The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia / Edition 1

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Overview

Garrett Hardin, one of our leading thinkers on problems of human overpopulation, here assails the recklessness and basic ecological ignorance of economists and others who champion the idea of unbounded growth.
Hardin delivers an uncompromising critique of mainstream economic thinking. Science has long understood the limits of our environment, he notes, and yet economists consistently turn a blind eye to one feature we share with all of our planet's inhabitants—the potential for irreversible environmental damage through overcrowding. And as humankind draws ever closer to its goal of conquering our final natural enemy—disease—the fallacy of sustainable unchecked population growth becomes more and more dangerous. Moreover, Hardin argues, rampant growth will soon force us to face many issues that we will find quite unpalatable—most notably, that since volunteer population control will not work, we will have to turn to "democratic coercion" or "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" to limit growth, a policy that directly threatens long cherished personal rights. Challenging an array of powerful taboos, Hardin takes aim at sacred cows on both sides of the political fence—affirmative action, multiculturalism, current immigration policies, and the greed and excess of big business and "growth intoxicated industrialists."
Hardin's forceful and cogent argument for the union of ecology and economics is a must for anyone concerned with the goal of a bountiful, yet sustainable world. Sure to spark controversy, this book underscores the urgency of our situation and reveals practical steps we must take to ensure the long term survival of humankind.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Because overpopulation poses such a grave threat to the planet's sustainable economic future, and because voluntary measures to curb population don't work, we will soon be forced to abandon our head-in-the-sand stance and adopt some form of coercive constraints on individuals' "unqualified reproductive rights." Or so argues Hardin (Living Within Limits), professor emeritus of human ecology at U.C.-Santa Barbara, in a collection of accessible, if academic, essays that venture some highly unfashionable proposals. Hardin suggests that every person should be required to carry an identity card "to put a stop to America's race toward multiculturalism," which he sees as a misguided movement that fosters cultural and political balkanization. He ridicules One Worlders' ideal of global government, arguing that such a system would be more likely to lead to chaos than our present multinational world of balanced antagonisms. Affirmative action, in his withering critique, is an overreaction to racism, a program that "turned out to be racism with a different name" and that often fails to supply the level of skills that jobs demand. Hardin also favors sharp restrictions on immigration, high tariff walls and a reversal of the current economic thinking that, he says, nurtures the illusion that perpetual growth is possible. The "ecological economics" Hardin embraces would force us to choose ethically among limitless demands in a world of finite resources. Throughout these blunt, open-ended essays, the author invokes a visiting, wholly rational Martian, not clouded by human passions, who surveys Earth's corrupt, self-destructive governments and offers a pro-population-control Martian sonnet, "To Malthus." Many readers will doubtless find some of Hardin's notions alarmist, but he airs unorthodox views that could conceivably be on the table tomorrow. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Hardin (human ecology, emeritus, Univ. of California, Santa Barbara), founder of the field of human ecology, has written a learned, witty, and controversial book evaluating contemporary ethical assumptions regarding population planning and world population growth. By examining difficult societal questions, Hardin illustrates how ethics and economics are being transformed by ecology. His book examines questions of jurisprudence, including the place of natural law, the difference between equality and equity, and the role of greed as expressed through survival of the fittest. Hardin believes that one of the most difficult tasks for humanity will be the acceptance of limited resources. He argues for community-sensitive restrictions, produced by mutual coercion, as a means to limit population growth. Although the book is intended for a general audience, difficult economic concepts and profound ethical, sociological, and philosophical questions may limit readership. Recommended for academic libraries and special collections in religion, ethics, sociology, ecology, and economics.--Margaret Ann Aycock, Gulf Coast Environmental Lib., Beaumont, TX
Scientific American
The ostriches...are the people who think that continued growth of the human population is no problem....[H]is challenges to widely held assumptions are bound to stir the reader's thoughts and probably emotions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195122749
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 176
  • Lexile: 1180L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Garrett Hardin is Professor Emeritus of Human Ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The founder of the field of human ecology, he is the author of the seminal essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," which has been reprinted in over 100 anthologies, and the book Living Within Limits (Oxford), which won the 1993 Award in Science from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He lives in Santa Barbara.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

The Pursuit Of Objectivity


We know that the tale of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand is mythical, a myth that is both ancient and confusing. 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 altered version endured to the present (though only as a myth, not as natural history). What accounts for the endurance of such a silly story?

