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Living within Limits

Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos

by Garrett Hardin

339 pages, paperback, Oxford University Press, 1993, out of print

Living within Limits makes a forceful case for dramatically changing the way we live in the world. Discussing the wide range of economic and ecological illusions we use to support our unworkable theories of sustainable population growth and resource consumption, Hardin points out the hard choices that will be thrust upon us. His clear and insightful discussion of the theoretical assumptions that underpin our current life styles is required reading for those who would truly understand the human situation.

Praise for Living within Limits

"Wonderfully rich in original ideas and insights . . . compelling . . . . A rare intellectually feast that challenges, charms, and engages the reader. . . . A book that will be widely read and is bound to be enduringly influential."--Paul Demeny, Population and Development Review

"Another valuable addition to the already extensive, important, and extremely readable ecological literature by Garrett Hardin."--Dan Scurlock, Human Ecology Review

Winner of the Phi Beta Kappa prize for science writing for the general public
About Garrett Hardin

Quotes from Living within Limits

"Many well-meaning people resist admitting and acting on the insight that predators serve a useful function for prey populations--useful even by narrow human standards. For centuries such stories as 'Little Red Riding Hood' have conditioned children to think of prey as innocent and predators as wicked. Why this emphasis? The cynical explanation is that subconsciously men have seen wolves and lions as the competitors of the human species, the supreme predator-over-all. Man has trained his children to hate his competitors. (Other explanations of the folktales are possible.) Whatever the truth may be, the fact is that wolves have had an undeservedly 'bad press.'

"How effective early childhood conditioning can be is apparent in the story of the life of Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), one of the patron saints of the ecology movement. He started his professional life as an enthusiastic enemy of wolves, mountain lions, and other 'varmints' that were decimating flocks of sheep in the Southwest of the United States. Many of his writings during the period from 1915 to 1920 bear testimony to his enthusiasm for killing wolves. In 1920 he said that 'the last one must be caught'--and killed. In 1925 he modified his position only to say that we must avoid the danger of exterminating all predators, adding 'but there is no danger of this yet.' For the next ten years his position was ambivalent and wavering.

"Then in 1936 he took a trip to the Sierra Madre in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, a land in the same climatic zone as New Mexico, where Leopold had spent so many years. He was thunderstruck by the beauty of the landscape, in which many animal species were abundant but none were overabundant. 'All my life,' he said, 'I had seen only sick land, whereas here was a biota still in perfect aboriginal health. The term 'unspoiled wilderness' took on new meaning.' Such was Leopold's road to Damascus; his conversion, like Saint Paul's, produced an emotional and intellectual turn of 180 degrees. From being the enemy of predators, he became their friend and champion. From one who had sought to maximize the number of deer lives, he became the proponent of the temperate killing of prey animals-- by predators, preferably, but by human hunters if necessary; in any case, a killing of prey animals for the good of their own kind.

. . .

"We need to place oil resources in the framework of human ecology. The optimist may assume that petroleum supplies will last forever; the pessimist says, not so. In the long run, of course, the pessimist is bound to be right. . . . What happens in the meantime to the fortunes of optimist and pessimist as they let their expectations guide their actions?

In the near term--five or ten years--the optimist who uses oil as if it would never be exhausted will prosper. But the pessimist who refrains from using this cheap, convenient, and extinction-fated resource will be at a disadvantage competing with the optimist. 'Truth,' competing with 'Falsehood,' will actually be 'put in the worse in a free and open encounter' in the near term. Perhaps for several decades the optimist will win out--getting richer, earning more prestige in the community, marrying better, and perhaps having more children than the pessimist. Several decades is the better part of a person's working life.

The pessimist expects that the decrease in the total amount of oil will drive the price up, but for a long time his expectation may be falsified. A small price rise may stimulate a great deal of exploration, resulting in the finding of more oil. A large rise in price will stimulate a search for economies in the use of oil, which, if successful, will lower the demand and drive down the price. Thus is the pessimist made to look foolish--in the short run.

"The optimist is frequently praised as a citizen who stimulates 'development' in the community, while the pessimist ('wrong' time after time) is taunted with cries of 'Chicken Little!' Following every prediction but the last, the sky does not fall: this is the millstone that hangs around the neck of every publicity-seeking pessimist."

. . .

"Before delving deeper into population theory . . . we need to see what scientific sense can be made of growth phenomena in the world of finance. . . .To accept compound interest at face value is to be confronted with an apparent creation of wealth. . . . Substantive wealth such as gold does not increase with the passage of time, contrary to expectations created in our minds by the institution of money-at-interest. . . . It is a great wonder that the human mind should ever have conceived such a thing as compound interest, unthinkingly assuming that interest in capable of compelling dead matter--gold or whatever--to breed like rabbits. . . . At this late date millions of people believe in the fertility of money with an ardor seldom accorded to traditional religious doctrines."

