Chapter 4: Population Growth and the Governance of Complex Institutions: People Are More Than Mouths to Feed

from the book The Environmental Optimism of Elinor Ostrom

Executive Summary

Elinor Ostrom was the first woman awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. Ostrom studied the management of shared environmental resources. Her work focused on how human beings come together to solve social dilemmas such as how a resource held in common should be managed. This edited volume builds on Ostrom’s research with six chapters by renowned environmental scholars. Each chapter explores a particular issue in environmental policy by carefully analyzing how institutions impact environmental outcomes and considering what might be done to improve those outcomes.

Discussions of Elinor Ostrom’s key contributions to the study of polycentric governance of complex institutions are often framed as a challenge1For some of the most recent and significant works that discuss Ostrom’s output as a challenge to Hardin, see the contributions to the Special Insights section in Science 362, no. 6420 (2018), particularly Robert Boyd et al., “Tragedy Revisited,” Science 362, no. 6429 (2018): 1236–41. See also Brett Frischmann, Alain Marciano, and Giovanni Battista Ramello, “Tragedy of the Commons after 50 Years,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 33, no. 4 (Fall 2019): 211–28. to biologist Garrett Hardin’s classic essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (TC).2 Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162, no. 3859 (December 1968): 1243–48. Ostrom herself used the word “challenging” 3 Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 2. to describe TC, a contribution that both encapsulates and expands on Hardin’s then long-standing concern with the preservation of finite resources through human population control.4Richard Lynn, “Garrett Hardin, Ph.D.—a Retrospective of His Life and Work,” Garrett Hardin Society, updated December 11, 2003,; Fabien Locher, “Cold War Pastures: Garrett Hardin and the ‘Tragedy of the Commons,” trans. Cadenza Academic Translations, Cairn. info, originally published as “Les pâturages de la guerre froide: Garrett Hardin et la ‘Tragédie des communs,’” Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 60, no. 1 (2013): 7–36; Frischmann, Marciano, and Ramello, “Tragedy of the Commons.” By now, the consensus on this relationship between Ostrom’s and Hardin’s work—Ostrom as the challenger of Hardin’s “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” dictum5Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1244.—is nearly universal.6Boyd et al., “Tragedy Revisited.” Brad Wible, senior commentary editor in Science, in a preface to a symposium assessing the impact of TC on the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, wrote, “Hardin questioned society’s ability to manage shared resources and avoid an environmentally and socially calamitous free-for-all. . . . Considerable work, notably by Nobelist Elinor Ostrom, has challenged Hardin, particularly his emphasis on property rights and government regulatory leviathans as solutions.”7Boyd et al., 1236. A recent work refines this established perspective: “Elinor Ostrom dedicated much of her career to demonstrating how commons in the real world had not and do not inevitably lead to tragic ruin, as Hardin had insisted.”8Frischmann, Marciano, and Ramello, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 212.

These analyses are, by preponderance of evidence and repeated agreement of peers, overwhelmingly correct. As perceptive and essential as these observations are, they take two analytical shortcuts that are, to our knowledge, almost universal in the literature of the Ostrom-Hardin challenge. First, these scholars focus their critiques, and their comparisons between Ostrom’s and Hardin’s work, on one aspect of Hardin’s TC, the economic implications of his interpretation of the term “commons.”9 See, for example, a study released on the thirtieth anniversary of TC’s publication: Joanna Burger and Michael Gochfield, “The Tragedy of the Commons: 30 Years Later,” Environment 40, no. 10 (1998): 4–27. Eminent economics professors Brett Frischmann, Alain Marciano, and Giovanni Battista Ramello, in what is arguably the most accomplished and up-to-date analysis of the economic legacy of TC with respect to Ostrom’s work, identify and discuss the conceptual failures of Hardin’s understanding of the commons.10“Hardin’s famous sheepherder allegory failed to make two key conceptual distinctions: the allegory conflated the idea of a scarce resource with the governance of that resource, and it further conflated open access with commons.” Frischmann, Marciano, and Ramello, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 212. Second in our list of shortcuts, analysts typically assume that Hardin, like Ostrom, was primarily concerned with the management of scarce resources in a commons, such as pastures, forests, and fisheries. This is a misconception. In fact, Hardin’s primary conundrum was the proposition, encapsulated in TC’s tagline, that “the population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality.”11 Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1243. Indeed, Hardin revived the overexploited commons metaphor from political economist William Forster Lloyd (1794–1852) to illustrate, as Lloyd had done, the necessity of controlling human population numbers.

