.
If I do not see something, it does not exist. I will cause this fearful
object to cease to exist by wiping out its image." Freudian denial -- when a
whole culture responds in this way, it is said to be in the grip of a taboo
...which closes off the search for causes. The taboo now laid on the subject
of human population growth is far from total, but it does inhibit the search
Today's economists say there is no such thing as a population
Ask yourself this question: what features of your daily life do
you expect to be improved by a further increase in population?
At the present rate of population growth, it is difficult to be
optimistic about the future; yet more than a few academic ostriches, their
heads in the sand, continue to chant: "We see no population problems ahead."
In the 19th century a more colorful concept, the Man from Mars,
became the gimmick of choice. since they are drawn from no known culture,
Martians can be presumed to achieve great objectivity, uncontaminated as
they are by earthly assumptions.
Objectivity is particularly needed when investigators take up the
problems associated with the size of human populations. The Man from Mars
would surely ask, "Why don't you try to prevent further increases in
population? Or even try to decrease the present overpopulation...?
Conventional ethical principles often prevent us from even
looking at proposals that might do the job [of population control]. But
apparently many people are sure that the 2,000-year-old ethics developed in
Near Eastern villages is all we need to solve all the moral problems created
by our cleverness in applying the natural sciences to a world community that
is measured in the billions.
Many scholars now recognize that the disciplines of economics,
ecology, and ethics share a common problem, namely: to discriminate among
limitless demands in a world of limited resources.
Fortunately, they hybrid discipline of ecological economics has
now been born. Much of the old economics is now regarded as myth.
The concepts of a limited environmental carrying capacity plays a
central role in ecological thinking.
The power figures of contemporary society--journalists and
politicians--see their interests served best by denying the reality of
limits, thus turning the topic of population into a virtual taboo.
Best of the Rest
The human implications of this progression were realized in the
3rd century A.D. by the Christian apologist
Why, he asked, is
the human population so vast [perhaps 150 million at that time] that we are
a burden to the earth, which can scarcely provide for our needs? In a short
passage of De Anima, Tertullian explained the very real value of events that
are customarily viewed with dismay.
"What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint),
is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to
the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements;
our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more
bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual
sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars,
and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations,
as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race...."
Notice how Tertullian defends the apparently harsh human and
natural catastrophes by reminding us of their very real consequences,
namely, the "pruning away" of "luxuriant" population growth that threatens
to produce even greater suffering. Opponents of Tertullian try to brush
aside the ethical problem by finding emotion-laden terms for what they want
to reject. Such is the approach of moralistic ethics. In contrast,
consequential ethics seeks to list all the reasonable alternatives, choosing
from among them after comparing what appear to be the consequences of each.
[For more information, see:
Consequential or Utilitarian Ethics and the article
Calculating Consequences, The Utilitarian Approach to Ethics.]
Implicitly, Tertullian was thinking in terms of limits and
carrying capacity. The paramount assumption of practical population theory
(toward the expression of which both Tertullian and Malthus were struggling)
can be added to an Ecological Decalogue:
Thou shalt not transgress the carrying capacity.
Tertullian and Malthus only implied this 11th Commandment.
Civilization, if it is to survive, must someday frankly bow to its wisdom.
[For more information, see Population, Sustainability, and Earth's Carrying Capacity:].
Pruning is now an exotic action to most; pruning for the sake
of a better future is, to many urbanites, unthinkable. Yet it is built into
every workable population program to produce what we now call a
There is a perilous gap between natural scientists and
economists. Since the time of Epicurus in the 3rd century B.C.
Epicurus, scientists have recognized
the primacy of conservative laws, i.e., laws stating that the two sides
of an equation must balance. What is gained on one side must be
lost on the other.
...growth has its price. Taboo discourages us from taking a
total view of the effects of size on the well-being of human populations.
For this willful blindness, society ultimately pays a price.
The ethical questions raised by birth control are inherently
numerate. Having a baby is neither good nor bad: it's a question
of the numbers involved.
