Hardin’s Lifeboat Adrift: Ecologist Says “Imperialism Too Good for Third World”

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Hardin’s Lifeboat Adrift: Ecologist Says “Imperialism Too Good for Third World”

by John Vandermeer

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 8, No. 1, January 1976, p. 16–19

Garrett Hardin has finally made it. Once a little known man preaching strange science, his name now appears in Time magazine and on placards at demonstrations in India. He has seized the time and found a friendly reception from an audience fully primed with tales of welfare chislers, lazy poor folk, and belligerently unthankful recipients of foreign aid. He commandeers a bandwagon which uses a pseudoscientific ecological analysis to justify the past and current policy of a class biased distribution of resources. 

Originally a bacteriologist, Hardin began writing on ecological and environmental issues about 10 years ago. His most well known work is “The Tragedy of the Commons”1, a thinly disguised attack on community owned property and collective responsibility. He is currently active on the lecture circuit and has appeared on several TV talk shows, primarily for the purpose of selling his latest reactionary dogma. What has now come to be called Hardinism is more sinister than most of its detractors admit. It is a pernicious political doctrine based on a so called ecological analysis. The ecological analysis is scientifically wrong, but ideologically consistent. 

What exactly does Hardin say? His analysis of the current food and population crisis proceeds along two interrelated lines. First, his lifeboat ethics, as he states in Bioscience

Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats. Continuously, so to speak, the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to the rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the ‘goodies’ on board. What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of ‘the ethics of a lifeboat’. ”2 

Second, his theory of the guardians of civilization, 

It is unlikely that civilization and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none. Fortunate minorities must act as the trustees of a civilization that is threatened by uninformed good intentions.3

This two step analysis is backed by three basic assumptions: First, the world’s population is locked into a scarce resource situation mainly because of its excessive size. Second, the distribution of resources into have and have-not lifeboats is inevitable. Third, privileged classes are necessary or at least desirable to make a better life (or at least an acceptable life) for future generations. 

Hardin’s analysis (the lifeboat model plus the trustees of civilization theory), coupled with his three assumptions (population causes scarcity, class structure is inevitable, and class structure is desirable), lead to the conclusion that it is our moral responsibility to future generations to withhold resources from those who presently do not have enough to survive. If we do not, they will only produce more babies, thereby exacerbating an already critical situation. As the National Observer put it, “let ’em starve” is an ethical consequence of Hardin’s lifeboat ethics, and the “em” are all the others who are not the trustees of civilization. In the following paragraphs I shall argue that all three of Hardin’s assumptions are incorrect. and that he is driven, perhaps unconsciously, by a particular ideology. 

Population and Resource Scarcity 

This assumption is guided by a theoretical line with supporting empirical evidence. The theoretical line states that world resources are finite, and that if population continues to increase we must eventually reach the point where there are not enough resources to keep people alive. The empirical evidence is that a large fraction of the world’s population is hungry, and many are starving. However the conclusion that present starvation and hunger results from present overpopulation is the result of muddied logic. Proponents of this conclusion seem to have the concepts of “necessary” and “sufficient” a bit confused. It is true that real overpopulation necessarily results in large numbers of starving people. It is not true that the existence of large numbers of starving people today is “sufficient” to demonstrate the reality of overpopulation. 

In fact, there is an equally plausible alternative hypothesis, namely that resource scarcity is caused by inequalities in the distribution of resources, i.e. resources are only apparently scarce. As long as the economic and political system generates an inequitable distribution of resources, even a non-growing population will experience apparent resource scarcity, well before resources are actually in short supply.

 Thus, theoretical arguments suggest that the problem should be posed in the form of two alternative questions: is hunger caused mainly by overpopulation? Or is hunger caused mainly by inequitable distribution? The available evidence supports the second hypothesis. In terms of energy and resource consumption, each U.S. citizen costs the world the equivalent of what somewhere between 25 and 500 Indians cost.4 Most of the world’s resources are consumed by developed nations with low population growth rates.5 Country by country comparisons show, if anything, a negative correlation between population density and hunger.6 Generally, those countries with higher population densities have higher standards of living than those countries with lower population densities. It is thus apparent, from the available data that present propulation density must be far less important than distribution of resources in generating hunger.7 (This is not to imply that over population will never be a problem—clearly the possibility of absolute overpopulation will always exist since we live on a finite world.) 

Distribution of Resources 

His arguments on this assumption seem to be two: First, historically it has always been that way. Second, no matter what we do, a few people will garner the lion’s share of the wealth—if someone who has a lot gives his or her wealth away, someone else will take over that person’s position and nothing will have been changed. The historical argument is obviously vacuous and merits little comment. It is at least debatable whether historically it has always been that way,8 and even if it were, that doesn’t argue one way or another for the future. 

