Jim's Reviews > Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos

Living Within Limits by Garrett Hardin
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's review
Apr 22, 2007

it was amazing
Read in March, 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. ...

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