The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 10 June, 2003

Living within limits and limits on living - Garrett Hardin on Ecology, Economy, and Ethics

An interview with Garrett Hardin
By Frank Miele, Skeptic magazine, 1996

SKEPTIC: The word "ecologist" summons up an image of a caring person concerned about the whole planet, if perhaps somewhat unrealistically. By contrast, the dismal science of economics seems tough-minded, self-centered, arid deadly practical. It's hard to imagine someone who describes him or herself as "ecologically minded" answering a personal ad from someone who is "economically minded". What is the relationship between ecology and economy?

GARRETT HARDIN: The view that I and a number of other ecologists share is that ecology is the overall science of which economics is a minor specialty.

SKEPTIC: Do economists accept that definition?

HARDIN: No, they don't. I was just talking with an economist friend of mine about the bet that population ecologist Paul Ehrlich lost to economist Julian Simon. Simon wagered that the price of certain commodities would be no greater five years from the time of the bet and maybe would be less. Ehrlich should never have made that bet because it accepts the economists' definition that the true price of something is the published market price. The ecological definition states that the price of producing something is not only that market price, but also the price of all the things you have destroyed in the process of bringing the item to the market.

Think of the state of West Virginia. Three hundred years ago it must have been a paradise. It's been made into an absolute shambles by mining. Mining generally has been an extremely destructive activity. The mining interests by and large pay few if any of the costs of what they've destroyed. In fact, they often get subsidies. So the market price of mined commodities is an utter fiction. The true ecological price, which would be very difficult to determine, would reflect what we are actually paying to dig all these things out of the ground.

In general, economic analysis is poorly fitted to deal with the future. The method of discounting in effect discounts the distant future to zero. Well, if there's one thing we know, it's that there will be a distant future. By training, economists are not equipped to deal with the future and they are not equipped to deal with the total system. They just deal with one human and then another and they constantly get in trouble when they forget about the environment.

But one shouldn't lump all economists together. I could list at least a dozen economists who have what I call an ecological point of view. One of the most prominent is Herman Daly of the University of Maryland.

SKEPTIC: Then he's right near Julian Simon.

HARDIN: Geographically he's near Julian Simon, but only geographically.

SKEPTIC: But don't economists take account of the environment under the concept of externalities?

HARDIN: Oh, absolutely. But externalities are things they just don't want to see. Once they invoke the term "externalities," they have sprinkled holy water on the problem and in their calculations it no longer exists and therefore has no effect in our decision-making processes.

SKEPTIC: Don't economists also use the concept of opportunity costs, that is, the offsetting cost of the lost opportunities of not doing something?

HARDIN: I think that concept should be dismissed almost entirely because you can bring in anything through the escape hatch of opportunity costs.

SKEPTIC: You mentioned the effect of subsidies. We're here in Southern California, not far from one of the most currently productive agricultural areas on Earth. Is there anything ecologically or economically more nonsensical than using subsidized water to grow rice and cotton on what would otherwise be a desert?

HARDIN: Yes. Subsidizing the export price of the cotton, which is what we do!

SKEPTIC: What then is the relationship between ecology, economy, and ethics?

HARDIN: Ethics gets involved because we are not the Man from Mars. The Man from Mars could study the ecology and the economics of all our processes on Earth and never give a damn what answer he got. It's just not his problem. But we're not the Man from Mars. We are living here on this planet and so we do give a damn. If we make a mess of the Earth, we still have to live on it. If I have one idea of the best life and someone else has a different idea and we then try and reconcile the two, we enter the realm of ethics. I would define an ethical question as one in which we have a choice between alternatives for which it is hard to find a common measure, but among which we must still choose.

Biological ethics is more than just ethics applied to biological problems. Sometimes it is called "toughlove ethics," built on a biological foundation. Its essential elements are relative quantities, feedback processes, and the changes that time brings forth as unforeseen consequences of our actions. The tools required for biological ethical analysis are literacy (the correct use of words), numeracy (dealing with quantities) and ecolacy (the study of relationships over time).

