Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Living within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos

Rate this book
"We fail to mandate economic sanity," writes Garrett Hardin, "because our brains are addled by... compassion ." With such startling assertions, Hardin has cut a swathe through the field of ecology for decades, winning a reputation as a fearless and original thinker. A prominent biologist, ecological philosopher, and keen student of human population control, Hardin now offers the finest summation of his work to date, with an eloquent argument for accepting the limits of the earth's resources--and the hard choices we must make to live within them.
In Living Within Limits , Hardin focuses on the neglected problem of overpopulation, making a forceful case for dramatically changing the way we live in and manage our world. Our world itself, he writes, is in the dilemma of the it can only hold a certain number of people before it sinks--not everyone can be saved. The old idea of progress and limitless growth misses the point that the earth (and each part of it) has a limited carrying capacity ; sentimentality should not cloud our ability to take necessary steps to limit population. But Hardin refutes the notion that goodwill and voluntary restraints will be enough. Instead, nations where population is growing must suffer the consequences alone. Too often, he writes, we operate on the faulty principle of shared costs matched with private profits. In Hardin's famous essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," he showed how a village common pasture suffers from overgrazing because each villager puts as many cattle on it as
possible--since the costs of grazing are shared by everyone, but the profits go to the individual. The metaphor applies to global ecology, he argues, making a powerful case for closed borders and an end to immigration from poor nations to rich ones. "The production of human beings is the result of very localized human actions; corrective action must be local....Globalizing the 'population problem' would only ensure that it would never be solved." Hardin does not shrink from the startling implications of his argument, as he criticizes the shipment of food to overpopulated regions and asserts that coercion in population control is inevitable. But he also proposes a free flow of information across boundaries, to allow each state to help itself.
"The time-honored practice of pollute and move on is no longer acceptable," Hardin tells us. We now fill the globe, and we have no where else to go. In this powerful book, one of our leading ecological philosophers points out the hard choices we must make--and the solutions we have been afraid to consider.

352 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1993

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Garrett Hardin

38 books53 followers
Garrett James Hardin was a leading and controversial ecologist from Dallas, Texas, who was most well known for his 1968 paper, The Tragedy of the Commons. He is also known for Hardin's First Law of Ecology, which states "You cannot do only one thing", and used the familiar phrase "Nice guys finish last" to sum up the "selfish gene" concept of life and evolution.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
81 (39%)
4 stars
73 (35%)
3 stars
28 (13%)
2 stars
17 (8%)
1 star
6 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews
Profile Image for Richard Reese.
Author 3 books170 followers
March 25, 2015
Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was famous for an essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, written in 1968. He thought that folks who kept their cattle on common lands had little concern for the condition of the pasture, while private pastures befitted from the careful stewardship of wise ranchers. In 1998, in response to critics, he published The Tragedy of the Commons — Extension, in which admitted that a better title for his essay would have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.

I was unsure of his message. Everyone understands that privately owned cropland is degraded with every pass of the plow, year after year, despite being managed by government rules and regulations. Private land is often permanently ruined by mining and manufacturing enterprises. Maybe the root of the tragedy was our civilized mindset — nature was created for human use, and the future doesn’t matter.

For years, I dismissed Hardin as a free enterprise gadfly. I discovered I was wrong when I read Living Within Limits. He was an enthusiastic critic of economic growth and population growth. In this book, Hardin had a heroic goal — radically reforming industrial civilization before it disintegrated. He read mountains of books, and generated an enormous stream of rational ideas and recommendations.

He plowed through multiple editions of Malthus, and concluded that the good Reverend was 95 percent right, which delighted me. Hardin summarized the message of Malthus as, “Disaster is a natural outcome of perpetual population growth, but disaster can be forestalled if society can find the will to put an end to population growth.” Poor Malthus has been widely hated for 200 years, most commonly by those who have never read him. His great sin was in questioning the trendy belief that civilization was in the fast lane to utopia, where humankind would achieve flawless perfection.

Hardin learned that enlightening the befuddled world was a frustrating endeavor. Questioning sacred norms instantly turned you into a dangerous nutjob. Alas, the modern world was as rational as a loony bin — despite the fact that we were the most highly educated generation that ever walked the Earth. The notion that there were limits was impossible to accept. He believed that the only thing that’s truly limitless is debt.

Here we are, well into the twenty-first century, still pissing away billions of dollars in the ridiculous pursuit of colonizing other planets. We need more space to grow, more resources to mine, fresh ecosystems to destroy. Would you volunteer for a 400-year voyage in a small metal capsule?