Many economists and resource analysts have continued to focus on Hardin’s metaphorical hook while avoiding his main argument and concern, particularly when contrasting Hardin’s and Ostrom’s work, but a few researchers have commented on the key issue in TC. As the prominent Marxist geographer David Harvey observed, Hardin’s key message was that the “personal decision to have children would, he feared, lead eventually to the destruction of the global commons (a point that Thomas Malthus also argued). The private, familial nature of the decision was the crucial problem. The only solution, in his view, was authoritarian regulatory population control.”12 David Harvey, “The Future of the Commons,” Radical History Review 109 (2011): 101. Another geographer, David Correia, similarly wrote that the main message of TC is often misunderstood, for “unlike Ostrom, Hardin wasn’t writing about forests or oceans or pastures when he used the word ‘commons,’ he was talking about population.”13David Correia, “The Future of the Commons, Part I: Elinor Ostrom, Garrett Hardin, and the Politics of Population,” La Jicarita, June 18, 2012, Ostrom was well aware of Hardin’s emphasis on population control14Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 3. and realized that the commonly accepted understanding, even among scientists, of the term “tragedy of the commons” might lead to overgeneralizations in what she called “metaphorical use of models”15Ostrom, 7. in the study of resource management, and, more importantly, to policy prescriptions concerning both the environment and population control.

This is, in fact, the key idea on which we have built this chapter: The typical interpretation of the phrase “tragedy of the commons” does not align with the key message of Garrett Hardin’s work “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which is the need for authoritarian, top-down population control in the name of preserving limited resources.16Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons.” The key contributions of Elinor Ostrom’s work do, in fact, address the management of the commons explicitly, but have deep implications for the nature of decision-making in complex, polycentric settings. We aim to show in this chapter that, even though the key issue in TC is population control, not resource management, the implications of Ostrom’s work are still significant philosophically in reinforcing the importance of governance models, and decision-making processes, that are nonauthoritarian. Rather than offering an economic analysis of Ostrom’s and Hardin’s views on the question of the management of the commons, as has been done by others, most recently by Frischmann, Marciano, and Ramello,17 Frischmann, Marciano, and Ramello, “Tragedy of the Commons.” we provide a historical perspective of the population-control issue at the heart of TC, bringing together Hardin’s and Ostrom’s perspectives on the issue.

Our goal in this chapter is to provide a broader context for the debates launched by Hardin’s classic essay. First, we introduce his work and summarize his stance about the absolute necessity of population control, articulated in TC and throughout his career. In the second and third sections, we revisit long-standing arguments for and against population control that deal specifically with Hardin’s main concerns—environmental impact, resource depletion, and economic growth—by using sources that (often long) predate the case he made in TC and elsewhere, typically stopping our analysis with sources available in 1968, the year of TC’s publication. As will be demonstrated, Hardin’s thoughts were hardly original and he, like virtually all neo-Malthusians18 The term “Malthusian” invokes the views on human demographic trends promulgated by the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834), particularly in the first edition of his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). The Malthusian view is that while food availability increases arithmetically (linearly in proportion to inputs), people multiply geometrically (exponentially, doubling their numbers roughly every twenty-five years). Thus, in a classic Malthusian scenario of no technological change, the human population will outstrip the ability of the environment to sustain it, and will hence suffer a catastrophic crash. Malthus, particularly in the later editions of his work, allowed that people might be able to develop either moral or intellectual crash-avoidance mechanisms. Neo-Malthusians—modern adherents to the pessimistic Malthusian doctrine—on the other hand, see no mitigating circumstances to cushion the impending population crash. Some, like biologist Paul R. Ehrlich, have been predicting it for decades with clockwork regularity. The only solution to the population crash neo-Malthusians see as legitimate is top-down population control accomplished through government-imposed measures such as China’s former one-child policy or India’s forced sterilization programs of the 1960s. in the past two generations, failed to engage with contrary facts and arguments. Where he arguably stood out, however, was in his willingness to articulate and debate publicly some unpalatable logical implications of his Malthusian worldview. In the final three sections, our chapter will draw connections between Hardin’s ideas and Ostrom’s challenges to his “systems” model of human behavior and resource governance.19Jason Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life,” Endeavour 40, no. 4 (2016): 238–48. Numerous scientists, particularly from the 1950s to the 1970s, were trained to view what they studied according to the systems school of thought. The world, as seen by systems science, was composed of “complex, hierarchic systems defined more by their structures than by their components.” The aim of science was “to construct formal models of system behavior.” Hunter Heyck, Age of System: Understanding the Development of Modern Social Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 1. The structure such a model provided—and the control over the whole it implied—was more important to systems thinking than the identity or attributes of the parts, and it was this feature of the systems paradigm that was attractive to Hardin as he sought a way to direct human behavior rationally on a global scale. Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life,” 246. We trace Ostrom’s insights into polycentric governance and the properties of the Institutional Analysis and Development framework in the area of population growth, particularly as a counterpoint to Hardin’s viewpoints. We conclude that the implications of Ostrom’s research are consistent with a cautious brand of population optimism centered on individual agency.