SKEPTIC: Suppose that Man from Mars was intelligent and very long lived and looking through a very powerful telescope. Might he get the impression that since the dawn of industrial, market-based economies, humans, especially Europeans, for the most part, have spread across the Earth like a cancer? If he could do some sophisticated analyses of his observations, he might find that one segment of one species was using more and more of the biosphere's resources and converting them into more of his own kind. Would the Man on Mars be far off the mark?

HARDIN: He would be right that the human species viewed as a whole has been a disaster for the Earth. Innumerable deserts have been made primarily by man's activities. The weather contributes, but the two work together. If you look at pictures or read accounts of Arizona and New Mexico from 100 years ago you'll discover there wasn't any- where near the level of desertification that you can see there today. And the desertification is a result of our activities. Industrial, market-based economies are motivated to get profits, where a genuine subsistence economy will not go that far. A genuine subsistence economy will not dig a deep well. It just doesn't pay. They dig shallow wells, but not deep ones.

But subsistence economies can crash if they take out of the environment faster than the environment can repair itself. Desertifications have happened time and again as the result of having too many plant-eating animals. North Africa is a memorial to the goat. In Roman times, it was the granary of the empire, now it's a desert. On

Easter Island, they just had too many people and they didn't see the consequences of cutting down all the trees.

SKEPTIC: But doesn't evolutionary theory tells us that every species, every individual, indeed, every gene tries to turn the resources of the environment into replicas of itself? Isn't that why we're here?

HARDIN: That's right. But our success may kill us. We have brains that are capable of doing fantastic things no other species can. We have developed technology that speeds up the process. But as a group we haven't accepted the results of certain observations. The economists and the technologists have become possessed by the Myth of Perpetual Growth and they think it can go on forever. It is quite possible for our species to commit suicide.

SKEPTIC: I recently read a book on the Rwanda genocide. After describing the history, politics and bloody details of the crisis, the author stated (Prunier, 1995, p. 353):
"There is of course one further added cause: overpopulation. This is still a taboo, because human beings are not supposed to he rats in a laboratory cage and Christians, Marxists, Islamic fundamentalists and World Bank experts will all tell you that overpopulation is relative and that God (or modern technology of the Shari'a) will provide. But let whoever has not at least once felt murderous in a crowded subway at rush-hour throw the first stone."
You once wrote a sarcastic piece entitled, "Nobody Ever Dies from Overpopulation." Would you care to comment?

HARDIN: It's absolutely true. There should be a formal scientific investigation by people who are trained in that sort of thing, which I am not, of the change in attitude toward the subject of over-population and how it came about. There was a lot of concern about population in the first part of this century. It culminated, as I see it, in Paul Ehrlich's book, The Population Bomb, in 1967. Then all the attacks started from various economists and the public just got tired of it as they became aware of the fact that the people who were talking about over-population were not offering any remedies. The feeling on the part of the public was What good is it seeing a problem, if you don't offer a remedy?" The same criticism has been made of my last book, Living Within Limits. Right now we've reached a low point in getting people to take population problems seriously. But I have been encouraged by the letters to the editor I see in the local papers. The best summary of the problem is the one Ehrlich uses - name any problem that you regard as important and dangerous and you will find that unless you solve the population problem, you can't solve that one either. Population is not the sole cause, but it's a contributing cause to all the other major problems.

SKEPTIC: In the early sixties, former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were the honorary cochairmen of Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood clinics are now being routinely picketed and in some cases bombed. How has family planning become a dirty word?

HARDIN: I started being an activist for legalized abortion in 1963. I spent most of my external time on that issue until the Supreme Court reached the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. I thought the fight was all over. Well, I was wrong. At the time, my wife and I were active in Planned Parenthood. She was on the local board of directors. The question came up in Planned Parenthood as to what our position should be on abortion. Some wanted to stay clear of it entirely because they realized there would he a lot of opposition. Fortunately, Planned Parenthood decided that it was a question of women's rights. Abortion is above all other things a method of birth control. To put it another way, it's a backstop for any system of birth control when the rest of the system fails. That decision to support the woman's right to abortion put Planned Parenthood in a dangerous position. As opposition developed, the opponents then went on to say that everything Planned Parenthood was doing was just window-dressing for their principal interest-killing babies. No president could now accept such a position.