Here we are, still feverishly determined to pursue economic growth by any means necessary. Almost all economists suffer from the hallucination that endless economic growth is possible and desirable; resources are infinite. The sun is setting on the cheap energy bubble, which will eventually bring growth to a halt, and shift it into reverse. Well, let’s not think about that.

Here we are, several years beyond the peak of the global production of conventional oil, paying no attention to the foreseeable challenges ahead — production will continuously decline, whilst prices will continuously rise. M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist, predicted this in 1948, and the crowd chuckled. Hardin included a stunning graph that charts annual energy use, from 5,000 years past, to 5,000 years forward. At the center of this 10,000 year timeline appears one icicle-shaped spike, lasting a few hundred years, then dropping back to normal (a chart of population would look about the same). Of all the oil we will ever consume, 80 percent of it will have been extracted during a 56-year binge, roughly from 1969 to 2025. Let’s not think about that.

Here we are, still refusing to seriously consider the huge problem of overpopulation. Our boundless optimism has no doubt that miraculous technology will solve any problem. For almost the entire hominid journey, the rate of population growth has been close to zero. The rate rose a bit when ancestors got interested in tools, it rose more with the advent of agriculture, and it skyrocketed during the fossil fuel disaster — a reality that we consider to be normal. Hardin imagined that we will be happier when the herd shrinks to a half billion or so, as it was in 1492.

The problem is that, one by one, we’ve eliminated many of the controls that used to keep our population in balance. We killed off most man-eating predators. We developed a food production system that reduces the risk of famine. We built sanitation systems to prevent pandemics of fecal-oral diseases. We invented vaccinations and antibiotics to cure or prevent contagious diseases.

The remaining birth control options are voluntary, and Hardin insisted that voluntary efforts have always failed in the long run. An effective solution can only be based on coercion. We’re coerced to stop for red lights, aren’t we? Talking about reproductive rights without equal regard for reproductive responsibilities is foolish. Why hasn’t Congress fixed this problem already?

Hardin also detested immigration. America is a high waste society, and it’s highly overpopulated. Is it truly our obligation to care for everyone? There are two billion poor folks in the world. Shall we invite them all to join us? Or, should we send them lots of food?

Overpopulated poor countries are living beyond their carrying capacity, and this cannot not fixed by sending them food. More food reliably results in even more hungry people. Hardin thought this was dumb — we should simply mind our own business, let nature take its course, and allow balance to be restored. He thought that the leaders of poor countries had an obligation to take responsibility for their overpopulation, and develop appropriate solutions. It’s their job.

It’s been 20 years since Hardin’s book was published, and everything has rapidly gotten worse. There is clearly a sense of frustration and despair in his words. We’re heading for a bloody disaster, and nobody cares! The problems are obvious, as are intelligent responses. (Scream!)

I used to feel that pain. The pain was rooted in the expectation that modern society should behave in a rational manner, as we were taught in school. I’ve since realized that this expectation was absurd and harmful. We are who we are, and we’ll change when we run out of options. The pain has faded.

In theory, humankind is not fatally flawed. Almost all of our ancestors lived in a relatively sustainable manner. They developed voluntary methods of birth control that worked quite well. Genetically, we are purebred hunter-gatherers, beautifully evolved for a low-impact life in the great outdoors. Our experiment with civilization has been purely unnatural. Our current problems emerged in the last few thousand years. In theory, we can learn from our mistakes, and return to living in balance. In the long run, it’s either balance or bye-bye.

By definition, an unsustainable population can only be temporary. The same is true for continuous economic growth. Time will fix these mistakes, with or without our assistance. We should have listened to Hardin, but we didn’t, so we’ll leave more scars on the planet. The scar of an unbalanced climate may not heal for a long, long time. It’s quite possible that warming will force the human journey into a new and very different direction. Should we think about it?

Profile Image for Samuel Peck.
134 reviews20 followers
July 14, 2017
This was a very interesting and, at times, strange book. Hardin asks some hard questions about some hard truths and does not shy away from societal taboos.

Hardin is/was a real multidisciplinary thinker who has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about overpopulation, one of the main causes, in my opinion, of many of today's problems which include environmental damage. Could see why Charlie Munger had recommended this book, given his support for multidisciplinary thinking.

The book is packed with wisdom that extends beyond what you would expect from a book that talks about overpopulation - think economics, philosophy, history and biology.

However to my perhaps unenlightened mind some parts of the book appear to me to be mere random ramblings of a madman. These parts were hard to plow through and appear to be of diminished relevance to the overall message of the book.

