At the end of a thoughtful article on the future of nuclear war, Wiesner and York (1) concluded that: "Both sides in the
arms race are ... confronted by the dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security.
It is our considered professional judgment that this dilemma has no technical solution. If the great powers continue
to look for solutions in the area of science and technology only, the result will be to worsen the situation."
I would like to focus your attention not on the subject of the article (national security in a nuclear world) but on the
kind of conclusion they reached, namely that there is no technical solution to the problem. An implicit and almost universal
assumption of discussions published in professional and semipopular scientific journals is that the problem under discussion
has a technical solution. A technical solution may be defined as one that requires a change only in the techniques of the
natural sciences, demanding little or nothing in the way of change in human values or ideas of morality.
In our day (though not in earlier times) technical solutions are always welcome. Because of previous failures in prophecy,
it takes courage to assert that a desired technical solution is not possible. Wiesner and York exhibited this courage; publishing
in a science journal, they insisted that the solution to the problem was not to be found in the natural sciences. They cautiously
qualified their statement with the phrase, "It is our considered professional judgment. . . ." Whether they were right or
not is not the concern of the present article. Rather, the concern here is with the important concept of a class of human
problems which can be called "no technical solution problems," and, more specifically, with the identification and discussion
of one of these. It is easy to show that the class is not a null class.
Recall the game of tick-tack-toe. Consider the problem, "How can I win the game of tick-tack-toe?" It is well known that
I cannot, if I assume (in keeping with the conventions of game theory) that my opponent understands the game perfectly. Put
another way, there is no "technical solution" to the problem. I can win only by giving a radical meaning to the word "win."
I can hit my opponent over the head; or I can drug him; or I can falsify the records. Every way in which I "win" involves,
in some sense, an abandonment of the game, as we intuitively understand it. (I can also, of course, openly abandon the game--refuse
to play it. This is what most adults do.)
The class of "No technical solution problems" has members. My thesis is that the "population problem," as conventionally
conceived, is a member of this class. How it is conventionally conceived needs some comment. It is fair to say that most people
who anguish over the population problem are trying to find a way to avoid the evils of overpopulation without relinquishing
any of the privileges they now enjoy. They think that farming the seas or developing new strains of wheat will solve the problem--technologically.
I try to show here that the solution they seek cannot be found. The population problem cannot be solved in a technical way,
any more than can the problem of winning the game of tick-tack-toe.
What Shall We Maximize?
Population, as Malthus said, naturally tends to grow "geometrically," or, as we would now say, exponentially. In a finite
world this means that the per capita share of the world's goods must steadily decrease. Is ours a finite world?
A fair defense can be put forward for the view that the world is infinite; or that we do not know that it is not. But,
in terms of the practical problems that we must face in the next few generations with the foreseeable technology, it is clear
that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the
terrestrial human population is finite. "Space" is no escape (2). A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore,
population growth must eventually equal zero. (The case of perpetual wide fluctuations above and below zero is a trivial variant
that need not be discussed.) When this condition is met, what will be the situation of mankind? Specifically, can Bentham's
goal of "the greatest good for the greatest number" be realized?
No--for two reasons, each sufficient by itself. The first is a theoretical one. It is not mathematically possible to maximize
for two (or more) variables at the same time. This was clearly stated by von Neumann and Morgenstern (3), but the principle
is implicit in the theory of partial differential equations, dating back at least to D'Alembert (1717-1783).
The second reason springs directly from biological facts. To live, any organism must have a source of energy (for example,
food). This energy is utilized for two purposes: mere maintenance and work. For man, maintenance of life requires about 1600
kilocalories a day ("maintenance calories"). Anything that he does over and above merely staying alive will be defined as
work, and is supported by "work calories" which he takes in. Work calories are used not only for what we call work in common
speech; they are also required for all forms of enjoyment, from swimming and automobile racing to playing music and writing
poetry. If our goal is to maximize population it is obvious what we must do: We must make the work calories per person approach
as close to zero as possible. No gourmet meals, no vacations, no sports, no music, no literature, no art ... I think that
everyone will grant, without argument or proof, that maximizing population does not maximize goods. Bentham's goal is impossible.
