Chronicle of Higher Education  [Printer-friendly version]
November 15, 2002


[Rachel's introduction: It seems pretty clear that our present
industrial civilization is destroying the capacity of the Earth to
sustain humans. Therefore, we need a new ethics for a finite world,
an ethics of the commons. This article begins a debate that we all
need to have.]

By Herschel Elliott and Richard D. Lamm

What if global warming is a reality, and expanding human activity is
causing irreparable harm to the ecosystem? What if the demands of a
growing human population and an expanding global economy are causing
our oceans to warm up, our ice caps to melt, our supply of edible fish
to decrease, our rain forests to disappear, our coral reefs to die,
our soils to be eroded, our air and water to be polluted, and our
weather to include a growing number of floods and droughts? What if it
is sheer hubris to believe that our species can grow without limits?
What if the finite nature of the earth's resources imposes limits on
what human beings can morally do? What if our present moral code is
ecologically unsustainable?

A widely cited article from the journal Science gives us one answer.
Garrett Hardin's "The Tragedy of the Commons" (1968) demonstrated
that when natural resources are held in common -- freely available to
everyone for the taking -- the incentives that normally direct human
activity lead people to steadily increase their exploitation of the
resources until they are inadequate to meet human needs. The
exploiters generally do not intend to cause any harm; they are merely
taking care of their own needs, or those of others in want.
Nevertheless, the entire system moves inexorably to disaster. Everyone
in the world shares in the resulting tragedy of the commons.

Today, our standard of living, our economic system, and the political
stability of our planet all require the increasing use of energy and
natural resources. In addition, much of our political, economic, and
social thinking assumes a continuous expansion of economic activity,
with little or no restraint on our use of resources. We all feel
entitled to grow richer every year. Social justice requires an
expanding pie to share with those who are less fortunate. Progress is
growth; the economies of developed nations require steady increases in

Every environment is finite. At a certain point, the members of an
increasing population become so crowded that they stop benefiting each
other; by damaging the environment that supports everyone, by limiting
the space available to each person, and by increasing the amount of
waste and pollution, their activity begins to cause harm... And if the
population continues to expand, its material demands may so severely
damage the environment as to cause a tragedy of the commons -- the
collapse of both environment and society.

What if such a scenario is unsustainable? What if we need an ethics
for a finite world, an ethics of the commons?

It is not important that you agree with the premise. What is important
is that you help debate the alternatives. An ethics of the commons
would require a change in the criteria by which moral claims are

You may believe that current rates of population growth and economic
expansion can go on forever -- but debate with us what alternative
ethical theories would arise if they cannot. Our thesis is that any
ethical system is mistaken and immoral if its practice would cause an
environmental collapse.

Many people assume that moral laws and principles are absolutely
certain, that we can know the final moral truth. If moral knowledge is
certain, then factual evidence is irrelevant, for it cannot limit or
refute what is morally certain.

Our ethics and concepts of human rights have been formulated for a
world of a priori reasoning and unchanging conclusions. Kant spoke for
that absolutist ethical tradition when he argued that only knowledge
that is absolutely certain can justify the slavish obedience that
moral law demands. He thought he had found rational grounds to justify
the universal and unchanging character of moral law. Moral knowledge,
he concluded, is a priori and certain. It tells us, for example, that
murder, lying, and stealing are wrong. The fact that those acts may
sometimes seem to benefit someone cannot diminish the absolute
certainty that they are wrong. Thus, for example, it is a
contradiction to state that murder can sometimes be right, for, by its
very nature, murder is wrong.

Many human rights are positive rights that involve the exploitation of
resources. (Negative rights restrain governments and don't require
resources. For example, governments shouldn't restrict our freedom of
speech or tell us how to pray.) Wherever in the world a child is born,
that child has all the inherent human rights -- including the right to
have food, housing, and medical care, which others must provide. When
positive rights are accorded equally to everyone, they first allow and
then support constant growth, of both population and the exploitation
of natural resources.

That leads to a pragmatic refutation of the belief that moral
knowledge is certain and infallible. If a growing population faces a
scarcity of resources, then an ethics of universal human rights with
equality and justice for all will fail. Those who survive will
inevitably live by a different ethics.

Once the resources necessary to satisfy all human needs become
insufficient, our options will be bracketed by two extremes. One is to
ration resources so that everyone may share the inadequate supplies
equally and justly.