Despite its flaws - and any reader (including myself) is almost guaranteed to disagree with and also be offended by several parts of the book - it is still a book worth reading by anyone and everyone.
Profile Image for Edd Simmons.
87 reviews2 followers
January 3, 2021
This was a complete book. And I don’t want to miss out on talking about any important points that were written. I think I’m becoming a well-rounded reader in the realm of #nonfiction for what I’m grabbing. #garretthardin writes likes a mystic and I like it. I think he was well ahead of his time for this book to be published in 1993. Phrases he uses to explain population, ecology, and economics are Gigo trash, Space Ecology, Cowboy Economics, Space Ship Earth and many others. Considering the topics used and the ways to explain them even in scientific writing is no easy task at hand. Maybe for some readers who the book should not be recommended to is because of the fluorescent writing. But the way he asserts how we live in the world’s population is genius. And I personally think because of this the book would never be outdated
Profile Image for James Petzke.
68 reviews1 follower
July 31, 2020
Lots of good here, but it's outdated, gets a lot of things wrong, and isn't well focused.
34 reviews
May 10, 2021
Presents a number of important ecological concpets as they relate to human populations. Several are rather obvious, while others are less so, but all ought to be learned to fluency.
1 review1 follower
April 22, 2007
This is an engaging, iconoclastic, and well-written book. Even when I did not agree with Hardin's position, I still appreciated the vigor of his argument. To get a sense how this argument runs, here are excerpts from a summary of the book I am writing for one of my urban planning classes.


Hardin argues that four centuries of technological progress have blinded us to resource limits. ...

Hardin cites perpetual motion machines and compound interest as examples of this faith. Inventor after inventor claims to have discovered the secret of perpetual motion, though such a feat would defy the most basic laws of physics. The “miracle” of compound interest is touted by investors, though it cannot operate in the long term without being reigned in by inflation, bank failures, and other events.

The attitude of the layman has been shared by most economists since Malthus. Hardin refers to this style of economics as “cowboy economics.” ...The cowboy economist emphasizes the “production” stage of the production function, while resource use and waste are given marginal attention (Hardin 57-8). This way of seeing things enables the cowboy economist to discount the effect of current actions on future circumstances and to believe that perpetual economic growth is possible

Hardin argues that cowboy economist’s worldview is now outmoded and dangerous. “Sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Instead we must adopt a steady-state approach to economics that “gives equal emphasis to source, production, and sink.” (Hardin 60). Hardin refers to this approach as “spaceship ecology.” The spaceship metaphor emphasizes both the Earth as a closed system containing limited resources with no “away” to throw to and the Earth as the only viable location for human settlement. Dreams of addressing resource shortages by colonizing other planets are, in Hardin’s view, wholly unrealistic. ...

Hardin argues that the “Malthusian demostat” is the only realistic way to understand the relationship between human populations and resource limits. The Malthusian demostat works like a thermostat. Should population exceed carrying capacity (i.e. the level at which a population can be supported given the quantity of food, habitat, and water and other life infrastructure present), it will be reduced by “misery” (e.g. disease, starvation) and “vice” (e.g. murder). Should a population fall below carrying capacity, it will rise due to the relative abundance of resources, increased health, and, ultimately, higher fertility rates (Hardin 104). ...

Hardin believes that policies, such as international food aid, that are rooted in compassion are often misguided: “Unmeasured compassion can lead to immeasurable suffering.” (Hardin 245) One reason is that such policies tend to commonize costs while privatizing profits (what Hardin calls the “CC-PP game”), which, in turn, produces a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation. One example of a CC—PP game is welfare, which affords people the private benefit of having children while shifting the costs to society.

Immigration is also a kind of CC—PP game, though in this case the costs are born by other countries. In Hardin’s view a liberal immigration policy sends the wrong signals to countries exporting immigrants. It says to them, in effect, that population growth can be managed by exporting excess population to other countries rather than by attempting to restrict population at home.

In the final analysis, Hardin believes that there is only one formula for population control in a democratic society, that is, mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon. ...
16 reviews
February 13, 2017
Hardin vezette be az okologia koceptumjat a kozgazdasag melle. Tulpopulaciorol ir, hogy nincsen szabadulas a foldrol tehat a problemat vagy mi oldjuk meg vagy pedig, mivel a populaciot negativ feed-back rendszer szabalyozza (amit o Malthusi demostatnak nevez) felprobal hivni a problema fontossagara es felelossegre szolit fel. Megoldast nem ad, mint mindenki o is leirja hogy vagy mi emberiseg jovunk egy megoldassal, vagy pedig a fold a sajar megoldasaival fogja megoldani a tulpopulaciot, azaz ehseg es betegseggel, meg pedig a veluk jaro szocialis kaosszal.
Rovidre fogva:

- nem tudunk megszabadulni a csillagokba, nem oldana meg a problemat a foldon ugy sem.