In reaching this conclusion I have made the usual assumption that it is the acquisition of energy that is the problem.
The appearance of atomic energy has led some to question this assumption. However, given an infinite source of energy, population
growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation,
as J. H. Fremlin has so wittily shown (4). The arithmetic signs in the analysis are, as it were, reversed; but Bentham's goal
is still unobtainable.
The optimum population is, then, less than the maximum. The difficulty of defining the optimum is enormous; so far as I
know, no one has seriously tackled this problem. Reaching an acceptable and stable solution will surely require more than
one generation of hard analytical work--and much persuasion.
We want the maximum good per person; but what is good? To one person it is wilderness, to another it is ski lodges for
thousands. To one it is estuaries to nourish ducks for hunters to shoot; to another it is factory land. Comparing one good
with another is, we usually say, impossible because goods are incommensurable. Incommensurables cannot be compared.
Theoretically this may be true; but in real life incommensurables are commensurable. Only a criterion of judgment and a
system of weighting are needed. In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be small and hideable,
or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural
weighting of the values of the variables.
Man must imitate this process. There is no doubt that in fact he already does, but unconsciously. It is when the hidden
decisions are made explicit that the arguments begin. The problem for the years ahead is to work out an acceptable theory
of weighting. Synergistic effects, nonlinear variation, and difficulties in discounting the future make the intellectual problem
difficult, but not (in principle) insoluble.
Has any cultural group solved this practical problem at the present time, even on an intuitive level? One simple fact proves
that none has: there is no prosperous population in the world today that has, and has had for some time, a growth rate of
zero. Any people that has intuitively identified its optimum point will soon reach it, after which its growth rate becomes
and remains zero.
Of course, a positive growth rate might be taken as evidence that a population is below its optimum. However, by any reasonable
standards, the most rapidly growing populations on earth today are (in general) the most miserable. This association (which
need not be invariable) casts doubt on the optimistic assumption that the positive growth rate of a population is evidence
that it has yet to reach its optimum.
We can make little progress in working toward optimum population size until we explicitly exorcize the spirit of Adam Smith
in the field of practical demography. In economic affairs, The Wealth of Nations (1776) popularized the "invisible
hand," the idea that an individual who "intends only his own gain," is, as it were, "led by an invisible hand to promote ...
the public interest" (5). Adam Smith did not assert that this was invariably true, and perhaps neither did any of his followers.
But he contributed to a dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational
analysis, namely, the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire
society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez-faire in reproduction.
If it is correct we can assume that men will control their individual fecundity so as to produce the optimum population. If
the assumption is not correct, we need to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible.
Tragedy of Freedom in a Commons
The rebuttal to the invisible hand in population control is to be found in a scenario first sketched in a little-known
pamphlet (6) in 1833 by a mathematical amateur named William Forster Lloyd (1794-1852). We may well call it "the tragedy of
the commons", using the word "tragedy" as the philosopher Whitehead used it (7): "The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness.
It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things." He then goes on to say, "This inevitableness of destiny
can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that
the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama."
The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman
will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries
because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the
land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes
a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks,
"What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?" This utility has one negative and one positive
1) The positive component is a function of the increment of one animal. Since the herdsman receives all the proceeds from
the sale of the additional animal, the positive utility is nearly +1.
2) The negative component is a function of the additional overgrazing created by one more animal. Since, however, the effects
of overgrazing are shared by all the herdsmen, the negative utility for any particular decision-making herdsman is only a
fraction of -1.
Adding together the component partial utilities, the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him
to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each and
every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase
his herd without limit--in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own
best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
Some would say that this is a platitude. Would that it were! In a sense, it was learned thousands of years ago, but natural
selection favors the forces of psychological denial (8). The individual benefits as an individual from his ability to deny
the truth even though society as a whole, of which he is a part, suffers.
Education can counteract the natural tendency to do the wrong thing, but the inexorable succession of generations requires
that the basis for this knowledge be constantly refreshed.