1. Garrett Hardin’s Legacy of the “Tragedy of the Commons”: Population Growth, Environmental Degradation, and Resource Stewardship

As the web page of his personal archive acknowledges, Garrett Hardin “wrote on and publicly supported birth control and eugenics (including abortion and sterilization), conservation, ending of foreign aid, and restriction of immigration as solutions to overpopulation.”20“Collection Guide: Guide to the Garrett Hardin Papers,” Online Archive of California, accessed January 4, 2020, findaid/ark:/13030/kt267nd7tr/. For a compendium of Hardin’s writings and a video interview, see the home page of the Garrett Hardin Society, The journal Science, in which TC was originally published, has created a web page devoted to pieces written by Hardin in Science and reactions to them: “‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ and Beyond,” sotp/commons.xhtml. For a more detailed list of links, including reactions to Hardin’s writings, see “Links,” Garrett Hardin Society, updated June 28, 2013, info/links.html. Apart from TC, Hardin is best known for promoting the concept of carrying capacity21The term carrying capacity, in ecology, refers to the maximum number of individuals of a certain species that the environment can sustain, without degradation or resource depletion, indefinitely. The exact origin of the expression is not known but its earliest uses in the mid-nineteenth century spanned such fields as range management, engineering, international shipping, and agriculture, where the term did not relate to population. By the early to mid-twentieth century, neo-Malthusian researchers had adopted the term in the context of population biology and demography. For more details on the limitations of the term for assessing the impacts of human population on the environment, see Nathan F. Sayre, “The Genesis, History, and Limits of Carrying Capacity,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 98, no. 1 (2008): 120–34; Nathan F. Sayre, “Carrying Capacity,” in The Berkshire Encyclopedia of Sustainability, vol. 5, Ecosystem Management and Sustainability (Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group, 2012). and for developing the lifeboat ethics as an alternative to the Spaceship Earth metaphor,22 Lifeboat ethics is a metaphor dating back to Hardin’s essay on resource distribution bearing the same title. Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor,” Psychology Today, September 1974. In the metaphor, poor nations are swimmers stranded in the water whereas developed nations are in lifeboats. Obviously, if all the swimmers are helped into the lifeboats, everyone will drown. According to Hardin, such will be the fate of humanity if individuals are allowed to indiscriminately impinge on the scarce resources the planet offers everyone as a commons. Only with firm guidance from authority can such resources be used wisely: Those (few) in charge of the lifeboats must decide what is right for all on the basis of crisis-time lifeboat ethics, not the idealized vision of human harmony and cooperation on Spaceship Earth. For more detail see Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics” and Garrett Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat,” BioScience 24, no. 10 (1974): 561–68. topics we discuss later in this chapter.

Like the views of other prominent American environmental writers of his day, Hardin’s core values regarding natural resource management and population-control policy were shaped by prior eugenicist and Malthusian thinking.23 Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer, “The Post War Intellectual Roots of the Population Bomb: Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival in Retrospect,” Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development 1, no. 3 (2009): 73–97; Locher, “Cold War Pastures”; Sebastian Normandin and Sean A. Valles, “How a Network of Conservationists and Population Control Activists Created the Contemporary US Anti-immigration Movement,” Endeavour 39, no. 2 (2015): 95–106; Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life”; Leon Kolankiewicz, “Garrett Hardin—Thinking without Limits about Living within Limits,” Social Contract 29, no. 3 (2019): 3–23. Hardin’s eugenicist roots are more obvious in his discussion of work by Kingsley Davis and of human reproduction. For a recent discussion of Hardin’s life and work from the perspective of supportive neo-Malthusian writers, see the spring 2019 special issue of the Social Contract journal, “Living within Limits: The Enduring Relevance of Garrett Hardin,” index.shtml. For the broader intellectual context in which he wrote, see Pierre Desrochers and Vincent Geloso, “Snatching the Wrong Conclusions from the Jaws of Defeat: A Historical/Resourceship Perspective on Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale University Press, 2013), Part 2: The Wager: Protagonists and Lessons,” New Perspectives on Political Economy 12, no. 1–2 (2016): 42–64; Pierre Desrochers and Vincent Geloso, “Snatching the Wrong Conclusions from the Jaws of Defeat: A Historical/Resourceship Perspective on Paul Sabin’s The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future (Yale University Press, 2013), Part 1: The Missing History of Thought: Depletionism vs Resourceship,” New Perspectives on Political Economy 12, no. 1–2 (2016): 5–41; Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak, Population Bombed! Exploding the Link between Overpopulation and Climate Change (Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2018). Sebastian Normandin and Sean Valles also develop the neo-Malthusian roots of Hardin’s ideology around the “neo-Malthusian emergence” year of 1968. Normandin and Valles, “Network of Conservationists,” 97. They document Hardin’s connection to anti-immigration and neo-eugenicist groups through John Tanton, creator of the Social Contract journal and, during the 1970s, president of the organization Zero Population Growth (now Population Connection). Energy scholar Vaclav Smil presents a thought-provoking and personal analysis of Hardin’s output in “Garrett James Hardin (Dallas 1915–Santa Barbara 2003),” American Scientist 92 (January–February 2004): 8–10. In fact, Hardin’s intellectual roots were “equal parts Malthusian political economy and Cold War systems science,”24Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life,” 238. nourished and given prominence by the “‘Malthusian moment’ [that] swept population biology, policy discussions, and the political imaginaries of diverse publics.”25Oakes, 238. Hardin’s views also derived from his formal training in microbial ecology and population biology, first at the University of Chicago and then at Stanford University. His 1941 PhD dissertation examined Oikomonas, uniflagellate protozoans common in stagnant water, soil, and sewage, reacted to changes in their environment and food availability.26 Locher, “Cold War Pastures,” v. Hardin’s research on algal ecology had as its goal increasing the human food supply.27Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life.” Instead of embracing that motivation, Hardin confronted, for the first time, what he saw as a failure of science to deal with the root cause of the food supply problem: the increasing rate of human population growth.