    A plausible psychological explanation can be suggested. Bearing in mind Wordsworth's insight that "the child is father of the man," we note that the varied responses of a small baby to a threatening and oh-too-close face fall into two classes. First, it may try to escape knowledge of the stimulus by burying its head in a blanket or in its mother's comforting bosom. (Some dictionaries call this behavior ostrichism.) Though we never really know the thoughts of another being (baby or not), it is reasonable to assume that the infant's mind moves along 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." In brief, the baby unknowingly resorts to Freudian denial. When a whole culture responds in this way, it is said to be in the grip of a taboo, to use a term brought from the South Seas by Captain James Cook in 1777.

    The second explanation of a baby's behavior rests on anaxiom advanced by Aristotle: "Man by his nature desires to know." This should be amended to "know and/or control." ("Practical" people are often satisfied with mere control.) A baby, by screaming, may cause help to appear. The infant's resort to this behavior bespeaks a primitive sort of knowledge.

    Adults who indulge in ostrichism can be said to be observing 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. Thomas Robert Malthus brought the subject into the open in 1798, and for a good half century it was a popular topic of public discussions. Then the dialogue slowly degenerated until, during the second half of the 20th century, population was considered a slightly laughable topic among many academics. Was this because human populations were no longer growing? By no means. In Malthus's day the world population was about 1,000 million; now it is nearly six times as great—but the topic is no longer very popular.

    Malthus was an economist, but many of today's economists say there is no such thing as a population problem. The deniers maintain that the more people there are in the world, the more rapidly civilization will advance because there will be more Einsteins and Shakespeares to solve humanity's problems. It is worth pointing out that England today has 13 times as many people as it did in Shakespeare's time. "And where," we might ask, "are the 13 Shakespeares?" The world's 6 billion people should be more than enough to furnish whatever talents civilization requires. Evidently it takes more than mere numbers to produce a sufficiency of geniuses.

    Ask yourself this question: what features of your daily life do you expect to be improved by a further increase in population? Will commuting time to work be decreased? Will streets and highways be less crowded? Will the air be cleaner? Will it cost less to get sparkling water to drink? Will vacation spots be easier to get to and less crowded when you get there? Will the extinction of interesting and valuable animals and plants come to an end? Will crime in the streets diminish? Will international conflicts taper off? There seems to be no end to the negative effects that can reasonably be expected from 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."


* * *


How does knowledge advance? In the natural sciences (e.g., physics, chemistry, biology), technological inventions are critical. The microscope, the telescope, and X-ray machines have brought much progress during the past three centuries. But when we look at the social scene, improvements are less obvious. Are there social inventions that are comparable to the technological ones of the natural sciences?

    I believe there are; I will cite one instance. Early in Captain Cook's century, a systematized approach was devised to undermine the power of taboos (which were effective even before they were officially named). Living in a world of tight totalitarian controls, the Baron de Montesquieu showed, in his Persian Letters (1721), how gentle ridicule could undermine the power of taboos. His book purported to be a collection of letters written home by two Persian visitors to France. They commented at length on how strange the natives were. They began by expressing wonder that French men wore wigs, and they were astonished that French women never donned the pantaloons worn by proper Persian women. They called attention to the fact that, in the evaluation of money, the French people did whatever their number one magician demanded: if he said that one coin was now worth two, that was that. The French people also deferred to a magician in Rome who said that three people could sometimes be but one, while the bread and wine ingested in certain places on certain days were no longer bread and wine but something else (which was not well defined). What might have been condemned as dangerously seditious observations were no doubt made more acceptable by salacious accounts of sexual behavior in Persian harems.

    It is important to note that the baron's book was not published in either Paris or Rome. The title page gave the place of publication as Cologne (Germany), and the publishing house listed was fictional. No author was given. The place of publication was in fact Amsterdam, a hotbed of free speech in 18th-century Europe.

    In attaining the objectivity that is so desirable in the social sciences, this pioneer effort fell short of perfection: it ended up by being a nominal comparison of two cultures rather than an evaluation of one from a point of view untainted by unconscious assumptions. (Other writers after Montesquieu did not escape this shortcoming by substituting Turkish and Chinese observers for Persian.) Nevertheless, in getting people to think about taboo subjects, Montesquieu made a social invention comparable to the microscope and telescope of the physical sciences. It is true that fashioning mental machinery is not as easy as rearranging material objects like nuts and bolts, but over the centuries the most creative social thinkers have had some success in consciously using fictions such as foreign visitors to free their minds of fashionable cant.

    In 1759, Adam Smith (before he became an economist) put forward a less dramatic version of this sort of invention when, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he postulated an "Impartial Spectator" as a hook on which to hang his social insights. 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—by acceptable means?"