SKEPTIC: How do you answer the objection of the anti-abortionists that abortion puts us on the slippery slope to euthanasia, assisted suicide, and elimination of the "unfit?"

HARDIN: First let's look at the concept of the slippery slope. Every ethical decision puts you on the slippery slope. You just have to live with it. For example, we used to have a speed limit of 65 mph. That's a slippery slope for God's sake. No matter where you put the speed limit, people want to push it up and up and up. The only completely safe speed limit is zero mph. Anything above that will get pushed up and up. What do we do? We draw an arbitrary line and set the speed limit at a certain level. Back in the days of the old 65-mph limit, you couldn't prove statistically that 66 was more dangerous than 65.

In the specific case of abortion, the matter is particular" easy in that no woman wants a late abortion. Once abortion was made legal, the age of the aborted fetus went down. The slope slipped in the other direction. If we legalize RU-486 and other similar new drugs, the age will fall to one week or less and start approaching zero. The slippery slope will slide in the other direction. The only reason we have late abortions is because we make early abortion difficult.

SKEPTIC: What about the issue of President Clinton's veto of the bill banning what are called "partial birth abortions?"

HARDIN: This is a very special case. Almost no attention should be paid to it. You don't have to pass a law about this, for God's sake. The medical profession only performs this procedure in cases where the alternatives are much worse. But then slippery slope gets invoked to argue that this will lead to infanticide.

SKEPTIC: Let's consider the case of an anencephalic fetus or child (that is, one in which the brain fails to develop).

HARDIN: The only question we should ask is "What does the woman want?" If she wants an abortion, do we have a good reason for denying her that? I don't think we ever do. If the woman doesn't want to abort an anencephalic fetus, that's a tragedy. But she will have to live with that decision. Society should be very chary about taking a hand in forcing a woman to have an abortion in such a tragic case.

SKEPTIC: But what about euthanasia of an anencephalic child? Should that be allowed?

HARDIN: Yes. The point we must realize is that the bringing up of children was once a function only of the family. It is now a function of the entire community'. And that can be put in economic terms. Bringing up a normal, healthy child to age 16, without any college education, costs $100,000. The parents pay some of that cost, but the community - all taxpayers-pays part of that cost. We allow the parent to decide to have the child, but the parent doesn't pay all the costs.

SKEPTIC: Do you think that gives society a right to speak on this issue?

HARDIN: Since society pays the costs, yes. In the case of an anencephalic child, the parents can't possibly pay the costs. Society pays the cost and society can't possibly have any reason for wanting an anencephalic child.

SKEPTIC: Well, there are religious reasons.

HARDIN: Religious reasons, which is no reason. I notice SKEPTIC had a review of Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Religious reasons amount to what Dennett terms "skyhooks." Do you believe in skyhooks? I don't.

SKEPTIC: What about assisted suicide, now best known because of Dr. Kevorkian's legal battles?

HARDIN: Look, I'm 81.1 may be wanting that one of these days. Because of polio, I'm dependent on my arms. I can't walk. If I lose my arms, should I get in a wheelchair and have to have somebody push me around all the time? At that point, I'm going to be looking for Dr. Kevorkian. I don't want to sit in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.

SKEPTIC: But your mind is still sharp and you have contributions to make.

HARDIN: Ah, thank you for those kind words. I know how unsharp my mind is becoming. And though I appreciate the tact of other people, looking at my fellow oldsters, I know damned well we're going downhill. So, by association I say, "probably, me too.