Unfortunately, the two functions--birth control and population
control--are frequently confused. Strictly speaking, birth control is a
task of the individual woman (or married couple), whereas population
control can only be achieved by group action. There must be some
sort of community decision to maintain any particular average number
of children per family.
In 1986, in his address as retiring president of the Population Association of America, Paul Demeny felt
obliged to begin with this sentence:
"The essence of the population problem, if there is a problem,
is that individual decisions with respect to demographic acts
do not add up to a recognized common good--that choices
at the individual level are not congruent with the collective
So, as Demeny says, the interests of the community as a whole
are not entirely congruent with the interests of its members considered
simply as individuals.
[For more information, see:
Reader In Population And Development,
edited by Paul Demeny and Geoffrey McNicoll; St. Martin's Press, 1998, (275p, $27)].
In our day, it is almost a foregone conclusion that people
will try to solve every controversial problem by calling on rights.
But rights, as the demographer Paul Demeny has pointed out,
"are almost empty of content. They can be given meaning and
content only with reference to local conditions."
And local conditions almost always bring scale into the picture.
Local conditions, not abstract rights, are the decisive ethical
factors. it is clear that the rhetoric of rights must yield to the
reality of particular times and places.
In the real world the satisfaction of a right is not cost-free.
In any world that is limited in resources but not in demands, moral
hazards require mandatory matching of rights and responsibilities.
Longage, however, implies that we need to curb growth.
The ostrich within us doesn't want that.
Most of the professionals in both economics and the natural
sciences are inclined to avoid public controversy, believing that the
facts should speak for themselves. But journalists, ever on the
lookout for controversies (which sell publications), are sucked
into giving unlimited publicity to oddball ideas.
For most people, for at least a limited time, it pays to be
optimistic. The pessimists, who may eventually prove to be right,
are generally forgotten long before the results come in.
It scarcely needs to be said that there is no obvious way for
people to make a profit out of trying to correct a longage of people
or their desires. But trying to cure a shortage offers all sorts of
chances for middlemen to make money.
We can't cure a shortage by increasing the supply. All we do
is encourage the production of more people or greater demands.
The shortage continues undiminished or is even increased.
Economics offer correctives to shortages. Longages are
someone else's business (and the less said about them, the better!)
Can we--or some of us--correctly discern the dangers of the future?
And can a minority of our population persuade the majority to grasp the
nettle of responsibility for what will happen?
But scientists, anticipating the future, favor consequentialist
ethics, which is less interested in historical origins and more concerned
with the future consequences of present acts. Conclusions derived from
the younger consequential ethics are often incompatible with those
dictated by the more ancient and rigid rules of motivational ethics.
(Consequential ethicists are, of course, often accused of being amoral.)
Since the future can be altered (and the past cannot), our need
for a good consequentialist ethics exceeds by far our need for a
historically accurate motivational ethics.
Natural selection invests in success; it cannot do otherwise. In
contrast, actions that human beings are pleased to call charitable often
prove to be investments in failure.
For thousands of years the priesthood greatly influenced people's
perception of reality. The prestige of priests has now passed in large
measure to professional wordsmiths--journalists, essayists, prominent
public speakers. The exposure of almost all of these people to science
is minimal. They all demand too much prestige for their words.
However worded, a scientific statement refers to facts that can
be tested in the future. But because historical conclusions refer to a
past that is beyond recall, they can easily lead to enduring disputes.
It is painful for an adult to restructure the framework of his or her
For society as a whole, the time required for this process is often
measured in generations.
If the generalized scientist has a religion, it is summarized in
the injunction "Never suffer a delusion to live!"
An author is keenly aware that every clear-cut statement he or
she makes will alienate some potential readers. But if the author says
nothing, clearly he or she risks having no audience at all. Unconventional
views are best introduced slowly, with adequate evidence.
Now comes a vital and strongly tabooed question: can a nation
that has functioned well under one political system recognize when
growth has gone on so long that it is time to change its political
organization? Traditional ethics is the ethics of a village. In such a
limited arena, one is pretty sure how much of a neighbor's misfortune
is due to the undeserved slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
For emotional people, lay or lawyerish, the word coercion has,
as the political scientist William Ophuls admits, "a nasty fascist ring to
But Ophuls is not satisfied with this condemnation. some qualification is
needed, because "political coercion in some form is inevitable." and
the act "is an inextricable part of politics, and the problem is how best
to tame it and bend it to the common interest." Yet probably not one
person in a hundred has realized that coercion is inescapable.
