Summary of “Carrying Capacity as an Ethical Concept” by Garrett Hardin



Main Point

            Food aid does not help the recipients, in fact in the long run it is detrimental to their survival because in an overpopulated world it causes a faster transgression of the carrying capacity.



Lifeboat ethics as a special application of the logic of the commons

            Commons are community property. Everyone may pasture their animals on the commons and personally gain from the growth of their livestock. This system may work in an under-populated world, but in an overpopulated world every person can gain from increasing the amount of livestock they pasture on the commons. This in turn exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.



Some people believe the rich should help the poor through crises, when what is really happening is a crunch, not a passing state.


Crisis analysis: “These poor people (1,000,000) are starving, because of a crisis (flood, drought, or the like). How can we refuse them (1,000,000)? Let us feed them (1,000,000). Once the crisis is past those who are still hungry are few (say 1,000) and there is no further need for our intervention.”

Crunch analysis. “Those (1,000,000) who are hungry are reproducing. We send food to them (1,010,000). Their lives (1,020,000) are saved. But since the environment is still essentially the same, the next year they (1,030,000) ask for more food. We send it to them (1,045,000); and the next year they (1,068,000) ask for still more.



The argument of selfishness

            Helping people costs money, so refusing to do so is seen as selfishness. There are also selfish motives under the surface of food aid legislation such as Public Law 480 which allows food surplus to go to poor countries. Farmers benefit because the government buys there grain providing them with money and economic support to grain prices. Railroads, seaports, etc. also gain from moving the grain. A few gain a lot while millions of taxpayers split the cost and pay a little. A selfish motive can be found on both sides.



Analysis of food/population of India by Jacobian invert

            Invert the question “How do we help India?”


            Now we have “How do we harm India?”


            We could use weapons of mass destruction, but to make them really suffer we should give them a bounty of food every year.


On a purely vegetable diet it takes about 400 pounds of grain to keep one person alive and healthy for a year. The 600 million Indians need 120 million tons per year; since their nutrition is less than adequate presumably they are getting a bit less than that now. So the 80 million tons we give them will almost double India’s per capita supply of food. With a surplus, Indians can afford to vary their diet by growing some less efficient crops; they can also convert some of the grain into meat (pork and chickens for the Hindus, beef and chickens for the Moslems). The entire nation can then be supplied not only with plenty of calories, but also with an adequate supply of high quality pro tein. The people’s eyes will sparkle, their steps will become more elastic; and they will be capable of more work. “Fatalism” will no doubt diminish. (Much so-called fatalism is merely a con sequence of malnutrition.) Indians may even become a bit over weight, though they will still be getting only two-thirds as much food as the average inhabitant of a rich country. Surely—we think—surely a well-fed India would be better off?



No, much of the food will be diverted from those who need it by corruption and

Rot. Unemployment is already high, and will increase because healthy men will be more productive, so less will be required. The population would grow, but there would be no incentive to invest in higher grain production at home, eventually leading to disaster if food aid was stopped or not increased as the population increases.


            Providing food does nothing for satisfying the appetite for things produced with non-food energy, and India has used or damaged many of its resources.


Throughout India, as is well known, cow dung is burned to cook food. The minerals of the dung are not thereby lost, but the ability of dung to improve soil tilth is. Some of the nitrogen in the dung goes off into the air and does not return to Indian soil. Here we see a classic example of the “vicious circle”: because Indians are poor they burn dung, depriving the soil of nitrogen and making themselves still poorer the following year. If we give them plenty of food, as they cook this food with cow dung they will lower still more the ability of their land to produce food.


            Just sending food to an already overpopulated country is to contribute to their ruin.


How can we help India?

            Send food and non-food energy- this is not practical because energy such as oil and coal are not in surplus. It would take a lot more than we could provide to make a difference.


            We can let people starve to save more people later.



Fifty years ago India and China were equally miserable, and their future prospects equally bleak. During the past generation we have given India “help” on a massive scale; China, because of political differences between her and us, has received no “help” from us and precious little from anybody else. Yet who is better off today? And whose future prospects look brighter? Even after generously discounting the reports of the first starry-eyed Americans to enter China in recent years it is apparent that China’s 900 million are physically better off than India’s 600 million.


When for the sake of momentary gain by human beings the carrying capacity is transgressed, the long-term interests of the same human beings—”same” meaning themselves and their successors in time—are damaged.


James Woodward