A simple incident that occurred a few years ago in Leominster, Massachusetts, shows how perishable the knowledge is. During
the Christmas shopping season the parking meters downtown were covered with red plastic bags that bore tags reading: "Do not
open until after Christmas. Free parking courtesy of the mayor and city council." In other words, facing the prospect of an
increased demand for already scarce space, the city fathers reinstituted the system of the commons. (Cynically, we suspect
that they gained more votes than they lost by this retrogressive act.)
In an approximate way, the logic of commons has been understood for a long time, perhaps since the discovery of agriculture
or the invention of private property in real estate. But it is understood mostly only in special cases which are not sufficiently
generalized. Even at this late date, cattlemen leasing national land on the western ranges demonstrate no more than an ambivalent
understanding, in constantly pressuring federal authorities to increase the head count to the point where overgrazing produces
erosion and weed-dominance. Likewise, the oceans of the world continue to suffer from the survival of the philosophy of the
commons. Maritime nations still respond automatically to the shibboleth of the "freedom of the seas." Professing to believe
in "the inexhaustible resources of the oceans," they bring species after species of fish and whales closer to extinction (9).
The National Parks present another instance of the working out of the tragedy of the commons. At present, they are open
to all, without limit. The parks themselves are limited in extent--there is only one Yosemite Valley--whereas population seems
to grow without limit. The values that visitors seek the parks are steadily eroded. Plainly, we must soon cease to treat the
parks as commons or they will be of no value anyone.
What shall we do? We have several options. We might sell them off as private property. We might keep them as public property,
but allocate the right enter them. The allocation might be on the basis of wealth, by the use of an auction system. It might
be on the basis merit, as defined by some agreed-upon standards. It might be by lottery. Or it might be on a first-come, first-served
basis, administered to long queues. These, I think, are all the reasonable possibilities. They are all objectionable. But
we must choose--or acquiesce in the destruction of the commons that we call our National Parks.
In a reverse way, the tragedy of the commons reappears in problems of pollution. Here it is not a question of taking something
out of the commons, but of putting something in--sewage, or chemical, radioactive, and heat wastes into water; noxious and
dangerous fumes into the air, and distracting and unpleasant advertising signs into the line of sight. The calculations of
utility are much the same as before. The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the
commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them. Since this is true for everyone, we are locked
into a system of "fouling our own nest," so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free-enterprises.
The tragedy of the commons as a food basket is averted by private property, or something formally like it. But the air
and waters surrounding us cannot readily be fenced, and so the tragedy of the commons as a cesspool must be prevented by different
means, by coercive laws or taxing devices that make it cheaper for the polluter to treat his pollutants than to discharge
them untreated. We have not progressed as far with the solution of this problem as we have with the first. Indeed, our particular
concept of private property, which deters us from exhausting the positive resources of the earth, favors pollution. The owner
of a factory on the bank of a stream--whose property extends to the middle of the stream, often has difficulty seeing why
it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door. The law, always behind the times, requires elaborate
stitching and fitting to adapt it to this newly perceived aspect of the commons.
The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed
of his waste. "Flowing water purifies itself every 10 miles," my grandfather used to say, and the myth was near enough to
the truth when he was a boy, for there were not too many people. But as population became denser, the natural chemical and
biological recycling processes became overloaded, calling for a redefinition of property rights.
How To Legislate Temperance?
Analysis of the pollution problem as a function of population density uncovers a not generally recognized principle of
morality, namely: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed (10).
Using the commons as a cesspool does not harm the general public under frontier conditions, because there is no public, the
same behavior in a metropolis is unbearable. A hundred and fifty years ago a plainsman could kill an American bison, cut out
only the tongue for his dinner, and discard the rest of the animal. He was not in any important sense being wasteful. Today,
with only a few thousand bison left, we would be appalled at such behavior.
In passing, it is worth noting that the morality of an act cannot be determined from a photograph. One does not know whether
a man killing an elephant or setting fire to the grassland is harming others until one knows the total system in which his
act appears. "One picture is worth a thousand words," said an ancient Chinese; but it may take 10,000 words to validate it.
It is as tempting to ecologists as it is to reformers in general to try to persuade others by way of the photographic shortcut.
But the essence of an argument cannot be photographed: it must be presented rationally--in words.