    The heart of the difficulty lies in the phrase by acceptable means. If we already knew a means that we could all agree was acceptable, we could install a system of population control right now. Conventional ethical principles often prevent us from even looking at proposals that might do the job. Odd. No one expects the physics of 50 B.C. to tell us how to launch a spaceship. 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. The rest of this book attempts to achieve an objective Man-from-Mars comparison of competing ethical assumptions.

    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. Some contemporary economists reject this generalization because the economics that became orthodox in the two centuries after Adam Smith built its theories on the unstated belief that limits do not exist; or, if limits do exist, they must not be allowed to curb growth. Perpetual growth has become a secular religion built on the assumption that growth = progress.

    Fortunately, the hybrid discipline of ecological economics has now been born. Limits are incorporated into the very foundation of its revolutionary structure. Much of the old economics is now regarded as myth. Mythic priests still hold the high ground, of course, but their days of dominance are surely numbered.

    Traditional ethics also often fails to take account of the inescapable limits of the world. Ecology, however, has—in a good sense—been a limited science from the very beginning. The concept of a limited environmental carrying capacity (which many orthodox economists ridicule) plays a central role in ecological thinking. Ecologists admit that the universe may ultimately prove to be infinite in extent; but in the short term—the next 10 centuries, say—the earth, together with abundant solar energy and skimpy meteoritic dust raining in on it, will set practical limits to what Homo sapiens can do.

    One of the tasks of this book is to show how ethics and economics are transformed by paying attention to the insights of ecology. 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.

    Disputes over population started in earnest with Malthus. He was not the first to take population seriously; but, partly for accidental reasons, his writings were the first to lead to a sustained, if sometimes underground, discussion of the subject. He never came up with a convincing proposal for avoiding overpopulation. His many successors have done little better.

    I know this because I wrote one of the nonsolutions myself, namely, Living within Limits, published in 1993. A knowledgeable critic, Mark Sagoff, said that my book "provides little guidance as to how to achieve" the goal of preventing overpopulation. He was right. Like others before me, I was inhibited by unacknowledged taboos against taking a Darwinian approach to population. Borrowing a term from equestrian sports, I balked before leaping the hurdle. At the risk of coming a cropper, I approach the Malthusian barrier once more.

    The foundations of traditional ethics will be examined and ways suggested for modifying them to fit our new vision of the world. In evading the suppression achieved by time-honored taboos, I will present more questions than answers, but such is the nature of the Man-from-Mars approach. Taken seriously, the Martian path ultimately produces answers. The best description of this path has, I think, been given by Hans Spemann, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1935 for throwing much light on how an apparently simple fertilized egg can develop into an obviously complicated multicellular animal. The necessary attitude of the person who succeeds in elucidating the complexity that can grow out of simplicity was captured in Spemann's words, which bear repeating before we examine the apparently simple phenomenon of population growth:

I should like to work like the archeologist who pieces together the fragments of a lovely thing which are left alone to him. As he proceeds, fragment by fragment, he is guided by the conviction that these fragments are part of the whole which, however, he does not yet know. He must be enough of an artist to recreate, as it were, the work of the master, but he dare not build according to his own ideas. Above all, he must keep holy the broken edges of the fragments; in that way only may he hope to fit new fragments into their proper place and thus ultimately achieve a true restoration of the master's creation. There may be other ways of proceeding, but this is the one I have chosen for myself.

    To "keep holy the broken edges" of knowledge—what a poetic expression of the humility the investigator should strive for in tackling a fiercely difficult problem! The path to understanding human populations is not a straight one: the "broken edges" we must examine include the behaviors of crickets, birds, and other nonhuman creatures. Like the Duke in Shakespeare's As You Like It, I believe that, under the pressure of adversity, the examined life will disclose "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything." Well—almost everything.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
1 The Pursuit of Objectivity 1
2 Tertullian's Blessing 9
3 How to Lie with Learned Words 17
4 Foundations of Activist Science: By Right or By Default? 23
5 The Stormy Marriage of Economics and Ecology 31
6 Consequentialism: Nature's Morality 45
7 Natural Selection: God's Choice 53
8 Altruism 63
9 Coercion 73
10 Diseconomies of Scale: Ostrich Myopia 79
11 The Dream of One World 89
12 Russell's Theorem 95
13 A Martian View of Malthus 99
14 Equity, Equality, and Affirmative Action 107
15 Multiculturalism: For and Against 119
16 Ambivalent Value of Growth 131
17 The Extended Reach of Gresham's Law 135
18 Summary: Can Our Ostriches Find the Will? 141
Notes 155
Index 165
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