Hardin Argues for Population Control

Garrett Hardin’s controversial essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” published in Science magazine, provoked extensive debate about controlling the world’s population growth.

Summary of Event

The December 13, 1968, issue of Science magazine included an article by environmental biologist Garrett Hardin called “The Tragedy of the Commons,” stimulating extensive discussion among biologists, demographers, economists, political scientists, sociologists, ethicists, and others about the earth’s carrying capacity, population growth, pollution, and related issues. The essay’s provocative argument, blunt language, and use of an arresting metaphor has led the article to be widely praised and even more widely criticized. Overpopulation
“Tragedy of the Commons, The” (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons]
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[kw]Hardin Argues for Population Control (Dec. 13, 1968)
[kw]Population Control, Hardin Argues for (Dec. 13, 1968)
“Tragedy of the Commons, The” (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons]
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[g]North America;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
[g]United States;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
[c]Natural resources;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
[c]Environmental issues;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
[c]Agriculture;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
[c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 13, 1968: Hardin Argues for Population Control[10090]
Hardin, Garrett
Ehrlich, Paul R.
Simon, Julian

Hardin repudiated the “almost universal assumption” underlying essays in scientific journals that every problem facing humanity could be solved by utilizing better techniques derived from the natural sciences and that therefore no fundamental changes in human values or morality were required. He argued specifically that the growth of world population, which, in his judgment, was spiraling out of control, rapidly depleting the planet’s resources, despoiling the environment, and threatening to someday produce extensive famine and pestilence, had no technical solution. Hardin rejected the widespread belief that the “evils of overpopulation” could be avoided by technological developments, such as the Green Revolution or farming of the oceans, without major changes in patterns of human conception. Convinced that a finite planet could support only a finite population, he urged world leaders to take active steps to reduce population growth to replacement levels.

Hardin used the analogy of a commons, a tract of land available for everyone to use, to illustrate why he believed that destruction would soon occur if such action were not implemented. For example, when land was owned in common, each herder rationally tried to maximize gain by keeping as many cattle as possible. Since the herder received all the proceeds from the sale of each cow and suffered only a fraction of the cost incurred by any overgrazing of the commons, the “only sensible course” was to add more cattle to the herd. The world, Hardin claimed, faced the same situation. Families were part of a system that compelled them to pursue their own self-interest and increase their size. This uncontrolled reproduction, he warned, would bring “ruin to all.”

Thus, Hardin argued, in a world with limited space and resources people must not have the freedom to breed at will. He sharply disagreed with the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaimed that the choice of family size must rest irrevocably with parents. Hardin insisted instead that families should be allowed to have only as many children as they could provide for responsibly. He believed that appealing to people’s consciences to limit their progeny, however, would not work because the incentives to have large families were simply too great. Therefore, “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of people affected” was the only viable way to halt population growth. The enclosure of farmland, restriction of pastures and hunting and fishing areas, and limitation of waste disposal had ended the “commons” in these areas, thus infringing on personal liberty. Since no technical solution could rescue humanity from the misery and ruin of overpopulation, the freedom to breed must also be forcibly curtailed.

In 1972, Hardin published Exploring New Ethics for Survival
Exploring New Ethics for Survival (Hardin) to extend and popularize his argument that the tragedy of the commons could be avoided only if revolutionary changes were made in some of humanity’s ethical beliefs and political and economic arrangements. He attacked Western beliefs that progress is inevitable and that growth is always good and further explained why coercion was necessary to control population growth. He urged the United States to adopt a policy of population control that included legally restricting the breeding of those who refused to willingly cooperate.

In September, 1974, Psychology Today published an article that Hardin had entitled “Lifeboat Ethics,” “Lifeboat Ethics” (Hardin)[Lifeboat Ethics] with the rather inflammatory subtitle (added by an editor) “The Case Against Helping the Poor.” An expanded version of the article appeared the next month in BioScience as “Living on a Lifeboat.” “Living on a Lifeboat” (Hardin)[Living on a Lifeboat] Hardin’s argument in this essay has frequently been linked with the thesis of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and its publication fueled further debate.

