“Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.”
Earth Day recedes from our memory. This past Tuesday, we looked through a kaleidoscopic four decades of Earth Days . . . and I thought of Garrett Hardin and his micro-famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he quotes A. N. Whitehead’s great line . . . that tragedy is not unhappiness but “resides in the remorseless working of things.” Essentially this, the relentless pursuit of personal happiness within a growing population will result in competing interests; holding then to absolute freedom, as Hardin says, “will bring ruin to all.”
“In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of individual action is intolerable.”
This much simplified STELLA model of a Resource impacted by a Population illustrates Hardin’s idea of the impact of population on all aspects of human society, including moral reasoning. For this lifelong Catholic, Hardin’s assertion about how one ascertains what is moral challenges my upbringing, but appeals deeply and implacably to reason. He says this: “The morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed.” Ah, squishy relativism.
So, for a moment, let’s consider this as it emerges within the system illustrated at right. Early on, a small and disparate population allows for considerable personal freedom, especially as it pertains to family size. However, as the population increases, the increasing density pinches local resources (and, later, global resources as well); pressures mount on livability such that, at some point when “the state of the system” pushes through carrying capacity, the death rate necessarily increases to stabilize the system. In short, my moral freedom to control my family’s size threatens that very freedom . . . the “remorseless working of things” will endanger not only my children, my wife, and myself but my community as well.
“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”
When Hardin wrote this essay, the world held about 3,000,000,000 souls. Now, it harbors over 7,000,000,000, en route to a mid-century peak of about 9,500,000,000. In the ecolate view, one must ask, “And then what?”