Hardin’s main concern in his postgraduate work and throughout his life remained human population growth as the ultimate cause of resource waste and environmental degradation. He wrote about the preservation of natural resources and population control in the first edition of his textbook Biology: Its Human Implications.28Garrett Hardin, Biology: Its Human Implications (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1949). Hardin was still discussing, or perhaps more accurately restating, his key arguments in his last book, Creative Altruism: An Ecologist Questions Motives (Petoskey, MI: Social Contract Press, 1999). In his view, any well-meaning policy—whether it involved research on alternative foodstuffs or poverty relief—that resulted in increased human numbers was ultimately self-defeating. Politically, Hardin was hostile to both laissez-faire free market policies and communism if the outcome was greater human encroachment on the natural ecosystems. Writing for an American audience in TC, he insisted that little progress would be made toward reaching “optimum population size” until the “spirit of Adam Smith in the field of practical demography” (i.e., the notion that an individual who “intends only his own gain” is “led by an invisible hand to promote . . . the public interest”) had been properly exorcized.29Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1244.

The main problem with Smith’s philosophy, Hardin argued in TC, was that it contributed to “the dominant tendency of thought that has ever since interfered with positive action based on rational analysis, namely the tendency to assume that decisions reached individually will, in fact, be the best decisions for an entire society. If this assumption is correct it justifies the continuance of our present policy of laissez-faire in reproduction.”30Hardin, 1244. In a short reflection piece published three decades after TC, Hardin summarized the evolution of his thought on the subject:

With Adam Smith’s work as a model, I had assumed that the sum of separate ego-serving decisions would be the best possible one for the population as a whole. But presently I discovered that I agreed much more with William Forster Lloyd’s conclusions, as given in his Oxford lectures of 1833. Citing what happened to pasturelands left open to many herds of cattle, Lloyd pointed out that, with a resource available to all, the greediest herdsmen would gain—for a while. But mutual ruin was just around the comer. As demand grew in step with population (while supply remained fixed), a time would come when the herds-men, acting as Smithian individuals, would be trapped by their own competitive impulses. The unmanaged commons would be ruined by overgrazing; competitive individualism would be helpless to prevent the social disaster.31 Garrett Hardin, “Extensions of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’” Science 280, no. 5364 (1998): 682.

Hardin clearly stated his anti-individualist stance contra Smith on this issue, pointing out what even Malthus missed in his analysis:

As I see it, Malthus walked right past the heart of the population problem. . . . The problem is simply this: can the necessity of population control be reconciled with the apparent demands of individualism . . . ? I conclude that there is a fatal contradiction between these two necessities; and that the survival of civilization will require us to modify significantly the powers we now grant to individual “rights.”32Garrett Hardin, “The Feast of Malthus: Living within Limits,” Social Contract (Spring 1998): 181. Italics in original.

Lloyd’s Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (1833) were largely forgotten until Hardin resurrected interest in the – still rarely read – work of this Malthusian British political economist.” They dealt in part with a comparison of societies: societies where the “burden of a family [was thrown] entirely on the parents” and others where “the children maintain themselves at a very early age” were compared to the “parallel cases of inclosed grounds and [open] commons” in which cattle is stocked. Lloyd asked, Why “are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining [better-maintained] inclosures?” The key explanation, he argued, was how “an increase of stock in the two cases affects the circumstances of the author of the increase,” especially in the case of a “number of adjoining pastures, already fully stocked . . . at once thrown open, and converted into one vast common.” The key problems were that if “individuals are prudent [they do not] alone reap the benefit” and, “if they [are] imprudent [they do not] alone feel the evil consequences.”33 William Forster Lloyd, Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, Delivered before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1832 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1833), 30–33, available at details/twolecturesonch00lloygoog/page/n6.

Hardin later acknowledged that he and Lloyd were really addressing a subset of traditional commons-management issues for an unmanaged resource, although, on the basis of how he phrased the issue, it is probably fair to say that Lloyd was more aware of the problem. Ostrom called these unmanaged commons such as pastures common-pool resources.34Ostrom, Governing the Commons. Summing up his thought on the issue in 1998, Hardin observed, “A ‘managed commons’ describes either socialism or the privatism of free enterprise. Either one may work; either one may fail: ‘The devil is in the details.’ But with an unmanaged commons, you can forget about the devil: As overuse of resources reduces carrying capacity, ruin is inevitable.’”35Hardin, “Extensions,” 683. For a more detailed historical perspective on the limitations of carrying capacity as a theoretical construct in the context of the human ability to change the environment, see Sayre, “Genesis, History, and Limits”; Sayre, “Carrying Capacity.” He further clarified, both privatism and socialism can either succeed or fail. But, except in the smallest of communities, communism cannot succeed.36Hardin is more explicit on this point in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, s.v. “Tragedy of the Commons,” by Garrett Hardin, accessed January 4, 2020, TragedyoftheCommons.html. An unmanaged common fails because it rewards individual exploiters for making the wrong decisions— wrong for the group as a whole, and wrong for themselves, in the long run. Freedom in the commons does not produce a stable prosperity. This is Lloyd’s revolutionary point. Popular prophets, intoxicated by laissez-faire, simply could not hear Lloyd.37Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 9, no. 5 (1994): 199. Italics in original.

