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A Challenge to the Eco-Doomsters

by Walter W. Benjamin

Dr. Benjamin is professor of religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. This article appeared in the Christian Century March 21, 1979, p. 311. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.áá -- John Donne.

Ever since the publication of his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” ten years ago, Garrett Hardin has been the leading exponent of a population policy that would embrace realism in place of na´vetÚ, pragmatism in place of thoughtless charity, and consideration of long-range benefits in place of in immediate pay-off. Speaking bluntly and uncompromisingly, Hardin -- professor of human ecology at the University or California, Santa Barbara -- has brought such concepts as “social triage,” “lifeboat ethics” and “environmental commons” into our discourse,

Dr. Hardin counsels prudence -- a value not alien to our religious tradition. Jesus told his followers to be as “harmless as doves but as wise as serpents”; he warned them not to begin building a tower if they lacked the resources to complete it. Unlike some breast-beating critics on the far left who are forever placing the blame on America, Hardin holds Third World nations themselves largely responsible for their desperate plight. Some of their leaders, he says, are not convinced that they have a population problem; some are more concerned with “demagoguery than with demography.” The “green revolution” was supposed to buy Third World countries time to put their houses in order, but some of them frittered the time away.

Certainly Hardin is right in insisting that “trade” is to be preferred to “aid.” The former enhances feelings of mutuality, whereas the dole develops dependency on the part of the recipient and an attitude of condescension and noblesse oblige on the part of the giver. A Chinese proverb should be kept in mind: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed him the rest of his life.” Nonetheless, Dr. Hardin’s views on the population explosion are inadequate in several respects.

I

1. Hardin ignores the validity of other population strategies. His own position is a “crisis-environmentalist” ideology -- or, in more pejorative terms, an “eco-doomster” stance. Thomas Malthus was that ideology’s “great prophet”; Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin are “sons of the prophet.” Crisis-environmentalists view both disease and cure as simple; our ecosystem is sick, and the cause of the malady is overpopulation. A remedy can be effected only by moving as quickly as possible -- and it may already be too late -- to zero population growth (ZPG). But how is this to be done? Persuasion won’t work; therefore, governmental coercion will have to be applied. We must, after all, preserve our greatest value -- quality of life.

Another population strategy is that of the “family planners,” who aim to achieve ZPG by the elimination of all unwanted and unplanned pregnancies, both within and without marriage. They would provide complete and free access for individuals and families to all available methods of birth control, abortion and sterilization. Family planners stress the value of freedom: families know best, if they are given full information and if governmental coercion is minimized.

But a third position, that of the “developmentalists,” has the most to recommend it, both scientifically and ethically. Like other population ideologies, it seeks to reduce pollution, stabilize population, and to declare the “religion of endless growth” lethal in its effect. At issue are not the ends toward which we strive, but the means. Developmentalists indict crisis-environmentalists for being reductionistic; that is, concerned only about climate, statistics and quantities. In contrast, the developmentalists’ vision is wide-angled, for they see food and population issues as ineluctably moral, economic, social and political. The value they emphasize, then, is distributive justice.

This tradition, which goes back at least as far as Aristotle, says that human beings, in order to have community, must “play fair.” We must strike a balance between our own good fortune and the ill fortune of others, striving toward equity and evenhandedness; for without such goals, we are barbarians, The credo of the developmentalist, then, is “Take care of the people, and the people will take care of themselves.” If the exploited are given their due -- employment, health care, security, education, balanced diets -- and saved from the precarious brink of near extinction, birth rates will decline.

Dr. Hardin argues that “for all animals, good nutrition means greater fertility” -- an opinion that flies in the face of demographic data when applied to human beings. Pervasive insecurity creates high human fertility. Where life is Hobbesian -- “mean, nasty, brutish and short” -- security is sought in producing children. Each additional child increases one’s social and economic insurance against the void. Hardin’s thesis, unsound on its own terms, defies the fact that the best way to lower the birth rate is not to let people drift closer to the abyss but rather to give them a better life. Third World cultures are behaving as many European ones did 200 years ago; by plotting a curve relating birth and death rates according to time, we can see that these countries are right on schedule. They are struggling to get through the “demographic transition” -- the shift from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates. To abandon them now would be not only unjust but counterproductive.