SKEPTIC: Reading your books or Paul Ehrlich's, one gets the feeling we're going to hell in a hurry rather than a hand basket. But doesn't Julian Simon have a point that since Plato, and certainly since Malthus, you doomsayers have always said this and you've always been proved wrong?

HARDIN: Not always proved wrong. Some of the things that were said have proved right.

SKEPTIC: For example?

HARDIN: Here we get into an argument. Many people think that living on Manhattan all the time is not the ideal way to live. Society paints itself into a cul-de-sac of urbanization. I grew up on a farm in Missouri. When I was very young, I remember the creek running all summer long. By my teens, it ran only at the beginning of the summer and left a hole for the rest of the summer. By the mid-30s, even the water-hole was gone. My grandfather told me that when he first moved there, the water was so clear and you could see to the bottom. As far as I was concerned, all water, in creeks, rivers, and lakes, was brown. So it was a shock when I went to England and Ireland in my 50s and saw small rivers that were so clear you could see the fish.

SKEPTIC: But the argument against your story is that we now have, along with that somewhat polluted water, more people, more goods, more services. More people are living better than ever before. So what's one dirty pond versus 100 more people with good jobs raising their families?

HARDIN: The important thing, and on which you can't get agreement, is the question, "Why is having more people good?" Now, if you say more people produce more goods so that there is a higher standard of living, then you've got a good argument. But suppose more people is just more people. Suppose more people means a lower quality of life? Do we simply want to maximize the number of people?

SKEPTIC: From a Darwinian perspective, more people allows a more stratified society and more specialization of labor. In the long run, those more populous, stratified societies will displace the less populous, more egalitarian ones. It's going to be that way, whether we like it or not.

HARDIN: You may be right and this is the tragedy. Can we stop our built-in suicidal tendencies? All species have the blessing of enemies that keep their numbers under control. But we have been getting rid of all our enemies. We thought we'd gotten rid of all disease. We haven't quite, but if we can, by God we will. Having gotten rid of all the lions and tigers and bears, then we get rid of the micro-predators, the bacteria, and the viruses, there will be nothing to control our numbers except ourselves. If not, we will commit suicide. The Easter Island tragedy will be universalized. There will be a few people, leading a miserable life.

If we control our numbers, we might be able to settle on a world population of up to 100 million, living a hell of a good life. But we're up to six billion now. That's six thousand million. This level is impossible to maintain.

SKEPTIC: There is a certain self-satisfied negativity to much ecological writing. Julian Simon has written other books about starting your own mail order business and how to overcome depression. I just can't imagine either you or Ehrlich writing anything so upbeat and optimistic. Isn't that an inherent flaw in the ecological movement? Aren't you going to lose the argument by induced depression as your readers reach for the Prozac?

HARDIN: If your only goal is to win, the answer is to become another Julian Simon. I couldn't live with myself if I did that. I'd die of shame. While I may be a bearer of bad news, I try to convince people that what sounds like bad news is better than "good news" that's wrong.

SKEPTIC: Suppose you're 100% correct in everything you've said. Those who listen to you will control their family size. But those who don't, won't. So again the pro-growth side wins by default.

HARDIN: That's right. I resigned from Zero Population Growth because I realized that the only people paying attention to ZPG were college girls who decided they'd have no babies. So ZPG was self-extinguishing. The only answer is that family size cannot be left to individual decisions. You don't have to be brutal about it. You can use incentives. But control of population will have to take the form of mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.

SKEPTIC: A good argument can be made that "ecologically-minded global consciousness" is a luxury of upscale individuals in first world countries and that its principal target is third world populations. Having already raped and plundered a good part of the planet, according to your own and similar accounts, who are we to lecture the rest of the world on anything?

HARDIN: Lecturing is a difficult art. You have to get people willing to be lectured to. My basic position is, never globalize a problem if it can possibly be dealt with on a local basis. We could form a global committee to fill in the potholes of the world and the result would be a disaster. Imagine if you had a pothole in front of your house and you couldn't get it filled in until you got approval from some council thousands of miles away representing six billion people. Don't be silly. Fill in the pothole yourself.

