Ethical Poverty

Staying poor to save the planet


Are humans overrunning the planet? Herschel Elliott and Richard Lamm think so. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Elliott, an emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Florida, and Lamm, a former Colorado governor who directs the University of Denver's Center for Public Policy and Contemporary Issues, proclaim "A Moral Code for a Finite World." They assert that "any ethical system is mistaken and immoral if its practice would cause an environmental collapse."

To make the case that our planet is approaching such a collapse, Elliott and Lamm rely on the well-worn and long discredited arguments of Malthusianism. The result is a moral code that fits the prejudices of ideological environmentalists but corresponds little with the world in which we actually live.

Elliott and Lamm begin by reprising Garrett Hardin's famous 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons." Hardin argued that when natural resources are held in common, freely available to everyone for the taking, they will be overexploited and severely degraded. Contemporary examples include most fisheries, most coral reefs, many rainforests, rivers, and airsheds. No one owns them, so no one has an incentive to protect and preserve them. Building on Hardin's insight, it is evident that all environmental problems occur in such open access commons.

Elliott and Lamm's first misstep is accepting Hardin's conclusion that the only solution to the tragedy of the commons is "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected." Like Hardin, they take this conclusion to require a regime of centralized regulations limiting people's access to the commons. What both Hardin and they overlook is that there's a decentralized way of limiting access to the commons: through the assignment of private property rights to resources. This approach is "coercive" in the sense that the state will step in to defend a person's property against the thievery or negligence of others. But it allows individuals greater scope in deciding how to manage resources.

Private owners have strong incentives to protect and preserve their property and thus act as indirect stewards of it for the rest of us. Private property came into existence as a solution to the first tragedy of the commons, when Neolithic peoples ran out of game and nutritious seeds. In response, they became herders who owned their animals and farmers who owned their land. Extending property rights would go a long way toward protecting the resources that Elliott and Lamm are so concerned about, but they evidently have other goals in mind.

Elliott and Lamm also draw on Garrett Hardin's notion of "lifeboat ethics," based on a scenario in which a lifeboat is filled to the gunwales with people; pulling one more aboard will sink the boat, killing everybody. Hardin likened poor countries to drowning people clamoring to be saved. In the 1970s, he declared that rich countries such as the United States would have to practice lifeboat ethics, regretfully but steadfastly letting scores of millions of people in "overpopulated" countries such as Ethiopia and India starve to death. As it happened, we didn't, and they didn't. It appears there were lots of half-filled lifeboats scattered about. Not only that, but (as we'll see) those aboard had the ability to make their lifeboats bigger to accommodate those who were in danger of drowning.

The second illustration Elliott and Lamm offer is the traffic jam: Cars are an enormous benefit when few are on the road, but their increasing numbers eventually cause everything to grind to a halt, wiping out their benefits for everyone. Again, the scenario is misleading. First, as annoying as heavy traffic can be, there are no examples where it comes to a permanent stop. Second, Elliott and Lamm ignore their own point about open-access commons: One reason traffic is heavy is that no one has to pay to use the highways. Finally, Elliott and Lamm overlook technological developments, such as Internet commuting, that would be provoked by unbearable traffic.

Pollution is the third problem that Elliott and Lamm ask us to ponder. The idea that pollution eventually will kill us all was popularized in the 1970s by activist Barry Commoner and the Club of Rome report "The Limits to Growth." Elliott and Lamm contend that, "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."

Here they are pushing environmental Kantianism from first principles without bothering to check the facts. Had they done so, they might have noticed that since1970 the U.S. economy has nearly tripled in size, while air pollution has been reduced. Ambient levels of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, for example, have dropped more than 75 percent since the 1960s.

With regard to using physical resources, no less an environmental alarmist than Al Gore noted in 1999 that "throughout our economy, skills, intelligence, and creativity are replacing mass and money—which is why, in the past 50 years, the value of our economy has tripled, while the physical weight of our economy as a whole has barely increased at all." In other words, we got richer not just by using more stuff but by using it more intelligently. Forests are expanding, and water use per capita in the United States has been going down for two decades.

Economic growth is what has paid for both the technological improvements and the compliance with regulations that have made environmental improvements possible. To consider just how wrongheaded Elliott and Lamm are, think how polluted the United States would be if the economy hadn't grown at all since the 1950s. People would still be using technologically backward cars spewing pollutants. There would be very few municipal sewage treatment plants on rivers, no filters on coal-fired electric plants, few controls on industrial dumping, and no modern landfills. Forests would have been chopped down to accommodate low-productivity farms.

The fourth point that Elliott and Lamm raise is another standard limits-to-growth argument from the 1970s. "Every environment is finite," they write. "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." This is the essence of the Malthusian argument, and it is wrong. Modern farmers make two or three blades of grass grow where only one grew before, and those blades of grass are wheat, corn, and rice. Even Elliott and Lamm's implication about limits on syrup production seems to be wrong, since researchers are hard at work on boosting each maple tree's yield so that more syrup can be produced per acre. Since the 1950s, agricultural productivity has outpaced global population growth so much that food is more abundant and cheaper than ever before.

Next Elliott and Lamm haul out the "doubling time" argument popularized by the discredited dystopian prophet Paul Ehrlich. The idea is that exponential increases in the use of a resource will cause it to be depleted much faster than people expect. The example Elliott and Lamm give is a resource that would last 100 years at a constant rate of use but will disappear in only 36 years if consumption increases 5 percent each year. Mathematically, this proposition is unassailable, but the hidden premise in Elliott and Lamm's analysis is a "buried treasure" theory of natural resources.

What is a resource? A lump of copper is a useless rock unless someone knows how to mine it, melt it, mill it, mold it, and market it. What is a resource and how much of it there is depends crucially on human knowledge and technology. Consider the case of copper. The Limits to Growth predicted that all known copper reserves would be exhausted by 1993. Yet copper is cheaper than ever because miners have learned how to process ores one-eighth as rich as those exploited a century ago. The price of copper has fallen in real terms from $4 per pound in 1900 to 80 cents per pound today.

The most critical error that Elliott and Lamm make in pushing their doubling time argument is that they ignore the doubling time of human knowledge and technology. Their zero sum thinking is apparent when they assert that what one person consumes is another person's loss. Human economic activity is not a zero sum game. If it were, it would have been over a long time ago, as Neolithic tribespeople killed and ate up all the deer and the antelope and died of starvation.

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.