2. Hardin’s metaphor of the “lifeboat” is not only misleading but dangerous. Such imagery is a vestige of the 19th century laissez-faire era, but the values it represents are deeply embedded in our national psyche, as the cowboy ads for Marlboro cigarettes testify. Lifeboat ethics encourages the worst myth-making tendencies, promoting the isolationism and self-absorption that have always been our nemesis.

Perhaps Dr. Hardin should have stayed with his original metaphor, the Commons. It, like some other images -- Kenneth Boulding’s “spaceship earth,” Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” and Teilhard’s “wheat sheaf” -- is holistic and organic. Such figures of speech help us resist the temptation to believe that salvation lies in separation and in “going it alone.” These images are in harmony with human evolution. To be sure, all around we see conflicts and compartments -- racial, religious, ethnic -- but despite these divisions, there are profound movements toward connectedness, reunion and intercommunion. We are now trying to hammer out laws for the mining of the seabed, recognizing that neither the moon, nor the sea, nor the minerals under the sea belong exclusively to any one nation.

Even if we accept the lifeboat metaphor, we must acknowledge that ours is not a self-sufficient vessel. The higher our technology and the greater our consumption, the more vulnerable we become. The brief oil embargo by the OPEC nations a few years ago indicated just how “tipsy” was our craft. We are dependent on other nations not only for oil but also for manganese, cobalt, chromium, titanium, tin, mercury, asbestos and many other minerals. Cartels are being organized by developing nations determined to secure fair prices for their raw materials. National “privatism” is at a dead end; interdependence is the wave of the future.

II

3. Lifeboat ethics stresses survival as the summum bonum, to the neglect of other values. Certainly, survival is an important value, but if it is proclaimed in fear and despair, will it not threaten the search for community, mutuality and reconciliation? Twenty years ago our nation, traumatized by the threat of nuclear holocaust, was on the brink of committing hundreds of billions of dollars to provide fallout shelters in case the ICBMs started dropping. Some individuals constructed elaborate shelters in their backyards and stocked them with food supplies -- and a few even suggested that to prepare for a nuclear attack, the shelters would need to be equipped with machine guns to keep improvident neighbors away. I resolved then that I would not like to live in a world with people whose only value was survival. Had our nation taken the “shelter-survival” route then, we wouldn’t have SALT agreements now.

We have always seen ourselves as a humanitarian people. Our food, fiber, and technical know-how have aided millions. To be sure, we haven’t always acted from motives of pure altruism. Reinhold Niebuhr taught us that national “will to power” can never be excluded from an analysis of relations between groups. My concern is to keep the dialectic between egoism and altruism, U.S. and U.N., American citizen and Bangladesh peasant intact. To allow the “survivalists” to call the shots would, I believe, have a devastating effect on the American moral consciousness. Norman Cousins, former editor of Saturday Review, has said that “desensitization, not hunger, is the great curse” afflicting the earth. Not long ago a majority of Americans became accustomed to the napalming carried out by U.S. forces in Vietnam; it might not be hard for us to adjust to the knowledge that there were tens of millions of children overseas dying with bloated bellies.

4. Hardin’s views encourage an American tendency toward ethnocentrism in viewing underdeveloped countries. Those countries should be spared condescending references suggesting that they are inept, irresponsible and lacking in wisdom. It is an instinctive human reaction to deny our own guilt for the sufferings of others. We are blind to the devastating effects of colonialism, imperialism and the workings of multinational corporations on powerless people. Because people are poor does not mean that they are without virtue; nor, because they are powerless, are they without dignity. Our Western religious tradition informs us that it is the powerful, well-fed, militaristic nations that are in danger of losing their souls.