The other is to have people act like players in a game of musical
chairs. In conditions of scarcity, there will be more people than
chairs, so some people will be left standing when the music stops.
Some -- the self-sacrificing altruists -- will refuse to take the food
that others need, and so will perish. Others, however, will not play
by the rules. Rejecting the ethics of a universal and unconditional
moral law, they will fight to get the resources they and their
children need to live.

Under neither extreme, nor all the options in between, does it make
sense to analyze the problem through the lens of human rights. The
flaw in an ethical system of universal human rights, unqualified moral
obligations, and equal justice for all can be stated in its logically
simplest form: If to try to live by those principles under conditions
of scarcity causes it to be impossible to live at all, then the
practice of that ethics will cease. Scarcity renders such formulations
useless and ultimately causes such an ethics to become extinct.

We have described not a world that we want to see, but one that we
fear might come to be. Humans cannot have a moral duty to deliver the
impossible, or to supply something if the act of supplying it harms
the ecosystem to the point where life on earth becomes unsustainable.
Moral codes, no matter how logical and well reasoned, and human
rights, no matter how compassionate, must make sense within the
limitations of the ecosystem; we cannot disregard the factual
consequences of our ethics. If acting morally compromises the
ecosystem, then moral behavior must be rethought. Ethics cannot demand
a level of resource use that the ecosystem cannot tolerate.

The consequences of human behavior change as the population grows.
Most human activities have a point of moral reversal, before which
they may cause great benefit and little harm, but after which they may
cause so much harm as to overwhelm their benefits. Here are a few
representative examples, the first of which is often cited when
considering Garrett Hardin's work:

In a nearly empty lifeboat, rescuing a drowning shipwreck victim
causes benefit: It saves the life of the victim, and it adds another
person to help manage the boat. But in a lifeboat loaded to the
gunwales, rescuing another victim makes the boat sink and causes only
harm: Everyone drowns.

When the number of cars on a road is small, traveling by private car
is a great convenience to all. But as the cars multiply, a point of
reversal occurs: The road now contains so many cars that such travel
is inconvenient. The number of private cars may increase to the point
where everyone comes to a halt. Thus, in some conditions, car travel
benefits all. In other conditions, car travel makes it impossible for
anyone to move. It can also pump so much carbon dioxide into the
atmosphere that it alters the world's climate.

Economic growth can be beneficial when land, fuel, water, and other
needed resources are abundant. But it becomes harmful when those
resources become scarce, or when exploitation causes ecological
collapse. Every finite environment has a turning point, at which
further economic growth would produce so much trash and pollution that
it would change from producing benefit to causing harm. After that
point is reached, additional growth only increases scarcity and
decreases overall productivity. In conditions of scarcity, economic
growth has a negative impact.

Every environment is finite. Technology can extend but not eliminate
limits. An acre of land can support only a few mature sugar maples;
only so many radishes can grow in a five-foot row of dirt. Similar
constraints operate in human affairs. When the population in any
environment is small and natural resources plentiful, every additional
person increases the welfare of all. As more and more people are
added, they need increasingly to exploit the finite resources of the
environment. At a certain point, the members of an increasing
population become so crowded that they stop benefiting each other; by
damaging the environment that supports everyone, by limiting the space
available to each person, and by increasing the amount of waste and
pollution, their activity begins to cause harm. That is, population
growth changes from good to bad. And if the population continues to
expand, its material demands may so severely damage the environment as
to cause a tragedy of the commons -- the collapse of both environment
and society.

Those cases illustrate the fact that many activities are right --
morally justified -- when only a limited number of people do them. The
same activities become wrong -- immoral -- when populations increase,
and more and more resources are exploited.

Few people seem to understand the nature of steady growth. Any rate of
growth has a doubling time: the period of time it takes for a given
quantity to double. It is a logical inevitability -- not a matter
subject to debate -- that it takes only a relatively few doublings for
even a small number to equal or exceed any finite quantity, even a
large one.

One way to look at the impact of growth is to think of a resource that
would last 100 years if people consumed it at a constant rate. If the
rate of consumption increased 5 percent each year, the resource would
last only 36 years. A supply adequate for 1,000 years at a constant
rate would last 79 years at a 5-percent rate of growth; a 10,000-year
supply would last only 125 years at the same rate. Just as no trees
grow to the sky, no growth rate is ultimately sustainable.