In “Lifeboat Ethics,” Hardin accused “misguided idealists” of using Kenneth Boulding’s “spaceship earth” metaphor “to justify suicidal policies” of permitting uncontrolled immigration to the United States and dispensing extensive U.S. foreign aid. Hardin also rejected the concept of a world food bank (to dispense food to countries that could not feed themselves) on the grounds that it would reward laziness and lack of planning. Worse yet, it would enable populations to expand beyond what their environments could sustain and therefore would eventually cause greater misery. Since each person constituted “a draft on all aspects of the environment: food, air, water, forests, beaches, wildlife, scenery and solitude,” population growth must be sharply curtailed. Because no world government existed to control reproduction and limit the use of resources, Hardin contended, the United States must reject the sharing ethic of the spaceship and govern its actions by “the ethics of a lifeboat, harsh though they may be.”


By 1976, “The Tragedy of the Commons” had been reprinted more than fifty times, primarily in anthologies on a wide variety of subjects. Since its original publication, Hardin has defended and expanded its thesis in several other books and numerous journal articles. The response to his argument that direct and harsh measures must be used to control population has been voluminous, heated, and diverse. His position has been termed hard-nosed, hard-hearted, fatalistic, ethnocentric, elitist, imperialistic, unethical, and even obscene. He has been labeled a “scoundrel” and “the bad boy of biology.” His metaphors (especially “lifeboat ethics”) are considered simplistic, misleading, and dangerous. They promote selfishness and isolation, “blame the victim” (poor nations), and refuse to recognize that the United States is a “luxury yacht” and not a lifeboat. Critics consider his metaphors to be exalting survival over other important values such as community and mutuality.

Hardin and those who take a similar approach to population issues are often called proponents of an “environmental crisis perspective” or of “limited growth,” or “ecodoomsters” or “neo-Malthusians.” Their position does have roots in the writings of English economist Thomas Robert Malthus Malthus, Thomas Robert , who argued in An Essay on the Principle of Population, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society, Essay on the Principle of Population, An (Malthus) first published in 1798, that because population has the potential to increase geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16) and food supply can only expand arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8), population would someday outstrip food supply unless growth was inhibited by war, famine, and disease. Neo-Malthusians, though, call for positive action to limit population growth, including education, increased use of contraceptives, government incentives, and—as a last resort—mutually agreed-upon coercion as a way to prevent these Malthusian “checks.”

Important works that popularized this position include William and Paul Paddock’s Famine, 1975 (1967); Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and The Limits to Growth of 1972 (an analysis of computer projections of the interaction of population, industry, food production, natural resources, and the environment); and the Carter administration’s Global Report 2000 (1980). All these forecast calamity for the world unless major changes are made in political, economic, and social systems.

Those who disagree with Hardin and other neo-Malthusians can generally be divided into three camps: technological optimism, demographic transition, and distributive justice. Technological optimists such as Julian Simon, author of The Ultimate Resource
Ultimate Resource, The (Simon) (1981), accuse Hardin and his allies of pessimism. They maintain that rapid population growth is a benefit, not a threat, to the world, because more people lead to more productivity and creativity and permit economies of scale. They insist that the neo-Malthusians exaggerate the rate of resource depletion and the problems of environmental devastation. Science and technology, they claim, will solve the world’s current and projected resource and ecological problems by inventing synthetic substitutes for natural resources, greatly increasing agricultural productivity, developing new energy sources, and reversing the damage done to the environment.

Advocates of the demographic transition theory criticize Hardin and other neo-Malthusians for failing to recognize that economic development is the key to reducing population growth. Advocates of distributive justice insist that Hardin and his associates neglect the role that rich nations have played in producing and sustaining world poverty, hunger, and population growth. Through colonization, unjust trade policies, high tariffs, the exploitative practices of transnational corporations, and conspicuous and wasteful consumption, wealthy countries have thwarted the development of poorer nations.

Since 1968, Hardin has been the leading spokesperson for a policy on population that advocates realism over sentimentalism, pragmatism over indiscriminate charity, long-term over immediate results, social planning over haphazard activity, and, when necessary, coercion over persuasion. A master of metaphors, he has introduced such concepts as “the tragedy of the commons,” “social triage,” and “lifeboat ethics” into the debate over population and environmental issues. Many important organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Population Institute, International Planned Parenthood, the Population Council, Zero Population Growth, and the Population Crisis Committee support various aspects of Hardin’s approach to population control and development. By challenging the conventional solutions to the population “problem,” Hardin has stimulated much useful dialogue about public policy on hunger and environmental issues. His arguments have prodded affluent nations to move beyond a consideration of good intentions to an analysis of actual consequences as they scrutinize whether and how to intervene in the ecological and social life of poorer nations.