Lifeboat ethicists are unaware of ethnocentrism, their cultural bias. When Hardin says, “Every Indian life saved through medical or nutritional assistance from abroad diminishes the quality of life for those who remain,” that is a view “from the top.” But “from the bottom,” the moral reality is seen quite differently, though the logic is no less exact: “Every American sustained at the cost of 60 times the resources now required to sustain an Indian diminishes the long-range quality of Indian life.”

It may be that some Third World nations resist our efforts to dictate their population policies because they see a connection between our own policies and the social cancers growing in our body politic. They may say: “Certainly you have solved your population problem, but do we have to accept the rest -- abortion, rampant divorce, delinquency, drug addiction, crime, disrespect of children for parents? Is this what you want for us?” Would that we could see ourselves as others see us.

III

5. An appeal to determinism and necessity should not encourage fatalism. A belief in various forms of determinism -- economic, demographic, social -- gave rise in the past to a “nothing can be done” attitude. For example, Adam Smith’s “unseen hand” theory mysteriously united individual acts of selfishness that in aggregate produced a common good. Karl Marx’s discovery of “scientific socialism” made it seem inevitable that capitalism was doomed. Only 100 years ago, social Darwinians accepted the dogma of the survival of the fittest; nature was “red in tooth and claw.” Extrapolating their theory to the human world, they gave us another new commandment: “Let ill enough alone.” Thus the robber barons were given the green light, social amelioration was said to violate “natural law,” and the poor were regarded as deserving their miserable lot for having been born with deleterious genes and “unfavorable characteristics.”

Dr. Hardin would have another commandment added to the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not transgress against the carrying capacity of the environment.” He speaks of the hubris of those who think that they can fly in the face of nature’s ways. In general, I agree: there are limits -- but we don’t know what those limits are. When I was a boy working on a Minnesota farm, the agronomists of the time were saying that the maximum possible corn production was 60 bushels to the acre. And yet today farmers yields of corn far exceed that figure. Again, I agree that the constraints of nature ought to be respected, but we must admit that they are elastic. Let us not appeal to a new iron law of “carrying capacity” that will engender either fatalism or fanaticism and consign those we could have helped to a future of “benign neglect.”

6. Hardin prefers China over India as the model for the Third World. I find it strange that Hardin can maintain that the 1 billion Chinese are “much better off” than the 600 million Indians. India, the world’s largest democracy, despite significant agricultural and economic gains, is disorderly and inefficient, and people are starving. But people are not attracted to a democracy because of its efficiency because its trains run on time, but because of its values -- because it is an open society that values human dignity and preserves basic freedoms. In The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor speaks to the returned Christ: “In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, Make us your slaves but feed us.” It is remarkable how myopic many academics are when it comes to totalitarian regimes. We admire societies that “have got it together.” In the 1930s we glorified Soviet Russia; now China is seen as the ideal.

IV

7. Lifeboat moralists fail to see the connection between affluence and starvation. In all honesty, we must acknowledge that ours is not a lifeboat but a luxury yacht. We are a throwaway, nonreturnable, planned-obsolescence society. When I was a boy in a family of seven, I carried a small two-and-a-half-foot can of garbage to the curb once a week. Today there are two or three large GI cans at the curb in front of each house in the suburb where I live, though the families are smaller.

The Club of Rome has said that a nation with a diminishing population may nonetheless put increasing pressure on the ecosystem if it doesn’t change “sloppy habit” life styles. To fixate on population is to touch only one aspect of our environmental crisis. It’s easy for us to point the accusing finger at others for not making use of the pill, the IUD, the abortion and the vasectomy. But our worship of such luxuries as the private automobile, air conditioning and marbleized beef indicates that we have done little in the areas of antipollution, recycling, energy reduction and simplification of life styles. Is it any wonder that some writers in other countries have said that “the world can stand only one United States”?

I conclude with a quotation from one who did not moralize or patronize, one who had a reverence for life; one who, by the way he spent his life, put deed and word together -- Albert Schweitzer: “Wherever there is lost the consciousness that every man is an object of concern for us just because he is a man, civilization and morals are shaken, and the advance to fully developed inhumanity is only a question of time.”


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