The Garrett Hardin Society

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).

Chapter One

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 bush.
...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 for causes.
Today's economists say there is no such thing as a population problem. 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 Tertullian. 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 sustainable policy.
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 interest."

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 beliefs.
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 it." 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 population.
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 survival itself.
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.
Multiculturalism ...presumes 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. Thoughtful 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 trimmed. 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, for instance.
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 the default position should be: no hidden domestic subsidies for foreign products.
But investigating the problems of minimizing rates, or optimizing sizes, or reconciling conflicting ends can be fiendishly difficult. Knowledge 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