Ethical Poverty

Staying poor to save the planet

(Page 2 of 2)

Elliott and Lamm seem to be calling for "sustainable development," defined by the 1987 U.N. report Our Common Future as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." This notion superficially echoes Locke's proviso in his Second Treatise on Government that every person may remove resources from the state of nature by mixing his labor with them and making them his property as long as "there is enough, and as good left in common for others."

In fact there are two commons. Elliott and Lamm, as faithful disciples of Hardin and Malthus, concentrate solely on the environmental commons and ignore another commons that addresses and solves problems that arise in the environmental commons. Let's call it the knowledge commons. We all draw from the knowledge commons, which consists of the growing pool of institutional, scientific, and technological concepts, and the wealth and capital they create. It is true that the earth is finite, but it is also true that human creativity is not. Our ancestors, by creating the knowledge commons, have in most relevant respects honored Locke's proviso because they have left us much more than they took.

"It is self-deception for anyone to believe that historical evidence contradicts mathematical necessity," Elliott and Lamm write. Perhaps it is they who are deceived, entranced by simplistic notions of mathematical necessity, beguiled by the idea that they have uncovered an iron law of history. If history and economic analysis are dismissed out of hand, what could count as evidence against their thesis? Nothing, apparently, which makes their claims unfalsifiable and thus relegates them to the realm of pseudosciences like astrology and Marxism.

Finally, Elliott and Lamm claim to derive three principles from their "ethics of the commons": 1) human population must be stabilized, 2) exploitation of natural resources must not endanger a healthy ecosystem, and 3) a margin of safety against disaster must be established.

Fortunately, old-fashioned morality based on human rights is already accomplishing all three goals. Human population growth rates have been declining steeply for decades, falling from six children per woman in the 1960s to 2.7 today. If current trends continue, human population likely will level off at 8 billion to 9 billion by 2050 and begin falling. It turns out that human beings, unlike animals, do not inexorably turn more food into more offspring.

With regard to their second and third principles, human ingenuity as expressed in our evolving social institutions (such as democratic governance, free speech, private property, and peer-reviewed science) and our growing technological prowess are already restoring ecosystems and providing margins of safety in developed countries. They will do so in poorer countries as they continue to draw ever more deeply on the knowledge commons and become wealthier. Judging from history, it's a good bet that humanity's growing knowledge commons, including the moral progress humanity has made over the millennia, will ameliorate and solve any problems that arise in the environmental commons.

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