Whatever shortcomings TC—“a qualitative modeling exercise wrapped in a parable about a hypothetical public pasture”38Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life,” 238.— might have exhibited in explaining the problem of unmanaged commons, however, ultimately Hardin always remained adamant that the commons degradation or “pollution problem is a consequence of population [growth].”39Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1245. In fact, Hardin saw overpopulation as an ecological problem of the human species with a “narrow statist” solution,40Normandin and Valles, “Network of Conservationists,” 99. summarized in his lifeboat ethics metaphor. This trope partitioned a global problem into discrete national subproblems instead of leaving it as a question for a Spaceship Earth to resolve. As Hardin saw things, the Earth was not a spaceship, since a ship has a captain with real power while the Earth (in the absence of global governance) does not.

In Hardin’s lifeboat ethics metaphor, “each rich nation is in effect a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people.”41Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat,” 561. By contrast, since the lifeboats representing poor nations are uncomfortably overcrowded, “the poor fall out of their lifeboats and swim for a while in the water outside, hoping to be admitted to a rich lifeboat, or in some other way to benefit from the ‘goodies’ on board.” Hardin then asked, “What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem of ‘the ethics of a lifeboat.’” Hardin’s argument was that the unavoidable and ethically correct thing to do was to let the poor swimmers drown, however morally repugnant that might seem to us, in order to prevent an even worse outcome through a “suicidal . . . generous immigration policy.”42Hardin, 561.

Scholars of philosophy and history of science Sebastian Normandin and Sean Valles saw Hardin’s lifeboat ethics and the concomitant immigration and reproduction control philosophies as representing an “almost anti-ecological” stance, “insofar as it runs counter to any holistic perspective on the worldwide environmental problems related to population growth.”43Normandin and Valles, “Network of Conservationists,” 99. The environmental policy analyst John S. Dryzek commented on Hardin’s narrow and authoritarian stance along the same lines: “Hardin made a connection to childbearing decisions: if the world is a commons, each additional child adds stress to the commons, even though calculations of private interest determine that the child should be conceived, born, and raised.”44John S. Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 29. Since each individual child is akin to a free rider on the commons and an interloper against the carrying capacity, those private interests bringing a child into being cannot be allowed to prevail when considering both the carrying capacity and the lifeboat ethics metaphors.

Hardin’s metaphors display not just an overreliance on static physical capacity concepts, but a scientistic attitude: He placed too high a value on a narrow analysis of a complex topic, assuming that this analysis was the sole correct method for dealing with the problem.45 Thomas Burnett, “What Is Scientism?,” American Association for the Advancement of Science, accessed January 5, 2020, https:// what-scientism. His scientism implies that a “fully rational and dispassionate analysis of complex human circumstances is possible”46Normandin and Valles, “Network of Conservationists,” 99.—and that it is, indeed, sufficient—and that both the natural resources needed and the actual number of human beings the earth can support can be mathematically calculated solely as “a function of per capita demands of those individuals.”47Normandin and Valles, 99. Thus, in Hardin’s world, the scientific and political elite of each sovereign country would calculate the state’s population carrying capacity and enforce the correct sustainable population numbers. Individuals should not have the agency to decide whether, and when, to reproduce, because the Smithian decisions optimizing individuals’ own outcomes would be sure to impinge on the scientifically determined carrying capacity calculated for the collective.

Hardin famously concluded TC by stating that the “only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.” He further explained that “freedom is the recognition of necessity,” and “it is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed. Only so, can we put an end to this aspect of the tragedy of the commons.”48Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1248. As Hardin would again write toward the end of his life, “The reality that underlies all the necessary curtailments [to individual freedom] is always the same—population growth.”49Hardin, “Extensions,” 683.