"The sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne lived out his life before the great acceleration in scientific progress began. In a largely prescientific world it is only common sense to hold, as Montaigne did, that 'No man profiteth but by the loss of others.' If a man who deposits two grams of gold in a savings bank later collects 2.1 grams it can only be because someone (the banker, perhaps) is now 0.1 gram of gold the poorer. Material wealth is 'conserved,' as physicists say. In the mid-twentieth century such transactions were labeled 'zero- sum games.' . . . In the transaction, the whole system gains exactly zero. A winner may view the result as no more than he deserves, while the loser may complain, 'Unfair!' But what say the bystanders?

"However various the religions of the world are, most of them try to imbue their followers with a love of fair play. In a nongrowing society (with unavoidable 'frictional' losses due to decay, and so on) there are more human losers than human winners. (There are more paupers than millionaires.) In such a world, taking the part of the losers is a promising path to political power. With personal and institutional power to gain it is no wonder that, early on, religious leaders condemned the lending of money at interest, no matter how small. They called the practice 'usury.' For a long time after the death of Christ usury had no defenders in the Christian community. . . . It was not until the thirteenth century that Christian leaders began to find a justification for charging 'moderate' interest. At this point usury was redefined as the charging of 'excessive' interest. . . . For simplicity, and to avoid arguments about the point at which interest begins to be 'excessive' the rest of this discussion will use the old-fashioned term 'usury' for all positive rates of interest."

"Usury was first permitted on a tribalistic basis: it was permissible for Jews to charge Gentiles interest, and for Gentiles to charge Jews. Even today, devout Moslems who refuse to exact interest from fellow religionists are quite willing to invest their oil revenues in interest-bearing financial instruments of the non-Moslem world. In such an arrangement the conscience of the lender is spared by an inbuilt discrimination made between brothers and others. . . . Loyalty to Us forbids profiting from losses imposed on brothers; losses sustained by Others can be accepted with cheerful indifference. With the passage of time the sheer growth of population makes it easier to view almost all people as 'others.' Once that shift is made, it is easy to accept universalized usury."

"That a conspiracy of silence surrounds the institution of compound interest is quite understandable. To encourage the loyalty of their workers, those in charge of any socioeconomic system feel they must claim that the system is absolutely stable. And, as we have learned, some bankers even have the nerve to incorporate the word 'perpetual' in the names of their institutions. . . . The brute, undeniable fact is that compound interest by itself creates an inherently unstable system in a world of finite physical resources--which is the only world available to us.

"It is time to see how we have gotten where we are, and what we may expect in the future, as regards usury. The dominant attitude of the ancients is well expressed by Aristotle:

There are two sorts of wealth-getting: one is a part of household management, the other is retail trade. The former is necessary and honorable, while that which consists in exchange is justly censored; for it is unnatural, and a mode by which men gain from one another. The most hated sort, and with the greatest reason, is usury, which makes a gain out of money itself, and not from the natural object of it. For money was intended to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. This term 'interest,' which means the birth of money from money, is applied to the breeding of money because the offspring resembles the parent. Of all modes of getting wealth this is the most unnatural."

"It is easy to make a case that the progress of the European world into modern prosperity would have been greatly impeded by a ban on usury. Usury is justified by its fruits: debt, growing exponentially, marvelously motivates borrowers to find new ways of exploiting nature. The historical defense of usury can be reduced to the lines inscribed on a memorial to the architect Christopher Wren: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice--'If you seek [its] monument, look around you.' Compare the wealth and the vast physical infrastructure of the Western world, where usury has been practiced for eight centuries, with the poverty of most of the countries where usury has not been systematically practiced. The man in the street regards usury as normal, decrying as abnormal the phenomena of inflation, bankruptcy, debt repudiation, and confiscatory taxation. But it is only through the persistence of the 'bads' that the 'good' called interest can continue to exist.

"In this matter, as in others, the economist John Maynard Keynes stands out as an exception in his profession. In 1930 he expressed his opposition to usury not in a systematic development of an alternate proposal but in a familiar essay outlining the 'Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.' Some day we may, he said,

return to some of the most sure and certain principles of religion and traditional virtue--that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable. . . . But beware! The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still." *

Table of Contents of Living within Limits

  1. The Challenge of Limits
  2. Overpopulation: Escape to the Stars?
  3. Uneasy Litter Mates: Population and Progress
  4. Population Theory: Academia's Stepchild
  5. Default Status: Making Sense of the World
  6. The Ambivalent Triumph of Optimism
  7. Cowboy Economics versus Spaceship Ecology
  8. Growth: Real and Spurious
  9. Exponential Growth of Populations
  10. What Malthus Missed
  11. The Demostat
  12. Generating the Future
  13. Limits: A Constrained View
  14. From Jevons' Coal to Hubbert's Pimple
  15. Nuclear Power: A Nonsolution
  16. Trying to Escape Malthus
  17. The Benign Demographic Transition
  18. Making Room for Human Will
  19. Major Default Positions of Human Biology
  20. Carrying Capacity
  21. The Global Pillage: Consequences of Unmanaged Commons
  22. Discriminating Altruisms
  23. The Double C-Double P Game
  24. Birth Control versus Population Control
  25. Population Control: Natural versus Human
  26. The Necessity of Immigration Control
  27. Recapitulation and a Look Ahead


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