SKEPTIC: Isn't that the problem with the United Nations?

HARDIN: Yes. We have to localize problems, not globalize them, and reproduction is a very localized problem. It takes place in a very local place every time-in a bed. Some things, like the destruction of the ozone layer, are a worldwide problem and I don't know what the answer is.

SKEPTIC: Do you think that the ozone hole is a realistic problem?

HARDIN: If it isn't now, it will be by the time we have 12 billion people. If it isn't at 12 billion, it will be when we have 50 billion people. The point is that we are doing all sorts of things to our common air and water, to the oceans and the atmosphere. And at some point it will do us in unless we find ways of mutually coercing each nation on these matters.

SKEPTIC: Do you consider global warming a serious danger? I've seen accounts on both sides and they look like computer simulations that give you whatever you want.

HARDIN: The information is just at the edge of what you can say is thoroughly reliable. Since we don't really know, the question is what do you do when good arguments can be presented either way? Prudence would dictate that you take the pessimistic answer. The reason economists don't want to do that is because they see anything that cuts down on economic activity as an evil, and with some justice. But I think we have to accept that evil, rather than a worse one.

SKEPTIC: Haven't Repetto and others made a convincing argument that the only way to slow down the rate of population growth in third world countries is by making them richer, not poorer, and better educated, rather than less educated, especially for females?

HARDIN: The question is how to lower the growth rate in the third world. First of all, we have to get rid of the argument of the benign demographic transition that held sway from about 1935 to 1975. It was based on the fact that the period during which Europe became more prosperous was also the period in which Europe lowered its birth rate. From that it was deduced that if you become more prosperous, you will lower your birth rate. If that were true, all you would have to do is shovel money into a poor country and their birth rate would go down. Well, we've been doing our best, shoveling money into poor countries and the result has been the opposite. Maybe their birth rate goes down, but the death rate goes down even faster, so that their net survival rate goes up and they end up worse off than they were.

SKEPTIC: What about the effects of female education?

HARDIN: Yes, there's good evidence for that. If we can have a hand in increasing other occupational opportunities for women, we should, because experience shows that it works.

SKEPTIC: Your recent book is on the controversial issue of immigration policy. What is your position?

HARDIN: Admitting immigrants from over-populated countries amounts to taking on their problems which they haven't solved. If we take on their problems, they will never solve them by other means.

SKEPTIC: An anthropologist named Virginia Abernethy has recommended weighting the immigration quotas for various nations inversely proportional to their fertility rate.

HARDIN: I think that's a very good idea. At least we wouldn't be harming those other nations by encouraging them to over-populate.

SKEPTIC: Can the world reach a balance between sustainable economic growth and environmental degradation?

HARDIN: The dangerous concept of sustainable growth was introduced into the debate about eight years ago. Sustainable growth is an oxymoron. Don't go for growth, go for a steady state, a term that comes from biological study. There's always an increase, but there's also a decrease around a mean value.

SKEPTIC: But doesn't that mean condemning a large portion of the world's people to a life of misery with little hope?

HARDIN: They're condemned in either case. Sustained growth condemns them to that too. In America, we were able to expand into a vacuum, but that's at an end now. And certainly for the poor countries, they're ain't no vacuum for them to expand into.

SKEPTIC: But we come back to the question of how can sell that to anyone?

HARDIN: Maybe I can't. Maybe all I can do is ask, "Which do you prefer, early suicide or late suicide? You have the choice." We have to get the world to accept the idea of limits. It goes into every decision we make. This will not be anything new. It will be a return to the conservatism of humanity for all but the last 500 years. We can have change at the intellectual level, where the resources involved are ideas. But there are limits on material resources. And we have to learn to live within limits. From an evolutionary perspective it amounts to realizing that you cannot escape natural selection. And what is natural selection? It is the natural investment in success. It is much broader and more revolutionary than just biological science.

SKEPTIC: Thank yon for taking the time to speak so directly with SKEPTIC.

End of interview.