Because the natural resources available for human use are finite,
exponential growth will use them up in a relatively small number of
doublings. The only possible questions are those of timing: When will
the resources be too depleted to support the population? When will
human society, which is now built on perpetual growth, fail?

The mathematics makes it clear: Any human activity that uses matter or
energy must reach a steady state (or a periodic cycle of boom and
bust, which over the long run is the same thing). If not, it
inevitably will cease to exist. The moral of the story is obvious: Any
system of economics or ethics that requires or even allows steady
growth in the exploitation of resources is designed to collapse. It is
a recipe for disaster.

It is self-deception for anyone to believe that historical evidence
contradicts mathematical necessity. The fact that the food supply
since the time of Malthus has increased faster than the human
population does not refute Malthus's general thesis: that an
increasing population must, at some time, need more food, water, and
other vital resources than the finite earth or creative technology can
supply in perpetuity. In other words, the finitude of the earth makes
it inevitable that any behavior causing growth in population or in the
use of resources -- including human moral, political, and economic
behavior -- will sooner or later be constrained by scarcity.

Unlike current ethics, the ethics of the commons builds on the
assumption of impending scarcity. Scarcity requires double-entry
bookkeeping: Whenever someone gains goods or services that use matter
or energy, someone else must lose matter or energy. If the starving
people of a distant nation get food aid from the United States, then
the United States loses that amount of food; it also loses the
fertility of the soil that produced the food. To a point, that
arrangement is appropriate and workable. Soon, however, helping one
group of starving people may well mean that we cannot help others.
Everything that a government does prevents it from doing something
else. When you have to balance a budget, you can say yes to some
important services only by saying no to others. Similarly, the ethics
of the commons must rely on trade-offs, not rights. It must specify
who or what gains, and who or what loses.

Indeed, in a finite world full of mutually dependent beings, you never
can do just one thing. Every human activity that uses matter or energy
pulls with it a tangled skein of unexpected consequences. Conditions
of crowding and scarcity can cause moral acts to change from
beneficial to harmful, or even disastrous; acts that once were moral
can become immoral. We must constantly assess the complex of
consequences, intended or not, to see if the overall benefit of
seemingly moral acts outweighs their overall harm.

As Hardin suggested, the collapse of any common resource can be
avoided only by limiting its use. The ethics of the commons builds on
his idea that the best and most humane way of avoiding the tragedy of
the commons is mutual constraint, mutually agreed on and mutually

Most important, the ethics of the commons must prevent a downward
spiral to scarcity. One of its first principles is that the human
population must reach and maintain a stable state -- a state in which
population growth does not slowly but inexorably diminish the quality
of, and even the prospect for, human life. Another principle is that
human exploitation of natural resources must remain safely below the
maximum levels that a healthy and resilient ecosystem can sustain. A
third is the provision of a margin of safety that prevents natural
disasters like storms, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and volcanic
eruptions from causing unsupportable scarcity.

Not to limit human behavior in accordance with those principles would
be not only myopic, but also ultimately a moral failure. To let excess
human fertility or excess demand for material goods and services cause
a shortage of natural resources is as immoral as theft and murder, and
for the same reasons: They deprive others of their property, the
fruits of their labors, their quality of life, or even their lives.

The ethics of the commons is a pragmatic ethics. It denies the
illusion that human moral behavior occurs in a never-never land, where
human rights and duties remain unchanging, and scarcity can never
cancel moral duties. It does not allow a priori moral arguments to
dictate behavior that must inevitably become extinct. It accepts the
necessity of constraints on both production and reproduction. As we
learn how best to protect the current and future health of the earth's
ecosystems, the ethics of the commons can steadily make human life
more worth living.

As populations increase and environments deteriorate, the moral laws
that humans have relied on for so long can no longer solve the most
pressing problems of the modern world. Human rights are an inadequate
and inappropriate basis on which to distribute scarce resources, and
we must propose and debate new ethical principles.


Herschel Elliott is an emeritus associate professor of philosophy at
the University of Florida. Richard D. Lamm, a former governor of
Colorado, is a university professor at the University of Denver and
executive director of its Center for Public Policy and Contemporary