- nem letezik orokos exponencialis novekedes, a fold populacioja pedig az utobbi evtizedekben exponencialisan novekedett es a ipari forradalomnak koszonhetoen az emberiseg exponencialisan novekedett.
- a fold vegzetes es van egy viselokepessege, amit ha meghaladunk visszafordithatatlan valtozasokat idezunk elo
- akarmilyen politika ami populacio novekedest elleoriz csakis akkor tud hatekony lenni, hogyha ellenorizve van egy hataron belol, ami imigracios szabalyozast feltetelez. Nem letezik egy globalis populacio problema, mivel nincs egy golbalis rendszer amivel ellenorizzuk, nem lenne hatekony mint ahogy a marxista elvek sem voltak, ami bizonyitott teny a tortenelemben.
Profile Image for Mark Gowan.
Author 6 books9 followers
November 24, 2015
For those who understand that overpopulation is the number one environmental threat, Garrett Hardin is author that they will eventually land upon to clarify their main arguments. Hardin is famous (or infamous depending upon your viewpoint) for his philosophical arguments concerning ecology, economy and population: the three go together. Hardin sums up what we all know either consciously or unconsciously. His book, while thorough and easy to read, is solid, leaving no ground unbroken.
Living Within Limits takes stabs at all the enemies of common sense: oligarchs, religion and the economists who refuse to accept the overwhelming facts, and one in particular: unlimited population growth coupled with finite resources will eventually lead to the destruction of us all. While this is the main thesis of the book, it is not all dark and doom. Hardin offers solutions, hence the subtitle: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos.
The solutions are straight-forward, to the point, easily understood, but will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve: we must, as the title implies live within limits which is difficult given the systems that make most of our everyday lives comfortable and secure. I think that Hardin’s book is a must read for those who have vague ideas and a box full of worries concerning overpopulation and what to do about it. Hardin is clear and concise as well as straight forward in is argument. This book is somewhat of a philosophical standard in thoughts concerning environmental ethics, ethics and even perhaps sociology.
Although I am quite sure that Hardin’s name is not one known in many homes, it should be as he offers an explanation of, and a possible solution for a problem that is inevitable if we continue to believe that there are no limits. A must read for those who realize that this is not a problem that will go away, nor is it one that will fix itself. Living Within Limits is a lesson that is long overdue.
Profile Image for Evan.
61 reviews
April 12, 2021
Perpetual motion machines will never exist.

Hardin highlights (albeit in rambling style) issues with the assumptions held in the West. Perpetual and exponential growth of both populations and economies is simply impossible in a physical world with limited resources, yet to bring up these logistical discrepancies today is considered a modern heresy. Written almost 30 years ago, his concerns about our inability to explore these obvious problems have proven to be prescient.
Profile Image for Heath Ochroch.
13 reviews2 followers
December 28, 2013
Resources increase arithmetically, populations increase geometrically. This is a Big problem.

It is considered morally wrong to limit the amount of children one may have. This may sound like the way it has always been, but there has not always been a welfare system to feed every child born. In the 1700s, a woman was free to have 10 kids, but only two might actually survive to produce children of their own.

Population can be thought of like a thermostat. When populations get too high, wars, famine and/or disease arise. When populations get too low, people have more children until things are back to normal levels.

We also learn the paradox of Commonized Costs, Privatized Profits.
Some parts can be Extremely dry, but the book is Incredibly smart, and will significantly broaden your mental perspective.
Profile Image for Booky.
26 reviews
May 7, 2016
One of the best under-the-radar books I've read. Makes me question why both Mr Hardin and his work isn't better known worldwide.
It's a truly rational and thoughtprovoking account on ecology; the effect overpopulation and poor human rationale has on the economy, politics, the environment, etc.
So much wisdom, should really be compulsory reading in schools worldwide.
Profile Image for Hazem.
4 reviews7 followers
December 25, 2016
This book belongs to the general subject of ecology and under the subheading of population studies. It seems to address the general readership with an interest in ecology, demography and economics. The book appeaes well paced and thoroughly indexed. It has insightful graphs and an enlightening anthology of literature of special relevance to the matter at hand. Highly recommended.
6 reviews
June 29, 2016
A very challenging book to read in terms of content, but this is what I think makes it a great book. I personally found the flow of the chapters at the beginning difficult to follow due to the style of writing but this got better throughout the book.
Profile Image for Roberto Yoed.
689 reviews
June 4, 2021
Neo-Malthusianism gibberish: not a profound analysis but rather a lazy one.
31 reviews
April 21, 2017
Interesting perspective from an ecologist's point of view. Do we have too many kids? Do we consume too many materials? Good questions to reflect and make personal answers.
Displaying 1 - 18 of 18 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.