His greatest contributions have been to point out that science cannot solve all the world’s problems, that humanity is subject to ecological constraints, and that it is possible for people to shape their future carefully and rationally. Although many of his predictions and prescriptions have not been borne out, his idea of the tragedy of the commons has resonated in international debates concerning the preservation of international resources, in debates on the law of the sea, and in the effort to promote sustainable development. Overpopulation
“Tragedy of the Commons, The” (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons]
Zero Population Growth movement

Further Reading

  • Aiken, William, and Hugh La Follette, eds. World Hunger and Morality. 2d rev. ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996. Essays representing a variety of theoretical perspectives that seek to answer the question, What moral responsibility do rich nations have to the world’s malnourished?
  • Baden, John A., and Douglas S. Noonan, eds. Managing the Commons. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998. A collection of articles that examines in detail Hardin’s concept of the commons and concerns over managing world population growth. Includes a retrospective chapter on Hardin’s 1968 article.
  • Daly, Herman E., ed. Economics, Ecology, Ethics. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1980. Neo-Malthusian analysis of economic and ethical issues relating to population and the environment. Contains Hardin’s essay “Second Thoughts on ’The Tragedy of the Commons.’”
  • Davis, Kingsley, and Mikhail Bernstam, eds. Resources, Environment, and Population: Present Knowledge, Future Options. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Social and natural scientists who espouse the neo-Malthusian position evaluate the complex relationship among population growth, use of resources, and impact on the environment.
  • Ehrlich, Paul R., and John P. Holdren, eds. The Cassandra Conference: Resources and the Human Predicament. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988. Readable analysis of such topics as food availability, acid rain, energy shortages, toxic waste, overpopulation, and the world economy by scientific specialists. The authors hope that their forecasts of impending calamity will convince people that the earth’s resources are limited and that they cannot trust in technology to solve these problems.
  • Hardin, Garrett. Exploring New Ethics for Survival. New York: Viking Press, 1972. Intended for general readers, the book outlines some of the “revolutionary” changes Hardin believed must occur if humanity is to solve its deepest problems, including ending world population growth. Through the use of aphorisms and engaging examples, the book attempts to explain how freedom can be reconciled with coercion.
  • _______. Filters Against Folly: How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent. New York: Viking Press, 1985. Focuses on three “filters against folly” or intellectual tools Hardin believes can help resolve conflicts between economists and ecologists and guide thought about environmental dangers: literacy, numeracy, and ecolacy (taking into account the effects of complex interactions of systems over time).
  • Hardin, Garrett, and John Baden, eds. Managing the Commons. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1977. A collection of scholarly essays on the nature, growing awareness, and ways of managing such common human concerns as forests, grasslands, and population growth. Contains Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” “Living on a Lifeboat,” and “Ethical Implications of Carrying Capacity.”
  • McKee, Jeffrey K. Sparing Nature: The Conflict Between Human Population Growth and Earth’s Biodiversity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003. McKee explores the cause-and-effect relationship between human population growth and the squeezing out of animals and plants, all to the detriment of a healthy and sustaining life on Earth.
  • Murdoch, William W., and Allan Oates. “Population and Food: Metaphors and the Reality.” BioScience 25 (September, 1975): 561-567. An insightful critique of Hardin’s position by two biologists. A helpful discussion of the demographic transition argument and of literature supporting this view.
  • Ostrom, Elinor, et al., eds. The Drama of the Commons. National Research Council, Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2002. A comprehensive study of the concept of “the commons” for the new millennium and in an era of globalization. Available at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309082501/html.
  • Simon, Julian L. The Ultimate Resource. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981. A cogent statement of technological optimism. Argues that basic resources are becoming more abundant and cheaper, that food production is increasing more rapidly than population, and that population growth should be encouraged because it leads to more genius and talent and therefore to a greater ability to create new resources.
  • _______. The Ultimate Resource Two. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. At more than seven hundred pages, this comprehensive work continues Simon’s scholarship on global natural resources.
  • “Tragedy of the Commons?” Science 302 (2003). Special issue devoted to Hardin’s concept of the commons. Available at http://www.sciencemag.org/. Includes Hardin’s original essay, first published in Science magazine in 1968.
  • “World Famine and Lifeboat Ethics: Moral Dilemmas in the Formation of Public Policy.” Soundings 59 (Spring, 1976). Special issue of an interdisciplinary journal devoted to an analysis of population and hunger problems. Contains considerable critical assessment of Hardin’s “lifeboat” metaphor.

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