Although in time his rhetoric would shift somewhat in terms of the dire consequences he feared,50For instance, in a 1990 interview Hardin acknowledged that feeding the world was not a pressing issue, but that negative environmental externalities and the capacity of nature to absorb polluting emissions was. Garrett Hardin, “An Interview with Garrett Hardin on Overpopulation, Carrying Capacity, and Quality of Life,” interview by Nancy Pearlman, Educational Communications, Program 802, 1990, available at Hardin always maintained that population growth in the context of finite resources could only result in disastrous outcomes and, because of this, mandated a severe curbing of individual freedom. As he argued in TC and in many other places, “The more the population exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment, the more freedoms must be given up.”51Hardin, “Extensions,” 683 In his 1997 open letter to the American Civil Liberties Union, recounted in his obituary by energy analyst Vaclav Smil, Hardin argued that “when a woman elects to have a child, she is committing the community to something like $100,000 for bearing and rearing of that child. Is it wise to extend individual rights that far?”52Smil, “Garrett James Hardin,” 10. Hardin’s solution was a policy of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”53See, for example, Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” 1247; Hardin, “Extensions,” 683. Political scientist and Ostrom’s collaborator Amy Poteete summarizes his stance in terms of the outcome of the tragedy of the commons as a model: it “predicts that a set of individuals will be unable to engage in collective action without outside intervention.”54Amy Poteete, “Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action,” in The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Public Policy and Administration, edited by Martin Lodge, Edward C. Page, and Steven J. Balla, (Oxford University Press, 2016), available in Oxford Handbooks Online, doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199646135.013.29 , page 2 of 13.. According to Hardin, efficiencies must be externally imposed by a governing elite in an attempt to “achieve ‘normalization’ . . . based on a single perspective.”55Gerald Gaus, The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). See also Paul D. Aligica, Institutional Diversity and Political Economy, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013). Needless to say, the true nature of mutual coercion in this context has long been controversial. For an accessible critical take on the issue, see Jonathan Adler, “Property Rights and the Tragedy of the Commons,” Atlantic, May 22, 2012, business/archive/2012/05/property-rights-and-the-tragedy-of-thecommons/257549/. For a relatively recent call for coercive population control that laments the demise of China’s one-child policy, see Sarah Conly, “Here’s Why China’s One-Child Policy Was a Good Thing,” Boston Globe, October 31, 2015, https://www.bostonglobe. com/opinion/2015/10/31/here-why-china-one-child-policy-wasgood-thing/GY4XiQLeYfAZ8e8Y7yFycI/story.html. In other words, the lifeboat needs a captain.

Hardin’s desirable institutional framework, therefore, always relied on elite guidance in accordance with a single perspective through—if practical—coercion. Indeed, a fair reading of Hardin’s other writings on the issue leaves little doubt that he supported “mutually agreed upon” measures only to the extent he deemed them sufficiently drastic in terms of reducing population growth. In this sense, Hardin’s stance epitomized the single-solution consensus common to many pessimistic environmentalist thinkers of the post–World War II era who opined on these issues before TC’s publication. Like these thinkers, Hardin failed to discuss in any meaningful way the contrary arguments and the empirical evidence put forward by the optimist analysts whose case is presented in section 3. Hardin’s stance against unchecked human population growth—always the main driver in his attempts at interdisciplinary synthesis—would remain unchanged for the rest of his life.

Hardin was arguably more willing tha contemporary neo-Malthusians to think, write, and say what many others deemed unacceptable in the policy arena,56The Garrett Hardin Society’s website describes him as an “agent provocateur”: “Video Interviews with Garrett Hardin,” updated June 28, 2013, and he was a radical (if not always a consistent one) in both life and death. He and his ill wife committed suicide together shortly after their sixty-second wedding anniversary—but together they had raised four children,57Diana Hull, “CAPS Grieves Deaths of Ecologist and Author Garrett Hardin and His Wife, Population Activist Jane Hardin,” Garrett Hardin Society, September 19, 2003, more than the one child per every man or woman he had reportedly advocated.58Ostrom recalled that, during a lecture Hardin gave at Indiana University Bloomington after the 1968 publication of TC, he “indicated that every man and every woman should be sterilized after they have one child. He was very serious about it.” Margaret Levi, “An Interview with Elinor Ostrom,” Annual Reviews Conversations (2010),, 8. When asked how many children and grandchildren he had, Hardin reportedly said he had four of each: “My children paid attention to what I said, not what I did.” Garrett Hardin, interview by Cathy Spencer, Omni 14, no. 9 (June 1992): 56.

2. The Neo-Malthusian Case in Brief

We now turn to a more detailed discussion of the key insights of the conflicting discourses: that is, the neo-Malthusian pessimist perspective and the optimist one. It is essential that we become acquainted with the historical precursors of Hardin’s ideas so that we can assess, first, where Hardin’s ideas were rooted intellectually and, second, what was truly novel about his additions to the pessimist side of the population debate. We will find congruence between Hardin’s views and those of the pessimists, whereas the optimist perspective will give us some additional insights into Ostrom’s critique of Hardin in our concluding section. In addition, becoming familiar with the optimist side of the population debate will foreground arguments, for the most part as old as those of the pessimists, that were available to Hardin had he wished to disprove them specifically, or to address any of the associated empirical findings. We will see that, like most neo-Malthusian thinkers, Hardin chose not to address optimist arguments in detail or in a serious manner, preferring instead to launch largely ad hominem attacks against economists as poorly trained nonscientists.59For Hardin’s most engaged and sustained critique of economic growth and optimist views on population, see Hardin, “Feast of Malthus,” 183. Here he ridiculed Henry George, the best-selling nineteenth-century American economist whose key insights are discussed in section 3; Theodore Schultz; and Julian Simon (the last two anonymously): “Though not considered great, George was an economist of sorts. Sadly, his message is still repeated in our own time by many poorly trained economists [Simon]. . . . Few things are pleasanter to committed capitalists than being assured that more people are always and forever better. Grow! Grow! Grow! The belittling of the seriousness of overpopulation is not restricted to the quack-economists [Simon] of our time: it is even found among a few of the leaders of the profession [Schultz].”