[William Ophuls has just written a book entitled
Requiem for Modern Politics.
This book is a sequel to the out-of-print
Ecology of and the Politics of Scarcity].
In the Introduction to the latest review by Ophuls,
he quotes Robert Kaplan who wrote:
"It is time to understand the 'environment for what it is:
the national security issue of the early twenty-first century.
The political and strategic impact of surging populations,
spreading disease, deforestation and soil erosion, water
depletion, air pollution, and, possibly, rising sea levels in
critical, overcrowded regions like the Nile Delta and
Bangladesh -- developments that will prompt mass
migrations and, in turn, incite group conflicts -- will be the
core foreign [policy challenge from which most others will
ultimately emanate, arousing the public and uniting
assorted interests left over from the Cold War."
[For mote information see
The Ends of the Earth: A Journey at the Dawn of the 21st Century, ($12)].
The effect of scale is, of course, an important thread that runs
through the tapestry of change. A changes that is possible with a
small number of participating citizens may be difficult or impossible
with a larger number.
All persuasion takes place through coercion.
The persuading act may be as gentle as a sweet young thing's
"Pretty please!" or as savage as an official's lash in Singapore, but
the object of attention is offered a choice.
Fear of disapproval is the major force that keeps a society
intact: fear of God, fear of the police, and fear of the judgment of
neighbors. Intuitively, it should be obvious that the ability to escape
society's punishment is directly related to the density of the community's
To insist on unanimous agreement would be to make all forms of
government impossible. The formula for a working society of our sort is
quite simple: Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon. To condemn the
coercion of the individual by the group is to reject democracy.
Realists who, abandoning the ostrich stance, rudely mention
diseconomies of scale are called pessimists. Tragically, in the short run,
economic rewards favor those who believe in the illusion of perpetual
growth. The assumption that passes the ecological test for a default
position is this: The maximum is not the optimum.
Accepting the fact that the world available to human beings is a
limited one will be one of the most difficult tasks ever tackled by our
species. The intermediate costs will be high; the ultimate reward will be
Persuasion plus legal punishment can accomplish a great deal
if both approaches are well designed. Neither alone is enough.
Propaganda in favor of reducing fertility must be accompanied by
repressive legal measures. (There is much room for inventiveness here.)
Individuals need to willingly give up some of the control of their fertility
in order to benefit from an improvement in the prospects of the
community--and to improve the prospects of their children's future.
To Malthus (Out of Wordsworth, Ill Remembered, In Ill Times)
Malthus! Thou shouldst be living in this hour;
The world hath need of thee: getting and begetting,
We soil fair nature's bounty. Sweating
With 'dozer, spray and plough we dissipate our dower
In smart and thoughtless optimism, blocking the power
Of reason to lay out a saner setting
For reason's growth to change, adapt and flower,
In reason's way, to weave that long-sought bower
Of sweet consistency.--Great Soul! I'd rather be
Like you, logic-driven to deny the feast
To those who would, if saved, see misery increased
Throughout this tender, trembling world.
Confound ye those who set unfurled
Soft flags of good intentions, deaf to obdurate honesty!
No two human beings are created equal. ...Too many Americans
show, by the expensive litigations they launch, that they confuse equity
with equality. ...Equity is determinable by law and custom; equality is
determined by nature.
Choices must be made. To reject comparison, to reject
numeracy, to reject choice is to reject rationality itself. If any
special-interest group insists on exclusionary rights, spokesmen for
society must then ask: "What right do you have to insist that the rest
of us become poorer so that you may become richer?" Equity and
equality are often in opposition.
the peaceful coexistence of many cultures within the boundaries of a
single political unit (usually a nation).
