Lifeboat Ethics and Overpopulation (Blog 9)

For my group presentation on the question “Is there anything wrong with the goal of endless population, economic/GDP and consumption growth in the free market approach?” I focused on the issue of overpopulation and I will do the same for the purpose of this blog.

Thomas Robert Malthus held two principles to be true: “First, that food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, that the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.”[1] The power of population is a superior power to the earth’s ability to produce subsistence and with the human population growing exponentially while the increase in food supply is only able to grow arithmetically, going beyond our nations and our earths carrying capacity leaves us doomed for a tragic ending. For Malthus, war, epidemics, plagues and famine are all necessary occurrences in the human race because large amounts of premature death have to reach humans in some shape in order to control the population as much as possible.

overpopulation1Garrett Hardin is a famous biologist, best know for his lifeboat ethics and tragedy of the commons theories. Hardin says that many environmentalists attempt to use the metaphor that the earth is “spaceship” to show that there is only so much space and we all share it so we have to do our part in keeping it clean and usable for everyone. However, he sees a fundamental flaw in this metaphor; a true spaceship would have a captain, someone guiding it, but there is no such world leader so he sees the earth as being much more akin to a lifeboat. The lifeboat has a limited capacity and it is important to maintain a “safety factor,” that is a certain amount of extra room to account for any unforeseeable disasters as well as leaving room for reproduction.

boatI found Garrett Hardin’s view intriguing and troubling. I have never thought of the issues in quite the way he presented them. I found them troubling because I found myself agreeing with his statements and then suddenly realizing the implications if his thoughts were put in to action. In response to the idea of a World Food Bank (as well as pretty much all other humanitarian assistance programs), he believes in a system of “learning the hard way” for those countries who cannot provide for their own people. Some students brought up in class that his views appeared to be fundamentally racist because the people and countries that he doesn’t see worthy of saving are primarily black and African. He also sees immigration as a problem, claiming to be focused on the quantity of immigrants not the quality or background of them. However, I find it a particularly sticky subject and difficult to detach, in reality, the quantity and quality.

I thought that Hardin made some good points, but took them to the extreme. I could understand and argument for limiting Immigration so as not to overflow the environment and carrying capacities of each nation, but not completely shutting the door. I could understand advocating for educational programs in poor countries whose population growth rates are through the roof. immigration-camp_of_the_saintsBut cutting off assistance and aid, it’s just not the ideals this country was built upon and the so- called guilty white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are never going to let this happen and I believe that it shouldn’t. I agree with both Hardin and Malthus that there is in fact a problem with allowing population to grow endlessly, and maybe their extreme theories of solving the problem are the only solutions. However, I don’t think that controlling the population through strict immigration policies and leaving the poor nations to fend for themselves is going to solve this worlds environmental issues. I find that both Hardin and Malthus overlooked a large fact in their arguments; the biggest offenders of environmental pollution and degradation are the western, first world nations with the slowest growing populations and the third world nations that they don’t see as being worthy of being helped or saved are the ones feeling the biggest impact of our nation’s disregard for the environment. I think there needs to be a compromise or a medium somewhere between environmentalist’s spaceship metaphor and Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics for the solutions to be more grounded in reality.


Question: Anthropocentrism places intrinsic value in humans, however it appears that what Hardin and Malthus advocate for would be contrary to this assumed value. So, how do Hardin’s and Malthus’ views fit in to the anthropocentric ethic?

[1] Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, The Environmental Ethics & Policy Book (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomas Learning, 2003), 397.


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