As stated earlier, our choice was to use material that predates the publication of TC, material that would therefore have been accessible to Hardin and other post–World War II neo-Malthusian writers.60Needless to say, much empirical work was done documenting the changes, and, indeed, the marked improvements in the material conditions and life expectancy of people around the world in the post–World War II era. Desrochers and Geloso, “Snatching the Wrong Conclusions, Part 1.” But as optimist economist Julian Simon hinted while discussing the history of thought on both population growth and material conditions of human life, a number of valuable insights on the relationship between a growing population and the availability of resources were arguably lost in mathematical translation at the time. Julian L. Simon, “Economic Thought about Population Consequences: Some Reflections,” Journal of Population Economics 6, no. 2 (1993): 137–52. For the most part we will discuss both Hardin and Ostrom within the range of the literature available to them when they wrote the key works in question, such as TC and, in Ostrom’s case, works published before her Nobel prize in 2009. There will be exceptions to this material selection constraint in the final section and in the conclusion, but the majority of such exceptions will illustrate points about Hardin’s or Ostrom’s views, not new empirical or theoretical insights on the topic of population growth and resource management. To provide an example of this exclusion, this chapter does not engage with the population implications of China’s one-child policy or of its repeal at the end of 2015, because neither Ostrom nor Hardin addressed the former in great detail,61Hardin did support and admire China’s one-child policy as an exemplary authoritarian reproductive-rights-curtailing measure, although in his own works he did not mention it extensively. The evidence for his admiration, and on-the-record regret that the policy was not enforced in the Chinese countryside, can be found in Lynn, “Garrett Hardin, Ph.D.”; and Hardin, interview by Spencer. and they had no opportunity to learn of the latter.

Pessimists have long argued that, if not checked by voluntary or coercive means, a population tends to outgrow its limited supply of food and natural resources or else inflicts irredeemable environmental damage on its surroundings, resulting in famine and societal collapse. Writers in this tradition, with whom Hardin was arguably more familiar than with most other post-World War II neo-Malthusians,62Garrett Hardin, Population, Evolution and Birth Control: A Collage of Controversial Readings (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1964). typically invoked the arguments we summarize below using sources that predate the publication of TC. While pessimist thought reaches back further in time than the fifteenth century (where we start this section), the following survey of key Malthusian and neo-Malthusian arguments situates us at the ground zero of Hardin’s ideas on population.

Pessimist Argument 1: Continued Growth in a Finite System Is Unsustainable

In the early sixteenth century, Niccolò Machiavelli observed that “when every province of the world so teems with inhabitants that they can neither subsist where they are nor remove elsewhere, every region being equally crowded and over-peopled,” the world will purge itself through floods, plagues, or famines.63Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (1531), trans. Ninian Hill Thomson (1883), chapter 5, available at the Literature Network, In the mid-1700s, the Danish cleric Otto Diederich Lütken anticipated Malthus by forty years, at the same time neatly encapsulating the ideas of limits to growth and the carrying capacity of the earth:

Since the circumference of the globe is given and does not expand with the increased number of its inhabitants, and as travel to other planets thought to be inhabitable has not yet been invented; . . . it follows that the proposition “that the world’s inhabitants will be happier, the greater their number” cannot be maintained, for as soon as the number exceeds that which our planet with all its wealth of land and water can support, they must needs starve one another out.64Quoted in Arild Saether, “Otto Diederich Lütken—40 Years before Malthus?,” Population Studies 47, no. 3 (1993): 511. The English translation of the title of the original 1758 Danish article is “An Enquiry into the Proposition that the Number of People is the Happiness of the Realm, or the Greater the Number of Subjects, the More Flourishing the State.” It was published in the Danmarks og Norges Oeconomiske Magazin 2 (1758) pp. 187ff.

In 1886, the former Methodist minister and birth control activist Joseph Symes wrote that “no matter how large the country,” in the absence of deliberate efforts to the contrary, “the land will be over-stocked with people,” the food supply will be “too scanty,” and “even standing room will soon be wanting.” What was true of any country was, prefiguring Hardin’s lifeboat metaphors, “equally true of the world at large, the raft to which we cling in the boundless ocean of space.”65Joseph Symes, “The Plain Truth about Malthusianism,” Malthusian 8, no. 6 (1886): 47.

A generation later, the eugenicist Edward Isaacson argued that “the time must come when the countries which now export food will be filled up to the point where they will need all they produce for themselves, and can no longer supply the over-populated countries at any price.”66Edward Isaacson, The Malthusian Limit: A Theory of a Possible Static Condition for the Human Race (London: Methuen, 1912), xxvi–xxvii, available at page/n8. Although emigration had acted as a safety valve in the past, this could only continue “so long as there is a place for it; but what then?” Isaacson’s solution, echoing John Stuart Mill, was a steady state of economic development in which “population must be kept down to the numbers which [over-populated countries’] land with the best management can support.”67Isaacson, Malthusian Limit.