Richard Bernstein in his
Dictatorship of Virtue said,
"To put matters bluntly: the multiculturalist
rhetoric has the rest of us on the run, unable to respond for fear of being
branded unicultural, or racist. ...In such a way does multiculturalism limit
discussion; it makes people afraid to say what they think and feel...."
It takes the moral blindness of the mythical ostrich to be a
promoter of multiculturalism with a nation. The American ideal used
to be the assimilation of the incoming migrants from other nations:
the word United implied united in culture, in ideals, in values.
The ready adoption of multiculturalism as an ideal springs from a
serious misunderstanding of the nature of culture.
What has been insufficiently appreciated is this: the
consequences of multiculturalism are very different when the "multi-"
is found within a single nation rather than in the variety between nations.
Are not stability and predictability of the law also virtues? Does not
the very word law imply limits on diversity?
In devising principles to guide people living together, only
consequential ethics makes sense. No matter how enamored I am
of philosophical individualism, I cannot be allowed freedom to act
as an individual who is, in all situations, utterly unbound by conventions.
Whenever a nation commits itself to internal multiculturalism, it is
headed for trouble. A separation of 10,000 miles between incompatible
practices may be tolerable; 10 feet is another matter.
Multiculturalism can be viewed as a sort of moral promiscuity.
Those who yearn for the life of a village--of a warm community--should
realize that in the absence of exclusion, inclusion has little meaning.
Promoting multiculturalism within the bounds of a single country means
encouraging the grossest sort of promiscuity, blind to the fact that the
unity and psychic strength of a nation depend, in large measure, on
maintaining the dominance of many law-supported discriminations.
Intranational multiculturalism creates chaos and destroys national peace.
Justus von Liebig's law of the minimum can be stated in several
ways, one of the simpler ones being this: "The growth of a species is
limited by whatever required nutrient is least available." In much of land
agriculture, nitrogen is the limiting factor. In the open oceans,
phosphorus is the most common key shortage.
In a real sense, each American "occupies" about 9 acres of land
if you include provision for highways, houses, factories, crops, and
recreational areas. Even this expanse does not allow for our symbolic
occupancy of space in the foreign nations with which we trade.
How many people can the earth support? -- If you fail to specify
the limiting factor you have in mind, it is a silly question to ask.
human beings can easily identify hundreds of such factors; we must
declare which one(s) should be limiting.
In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of
individual action is intolerable. Hence the need for community-sensitive
restrictions, ideally produced by a policy of "mutual coercion, mutually
agreed upon." It is understood, of course, that mutual agreement has
to be satisfied with something less than unanimity.
It is clear that reproduction will have to have its rights
Many minds will have to contribute to the planning of the commitments that
must modify the unqualified reproductive right if humanity is to survive.
This is the population problem of our time--not collecting and playing
with a plethora of ambivalent data.
INTERnationally, multiculturalism would be the order of the day.
It would help observing nations to measure one culture against another,
thus making possible a multiple experiment in political arrangement.
But in the interests of peace, every nation would be well advised not
to accept fictitious "universal human rights" as an excuse for interfering
in the affairs of other nations.
INTRAnational standards of behavior must be intolerant of
multiculturalism: this attitude is the default position. Population
characteristics also derive from elements of culture--pro-natalism,
If individuals can move freely into and out of nations, then the
extended Gresham's law applies: low standards of living drive out
high standards as the world moves toward universal poverty under
the banner "Need creates right!" The right of immigration will be
denied; acceptance of immigrants must always be in the interest
of the receiving country.
The movement of physical wealth is equally intolerant of complete
freedom. Substantial tariffs must be the rule. Because of the complexity of
industrial evolution, arriving at standards will always be difficult, but
default position should be: no hidden domestic subsidies for foreign
But investigating the problems of minimizing rates, or optimizing
sizes, or reconciling conflicting ends can be fiendishly difficult.
alone will not move nations: astonishing and unforeseen events will be
required for humanity's education. Painful experiences will be required
to banish this illusion [of perpetual growth] from the intellectual
armamentarium of humanity's leaders. Our ostriches will have to
have their heads yanked out of the comforting sands of illusion.
-- Review and hyperlinks by Ed Glaze III