However, his second argument is curiously correct, within its self-defined limits. It is not a new argument by any means. According to Hardin, 

‘I feel guilty about my good luck,’ say some. The reply to this is simple: Get out and yield your place to others. Such a selfless action might satisfy the conscience of those who are addicted to guilt but it would not change the ethics of the lifeboat. The needy person to whom a guilt-addict yields his [sic] place will not himself feel guilty about his sudden good luck. (lf he did he would not climb aboard.) The net result of conscience-stricken people relinquishing their unjustly held positions is the elimination of their kind of conscience from the lifeboat.9

Hardin seems to be reminding us of one of the basics of Marxism. Under capitalism, wealth and power will tend to concentrate in the hands of a small segment of the population. Hardin is merely reaffirming this principle, albeit somewhat superficially. Thus, if Hardin is referring to the idea of the owners and rulers of the industrialized countries giving up their power and wealth, then we would have to agree with his conclusion and we might accurately paraphrase his words to read, “the net result of conscience-stricken capitalists relinquishing their unjustly accumulated capital to the labor force is the elimination of their kind of conscience from the capitalist class, and thus the world’s economy.” However, if Hardin is referring to the people of the industrialized countries in general as if they all are net beneficiaries of imperialism, then his premise is patently false because it ignores class structure. If Hardin is ignoring class differences, then it is another of his false premises which serves to justify his lifeboat/trustee ethic. 

The sad and frightening feature of this piece of the analysis is that most people approaching these problems from the point of view of ecology, do not seem to see that inherent features of the capitalist system are the major driving force of those ever present inequities. Hardin does not admit that his own analysis says, in part, that any population organized under capitalism will be driven to the lifeboat ethic, regardless of its population size or rate of growth. 

Hardin would, I suspect, grant all of the above—that is, that capitalism has led to the lifeboat ethics in the first place. (He would probably also insist that any industrially organized society would generate the same consequences—”socialism too”.) He would also probably admit that in generating the inequalities that presently exist, the developing world has been choked by the developed world, that the rich countries have been massively stealing the resources, squandering the labor, and stunting the economic and political development of the underdeveloped countries. But he would then probably counter with his oft heard “I don’t care about the past, I’m worried about the future.” With that seemingly rational pragmatism he would point out that he, personally, is not responsible for the present outrageous inequities, and that as much as he deplores their existence he nevertheless feels he must face up to their realities. That which exists now is what we must work with. From here on in let’s keep distribution constant. But what he fails to acknowledge is that it is impossible to keep distribution constant when the very force that has in the past determined distribution remains in effect. 

In summary, if we accept capitalism as the mode of economic organization, Hardin’s second assumption is quite correct, inequities are inevitable. However, he is certainly not correct if we admit to a larger world view. 

Privilege and Trusteeship 

Hardin’s third assumption is perhaps the most pernicious of all, that inequities are in fact desirable. This assumption is derived from an elitist conservation ethic. For example, consider the dawn redwood tree (one of Hardin’s actual examples).10 Long thought to have been driven to extinction by axe wielding Homo sapiens, the species was rediscovered in isolated pockets in China. These pockets correspond to former or present locations of temple gardens. Hardin paints the historical picture of the peasant seeking firewood and the priest protecting the firewood (the dawn redwood tree). The conclusion is that without those priests—a privileged class—protecting those redwood trees from those peasants, the dawn redwood would indeed be an extinct species. Thus if we are to preserve nature for posterity, some priveleged class must be relied upon to do so, since common people are more concerned with common problems such as where to find food and shelter. 

This particular assumption derives much support from an ethic of philanthropism which has in fact resulted in  the protection of large tracts of wilderness, national parks lands, and other natural phenomena. However, that support quickly looses its force when one realizes that the sources of that philanthropism are the same entities which have raped so much of the natural world in the last century. The lower classes haven’t polluted Lake Erie, or putrified the air in Gary, Indiana. For every 50 acre plot of natural forest “protected” by some philanthropist, it is safe to assume that the equivalent of thousands of acres of nature have been destroyed by capitalists in search of profit, accountable to no one but themselves—part of this profit fills the pockets of the philanthropists. 

The real choice faced by the conservationist is not between equality in social justice versus preservation of nature, as Hardin would have us believe. Rather it is between the preservation of small islands of nature in a sea of vulgar exploitation versus the creation of a system human organization which promotes a harmonious existence both among human beings and between humans and nature. Do we wish to preserve patches of nature by way of luxury and exception or do we wish to preserve nature itself for all people’s benefit? 

I have argued above that the three principal assumptions leading to Hardin’s lifeboat-guardian of civilization arguments are wrong. They are wrong for a variety of reasons and little can be done to make them right without destroying the underlying axioms upon which they are based. In the face of this result I am forced to conclude that humanitarians, ecologists, and conservationists alike should procede to struggle against the axiomatic framework which makes assumptions like Hardin’s plausible. 

In effect, lifeboat-trustee ethics is a rationalization of the existing socio-political system in most of the “developed” world. It is a rationalization which is couched in a “scientific” framework, the science in this case being ecology. It is important to realize that this form of rationalization is not without precedent.11 Jensenism is the most obvious development of this sort in recent times. In spite of the fact that responsible refutations of the Jensen-Herrnstein line are abundant 12 Time magazine treats the issue as if it were still “controversial,” and Daniel Moynihan says “The winds of Jensenism are spreading across Capital Hill”.13 The thesis of Jensen and Herrnstein, in spite of the fact that it is demonstrably false, remains potentially influential in policy decisions about educational programs at the national level. More importantly it still acts as a “scientific” justification for the existing socio-political system. 

