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In his article, “Living on a Lifeboat,” population biologist Garrett Hardin made an influential, albeit controversial, argument regarding the process of wealth and resource distribution (Hardin 1974). This paper will explore his main arguments, that providing aid to poor countries would result in unchecked population growth beyond the “carrying capacity” of their environments, ultimately acting as a catalyst for greater environmental and social issues and leading to the ‘fundamental error of the sharing ethic,’ that is, the tragedy of the commons. Following, I offer some criticisms of Hardin’s lifeboat analogy to demonstrate how the errors he describes are wrongly attributed to poor countries and should be directed towards rich, developed countries in the Global North who consume more resources than required for their population. I conclude by revisiting the concept of the lifeboat analogy and offering an ethical suggestions for reducing poverty.
Hardin disregards the environmentalist ‘spaceship’ analogy, and pioneers a new concept, that of ‘living on a lifeboat’ (Hardin 1974, p. 778). He begins by asking, “What should rich passengers on a rich lifeboat do,” claiming this is the central issue of lifeboat ethics. The main difference between the two is that in the spaceship analogy, everyone on Earth has equal access to the limited resources. Yet, in the lifeboat analogy, the people of poorer countries are at a disadvantage, while wealthier nations possess an advantage of resources and quality of life (Hardin 1974, pp. 778-79). However, his lifeboat analogy has flaws. He fails to realize that no country contains all poor people, or conversely, all rich people; rather, each country contains wealth inequality and more countries are somewhere in the middle-income range economically. In addition, while Hardin compares countries with carrying capacities to lifeboats, where a lifeboat has a fixed carrying capacity before it sinks, the carrying capacities of real-world nations are in constant flux and vary based on region, environment, and population. Moreover, Hardin fails to recognize the ways in which rich countries actually hinder the economic development of poor countries, for instance, through neoliberalism, extraction, unfair development loans, and historically speaking, the processes of colonization.
Hardin coined the term ‘tragedy of the commons’ as the fundamental error of the sharing ethic of the lifeboat analogy, with the sharing ethic loosely based on Christianism and Marxism (Hardin 1974, p. 781). Essentially, the concept follows this line of thinking: a lack of ownership of shared resources results in a lack of responsibility for those resources. As a result, the resources are used and depleted by all, and the environment is left in ultimate destruction and completely degraded. This concept also implies that acting for self interests and acting for profit are the root causes of the tragedy. The commons include natural resources such as our air, water, fish in rivers and oceans, and other natural and wild entities that may not have rights or are unable to be privatized. It also sees that each individual has needs that must be met, and needs are catered by the environment. Therefore, a growing population would have an increased burden on the environment.
In contrast, Hardin’s argument is an altruistic fallacy, as not all humans treat the environment this way: damaging the commons is a cultural, not an economic, problem. Additionally, I argue that Hardin’s tragedy is a naturalistic fallacy, for the majority of human societies did not pollute the environment as we do today. This ‘tragedy of the commons’ is therefore avoidable, and indigenous societies have lived with communal responsibility and no private ownership over natural resources successfully and sustainably in the past for thousands of years (Trawick 2003, p. 977). In order for this to occur, it requires individuals to make the decision to act in a way that does not end in collective destruction of the shared resources. Moreover, a group can also choose to make a collective agreement or regulations with built-in repercussions for those who choose to act in a way that destructs the collective resources. Lastly, Hardin believes that the commons could also be privatized and owned in order to avoid anyone using, exploiting, and polluting it at no charge.
Another issue with Hardin’s lifeboat analogy is his position on ‘natural checks’ on poor countries. Essentially, Hardin believes that poor countries should adjust their policies and practices and learn to budget for infrequent natural emergencies, believing these countries can learn from experience (Hardin 1974, pp. 783-784). Further, he claims that if poor or developing nations received no aid or food from the outside world (developed nations), famines and crop failures would periodically serve as natural checks on population growth. He justifies this claim by saying that population increases in developing countries equate to increases in need and use of global resources, which we cannot afford, as this would overload the environment.
However, this is a racist and elitist position; Hardin fails to realize that we live in an interconnected society, and developed nations strongly rely on poorer nations to produce a large portion of food for the world. He propagates economic isolation, believing in an “every one fights for themselves” falsehood, and negates the reality of globalization. In addition, developed countries have used poor nations as their personal garbage dumps during development while continuing to extract natural resources from their lands, robbing developing countries of the ability to progress fully while trapping them in debt.
One might also ask why appropriate aid and awareness or education of birth control measures could not be simultaneously implemented in areas where population is growing exponentially and the environment is being degraded? Additionally, there is an error in Hardin’s reasoning that suggests that not all peoples have a right to life, rather those who live in wealthy, developed nations with low population growth are the ones who are able to thrive in the face of climate change (Hardin 1974, pp. 785-86). Further, how can one deny the right to life for nations not on the lifeboat, despite the fact that a few hundred years ago, we (the developed countries) were in that very same position — growing uncontrollably and depleting resources unsustainably with little regard for the environment?
Additionally, I take issue with the way in which Hardin holds developed nations on a pedestal and ultimately blames poor countries for the world’s environmental problems. If one considers the historical processes of colonization that were led by the now developed nations of the Global North, then it is clear to see why many countries in the Global South are developing and struggling to advance on their own. Psychologically, economically, socially, and environmentally, the consequences of colonization are still contributing to drive global wealth and development inequalities today. Hardin writes about needs, the ways in which they differ, and consuming resources responsibly. Yet, he fails to mention that those in wealthy and developed countries, such as in the United States, consume resources at much higher rates that more than satisfy their needs.
Ultimately, in his argument, Hardin makes a case against helping the poor and against humanism. He is arguing that if we remove the poor, then world poverty will disappear. This is inherently unethical, logically unsound, and morally unjust. Instead, I suggest that one should work to eliminate poverty and encourage more equitable consumption patterns and resource distribution, for then, there might be fewer people in poverty with a higher quality of living.
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