That morality is system-sensitive escaped the attention of most codifiers of ethics in the past. "Thou shalt not . . ."
is the form of traditional ethical directives which make no allowance for particular circumstances. The laws of our society
follow the pattern of ancient ethics, and therefore are poorly suited to governing a complex, crowded, changeable world. Our
epicyclic solution is to augment statutory law with administrative law. Since it is practically impossible to spell out all
the conditions under which it is safe to burn trash in the back yard or to run an automobile without smog-control, by law
we delegate the details to bureaus. The result is administrative law, which is rightly feared for an ancient reason--Quis
custodiet ipsos custodes? "Who shall watch the watchers themselves?" John Adams said that we must have a government of
laws and not men." Bureau administrators, trying to evaluate the morality of acts in the total system, are singularly liable
to corruption, producing a government by men, not laws.
Prohibition is easy to legislate (though not necessarily to enforce); but how do we legislate temperance? Experience indicates
that it can be accomplished best through the mediation of administrative law. We limit possibilities unnecessarily if we suppose
that the sentiment of Quis custodiet denies us the use of administrative law. We should rather retain the phrase
as a perpetual reminder of fearful dangers we cannot avoid. The great challenge facing us now is to invent the corrective
feedbacks that are needed to keep custodians honest. We must find ways to legitimate the needed authority of both the custodians
and the corrective feedbacks.
Freedom To Breed Is Intolerable
The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle
of "dog eat dog"--if indeed there ever was such a world--how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern.
Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately
for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of
birds (11). But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least.
If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death;
if, thus, overbreeding brought its own "punishment" to the germ line--then there would be no public interest
in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state (12), and hence is confronted
with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons.
In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable
and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement (13)? To couple the concept of freedom
to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of
Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations. In late 1967, some 30 nations
agreed to the following (14):
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the family as the natural and fundamental unit of society. It follows
that any choice and decision with regard to the size of the family must irrevocably rest with the family itself, and cannot
be made by anyone else.
It is painful to have to deny categorically the validity of this right; denying it, one feels as uncomfortable as a resident
of Salem, Massachusetts, who denied the reality of witches in the 17th century. At the present time, in liberal quarters,
something like a taboo acts to inhibit criticism of the United Nations. There is a feeling that the United Nations is "our
last and best hope,'' that we shouldn't find fault with it; we shouldn't play into the hands of the archconservatives. However,
let us not forget what Robert Louis Stevenson said: "The truth that is suppressed by friends is the readiest weapon of the
enemy." If we love the truth we must openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even though it
is promoted by the United Nations. We should also join with Kingsley Davis (15) in attempting to get planned Parenthood-World
Population to see the error of its ways in embracing the same tragic ideal.
Conscience Is Self-Eliminating
It is a mistake to think that we can control the breeding of mankind in the long run by an appeal to conscience. Charles
Galton Darwin made this point when he spoke on the centennial of the publication of his grandfather's great book. The argument
is straightforward and Darwinian.
People vary. Confronted with appeals to limit breeding, some people will undoubtedly respond to the plea more than others.
Those who have more children will produce a larger fraction of the next generation than those with more susceptible consciences.
The difference will be accentuated, generation by generation.
In C. G. Darwin's words: "It may well be that it would take hundreds of generations for the progenitive instinct to develop
in this way, but if it should do so, nature would have taken her revenge, and the variety Homo contracipiens would
become extinct and would be replaced by the variety Homo progenitivus" (16).
The argument assumes that conscience or the desire for children (no matter which) is hereditary--but hereditary only in
the most general formal sense. The result will be the same whether the attitude is transmitted through germ-cells, or exosomatically,
to use A. J. Lotka's term. (If one denies the latter possibility as well as the former, then what's the point of education?)
The argument has here been stated in the context of the population problem, but it applies equally well to any instance in
which society appeals to an individual exploiting a commons to restrain himself for the general good--by means of his conscience.
To make such an appeal is to set up a selective system that works toward the elimination of conscience from the race.