The parallels between the Jensen-Herrnstein line and the Hardin line are clear.14 Hardin does not justify the existence of an inequitable society directly, but implies that changing to an equitable society would be an ecological disaster. The ecological consequences of doing anything other than what we are currently doing are disastrous. Jensen and Herrnstein use, or misuse, psychology and genetics to justify the status quo. Hardin uses ecology to do the same. 

A deeper analysis indicates that what we are dealing with is an ideology in trouble. If any lifeboat is in danger it is the ideological lifeboat in which the trustees find themselves. Our national myth—though somewhat of a joke right now—is an egalitarian society. But “all people are created equal” comes face to face with blatantly obvious inequities. Our international posture, also a myth, is one of generously giving developmental aid to poor countries. But those poor countries continually “bite the hand that feeds them” with increasingly sharp attacks against the agents of so-called aid (multinational corporations, AID, etc.), pointing out that the net flow of wealth, goods and services is to the developed countries, not from them. Our ideology seems to lead to contradictions. What a wonderful way out—”all people are not created equal” according to Jensenism, and even if they were “egalitaianism would lead to ecological disaster” according to Hardinism. 

Science has been almost religiously mystified in the minds of most people in our society. As a result, “scientific” evidence usually weighs heavily in policy decisions. But we see that it is not so important that the scientific evidence be correct as it is that the scientific evidence be in accord with current ideology. Scientific apologists for the status quo have been called upon in the past, they are being called upon now, and they will be called upon in the future. It is important for us to recognize the political content of all scientific proclamations. It is important for us to realize that such scientific proclamations inevitably are based at least partially on some ideology. Therefore, in judging the merits of scientific rationale for policy decisions it is most important that we first clearly define our own world view. What are our social values? What is our ideology? Garrett Hardin has made it abundantly clear what kind of society he wants. He has given an ecological rationale for that society. There is serious fault with Hardin’s ecological analysis. But more importantly, we must stand in strong opposition to his ideology.

John Vandermeer

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  1. “Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162:1243 (13 Dec.1968).
  2. “Lifeboat Ethics.” Bioscience Oct. 1974.
  3. Editorial in Science, 172:1297, 1971.
  4. Davis, W. Readings in Human Population Ecology, 1971.
  5. The U.S. with 5% of the world’s population, alone, consumes 42% of the world’s aluminum, 28% of its iron, 63% of its natural gas, and 33% of its petroleum. U.S. Bureau of Mines, 1970. Mineral Facts and Problems. Of approximately 60 million metric tons of fish caught in 1967, over a third was consumed directly by the developed nations, and 45% was consumed by them indirectly as fish meal fed to livestock. Only 8 million tons (14%) went to the hungry nations. Georg Borgstrom, 1970. “The Harvest of the Seas: How Fruitful and for Whom.” In Helfrich, H.W., Jr. (ed.) The Environmental Crisis, Yale Univ. Press.
  6. Population density of India is 164 people per sq. km. while that of Great Britain is 228 people per sq. km. For other countries the number of people per sq. km. is: Mexico 25; U.S. 42; Bolivia 4; West Germany 237; Ethiopia 20; Belgium 316; Pakistan (including Bangladesh) is 118; Japan 277; Mozambique 9; and Netherlands 315 people per sq. km. Clearly population density per se is not the cause of hunger. U.N. Estimates for 1969, U.N. Demographic Yearbook, 1969.
  7. As Barry Commoner notes, “Population control is like trying to save a sinking boat through lightening the load by throwing people overboard instead of repairing the leak. The Closing Circle; further analyses of various aspects of population can be found in “Not Better Lives, Just Fewer People,” SftP VI, 1:1/74; 18; “Science versus Ethics,” SftP VII, 4:7/75; 14; Commoner, Ramparts.
  8. One might argue that many primitive societies such as the Kung bush people, the Congo pigmys, or even the Australian aborigines have egalitarian societies.
  9. Hardin, Lifeboat Ethics (op. cit.).
  10. Hardin, address at the University of Michigan, March 26, 1975.
  11. Lewontin, “A New Battle in an Old War,” SftP, VI, 2:3/75:5; Allen, “A History of Eugenics in the Class Struggle.” SftP, 2:3/74;21
  12.  Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 39, No. 2; Lewontin, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 26, Nos. 3, 5; 1970; Montague, Race and I.Q., Oxford Univ. Press, 1975; SftP, VI, 2; 3/74.
  13. Quoted in: “A New Battle in an Old War.” (op. cit.) Moynihan is now U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. where he is putting into practice lifeboat politics, playing world trustee.
  14. The parallels between Jensen-Herrnstein and Hardin are most importantly associated with ideological justification. In addition, however, Hardin’s earlier writings smack of the same brand of biological determinism as that of Jensen and Herrnstein. For example, “If we lived in a non-competitive One World the non-creativity of what is undoubtedly a genetically superior class (the wealthy of our age) would not matter.” 1959. Nature and Man’s Fate. New American Library, N.Y.