Pathogenic Effects of Conscience
The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to condemn it; but has serious short-term disadvantages
as well. If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist "in the name of conscience," what are we saying to him? What
does he hear?--not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely
the words we used but also the nonverbal communication cues we gave him unawares? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously,
he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: (i) (intended communication) "If you don't
do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a responsible citizen"; (ii) (the unintended communication) "If
you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest
of us exploit the commons."
Everyman then is caught in what Bateson has called a "double bind." Bateson and his co-workers have made a plausible case
for viewing the double bind as an important causative factor in the genesis of schizophrenia (17). The double bind may not
always be so damaging, but it always endangers the mental health of anyone to whom it is applied. "A bad conscience," said
Nietzsche, "is a kind of illness."
To conjure up a conscience in others is tempting to anyone who wishes to extend his control beyond the legal limits. Leaders
at the highest level succumb to this temptation. Has any President during the past generation failed to call on labor unions
to moderate voluntarily their demands for higher wages, or to steel companies to honor voluntary guidelines on prices? I can
recall none. The rhetoric used on such occasions is designed to produce feelings of guilt in noncooperators.
For centuries it was assumed without proof that guilt was a valuable, perhaps even an indispensable, ingredient of the
civilized life. Now, in this post-Freudian world, we doubt it.
Paul Goodman speaks from the modern point of view when he says: "No good has ever come from feeling guilty, neither intelligence,
policy, nor compassion. The guilty do not pay attention to the object but only to themselves, and not even to their own interests,
which might make sense, but to their anxieties" (18).
One does not have to be a professional psychiatrist to see the consequences of anxiety. We in the Western world are just
emerging from a dreadful two-centuries-long Dark Ages of Eros that was sustained partly by prohibition laws, but perhaps more
effectively by the anxiety-generating mechanisms of education. Alex Comfort has told the story well in The Anxiety Makers
(19); it is not a pretty one.
Since proof is difficult, we may even concede that the results of anxiety may sometimes, from certain points of view, be
desirable. The larger question we should ask is whether, as a matter of policy, we should ever encourage the use of a technique
the tendency (if not the intention) of which is psychologically pathogenic. We hear much talk these days of responsible parenthood;
the coupled words are incorporated into the titles of some organizations devoted to birth control. Some people have proposed
massive propaganda campaigns to instill responsibility into the nation's (or the world's) breeders. But what is the meaning
of the word responsibility in this context? Is it not merely a synonym for the word conscience? When we use the word responsibility
in the absence of substantial sanctions are we not trying to browbeat a free man in a commons into acting against his own
interest? Responsibility is a verbal counterfeit for a substantial quid pro quo. It is an attempt to get something
If the word responsibility is to be used at all, I suggest that it be in the sense Charles Frankel uses it (20). "Responsibility,"
says this philosopher, "is the product of definite social arrangements." Notice that Frankel calls for social arrangements--not
Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon
The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. Consider bank-robbing.
The man who takes money from a bank acts as if the bank were a commons. How do we prevent such action? Certainly not by trying
to control his behavior solely by a verbal appeal to his sense of responsibility. Rather than rely on propaganda we follow
Frankel's lead and insist that a bank is not a commons; we seek the definite social arrangements that will keep it from becoming
a commons. That we thereby infringe on the freedom of would-be robbers we neither deny nor regret.
The morality of bank-robbing is particularly easy to understand because we accept complete prohibition of this activity.
We are willing to say "Thou shalt not rob banks," without providing for exceptions. But temperance also can be created by
coercion. Taxing is a good coercive device. To keep downtown shoppers temperate in their use of parking space we introduce
parking meters for short periods, and traffic fines for longer ones. We need not actually forbid a citizen to park as long
as he wants to; we need merely make it increasingly expensive for him to do so. Not prohibition, but carefully biased options
are what we offer him. A Madison Avenue man might call this persuasion; I prefer the greater candor of the word coercion.
Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now, but it need not forever be so. As with the four-letter words, its dirtiness
can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over without apology or embarrassment. To many, the word
coercion implies arbitrary decisions of distant and irresponsible bureaucrats; but this is not a necessary part of its meaning.
The only kind of coercion I recommend is mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected.
To say that we mutually agree to coercion is not to say that we are required to enjoy it, or even to pretend we enjoy it.
Who enjoys taxes? We all grumble about them. But we accept compulsory taxes because we recognize that voluntary taxes would
favor the conscienceless. We institute and (grumblingly) support taxes and other coercive devices to escape the horror of
An alternative to the commons need not be perfectly just to be preferable. With real estate and other material goods, the
alternative we have chosen is the institution of private property coupled with legal inheritance. Is this system perfectly
just? As a genetically trained biologist I deny that it is. It seems to me that, if there are to be differences in individual
inheritance, legal possession should be perfectly correlated with biological inheritance--that those who are biologically
more fit to be the custodians of property and power should legally inherit more. But genetic recombination continually makes
a mockery of the doctrine of "like father, like son" implicit in our laws of legal inheritance. An idiot can inherit millions,
and a trust fund can keep his estate intact. We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust--but
we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of
the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.
It is one of the peculiarities of the warfare between reform and the status quo that it is thoughtlessly governed by a
double standard. Whenever a reform measure is proposed it is often defeated when its opponents triumphantly discover a flaw
in it. As Kingsley Davis has pointed out (21), worshippers of the status quo sometimes imply that no reform is possible without
unanimous agreement, an implication contrary to historical fact. As nearly as I can make out, automatic rejection of proposed
reforms is based on one of two unconscious assumptions: (i) that the status quo is perfect; or (ii) that the choice we face
is between reform and no action; if the proposed reform is imperfect, we presumably should take no action at all, while we
wait for a perfect proposal.
But we can never do nothing. That which we have done for thousands of years is also action. It also produce evils. Once
we are aware that status quo is action, we can then compare its discoverable advantages and disadvantages with the predicted
advantages and disadvantages of the proposed reform, discounting as best we can for our lack of experience. On the basis of
such a comparison, we can make a rational decision which will not involve the unworkable assumption that only perfect systems
Recognition of Necessity
Perhaps the simplest summary of this analysis of man's population problems is this: the commons, if justifiable at all,
is justifiable only under conditions of low-population density. As the human population has increased, the commons has had
to be abandoned in one aspect after another. First we abandoned the commons in food gathering, enclosing farm land and restricting
pastures and hunting and fishing areas. These restrictions are still not complete throughout the world.
Somewhat later we saw that the commons as a place for waste disposal would also have to be abandoned. Restrictions on the
disposal of domestic sewage are widely accepted in the Western world; we are still struggling to close the commons to pollution
by automobiles, factories, insecticide sprayers, fertilizing operations, and atomic energy installations.
In a still more embryonic state is our recognition of the evils of the commons in matters of pleasure. There is almost
no restriction on the propagation of sound waves in the public medium. The shopping public is assaulted with mindless music,
without its consent. Our government is paying out billions of dollars to create supersonic transport which will disturb 50,000
people for every one person who is whisked from coast to coast 3 hours faster. Advertisers muddy the airwaves of radio and
television and pollute the view of travelers. We are a long way from outlawing the commons in matters of pleasure. Is this
because our Puritan inheritance makes us view pleasure as something of a sin, and pain (that is, the pollution of advertising)
as the sign of virtue?
Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody's personal liberty. Infringements made in the
distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously
oppose; cries of "rights" and "freedom" fill the air. But what does "freedom" mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws
against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to
bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe
it was Hegel who said, "Freedom is the recognition of necessity."
The most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding.
No technical solution can rescue us from the misery of overpopulation. Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all. At the moment,
to avoid hard decisions many of us are tempted to propagandize for conscience and responsible parenthood. The temptation must
be resisted, because an appeal to independently acting consciences selects for the disappearance of all conscience in the
long run, and an increase in anxiety in the short.
The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and
that very soon. "Freedom is the recognition of necessity"--and it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity
of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.
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F. Lloyd, Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, England, 1833), reprinted (in part)
in Population, Evolution, and Birth Control, G. Hardin. Ed. (Freeman, San Francisco, 1964), p. 37.
7. A. N. Whitehead,
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8. G. Hardin, Ed. Population, Evolution. and
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11. D. Lack, The Natural
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21. J. D. Roslansky, Genetics
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