While we do know that Hardin’s main inspiration for TC was the output of William Forster Lloyd, particularly Two Lectures on the Checks to Population, we can see from this section’s selections that both the idea of limits dictating a carrying capacity and the image of humanity clinging precariously to boats or rafts, in fear of extinction, are mainstays of the pessimist discourse.

Pessimist Argument 2: Everything Else Being Equal, a Reduced Population Will Enjoy a Higher Standard of Living

As evinced in the previously quoted passages by Machiavelli and Lütken, population control by catastrophic crashes due to famine, war, or epidemic illness was a common motif in the pessimist literature. Short of such disasters, pessimists argued that coercive population control was a necessity for attaining human prosperity. While Malthus admitted that the inhabitants of a country “depopulated by violent causes” such as wars would “probably live in severe want,” he suggested that population reduction without destruction of the capital stock (say, the aftermath of an epidemic disease) would benefit the remaining inhabitants, as they could “cultivate principally the more fertile parts of their territory” and not have to cultivate more marginal lands.68 Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, or a View of Its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness; with an Inquiry into Our Prospects Respecting the Future Removal or Mitigation of the Evils Which It Occasions, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), book 3, chapter 14, available at Malthus/malPlong.html. Writing in 1879, Edward Henry Stanley, the fifteenth Earl of Derby and a prominent British public officer and politician, opined that “it is better to have thirty-five millions of human beings leading useful and intelligent lives, rather than forty millions struggling painfully for a bare subsistence.”69 Quoted in “Lord Derby on Emigration and the Land Question,” Malthusian 1, no. 1 (1879): 6.

In 1948, ornithologist and population control activist William Vogt observed in his Road to Survival—the biggest environmental best seller of all time until the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962—that “drastic measures are inescapable” in light of worldwide environmental destruction by the pressures of overpopulation.70William Vogt, Road to Survival (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1948), 285. Vogt’s harsh rhetoric is a direct precursor of Hardin’s: “Irresponsible breeding . . . imposes a drain on the world’s wealth . . . when this wealth might be used to improve living standards and survival chances for less people.”71Vogt, Road to Survival, 285.

Pessimist Argument 3: Decreasing Returns to Investment in Natural Resources Result in Lower Standards of Living

Because valuable natural resources such as land suitable for agriculture and mineral resources come in different grades and are found in more and less-convenient locations, pessimist writers have long made the case for unavoidable decreasing or diminishing returns to economic effort over time, the result of which will be retardation and the eventual termination of economic growth.

The decreasing-returns perspective in the population-resource debate is usually traced back to the second edition of Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population, where he argued that making less-productive parts of the landscape fit for agricultural production would require more time and labor than was previously necessary. As a result, the “additions that could yearly be made to the former average produce must be gradually and regularly diminishing.”72Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, book 1, chapter 1. This argument was endorsed by John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy, where he even disputed the utility of the additional labor new individuals could contribute in a zero-sum world.73John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy with Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, ed. William James Ashley (1848; repr., London: Longmans, Green, 1909), chapter 13, available at http://

The distinguished American scientist and eugenicist Edward Murray East worried about decreasing returns in agricultural production. In particular, “Food exportation from the younger countries will sink rapidly, as it did in the United States during the decades before the [First World] war, so rapidly that overpopulated countries will have the greatest difficulty in adjusting themselves to the change.”74 Edward Murray East, Mankind at the Crossroads (1923; repr., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928), 345.

In 1951 Robert Carter Cook, a prominent American geneticist, demographer, and eugenicist, commented that the world’s growing population will force the use of marginal lands, which in general are extremely expensive to exploit. More and more human energy will have to be devoted to the basic problem of producing food, and the standard of living, instead of going up, will remain at subsistence level in the areas where it now stands at that, while the wealthier areas will find their standards of living declining.75Robert Carter Cook, Human Fertility: The Modern Dilemma (New York: Sloane, 1951), 321.

This argument has long been applied to carbon fuels. For instance, in 1865 the economist William Stanley Jevons suggested in his classic The Coal Question that, over time, the price of this resource would become “much higher than the highest price now paid for the finest kinds of coal” because the most “cheaply and easily” accessible fields and seams would always be developed first.76William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines (1865; repr., London: MacMillan, 1866), chapters 1 and 2, available at html.

Most pessimist writers were content to apply the decreasing returns argument to agriculture and other instances of natural resource exploitation, but they rarely extended it to manufacturing activities. Hardin did, in order to condemn economic growth in total as an irresponsible and unscientific idea,77Hardin, “Feast of Malthus,” 183. thus anticipating later degrowth literature. In a relatively rare foray into an economic argument, Hardin contrasted economies of scale with what he called “diseconomies of scale” that crop up “at some level of production”;78Hardin, 183. Hardin proceeded without giving illustrations or explanations of this phenomenon, but it is an analogue to the idea of diminishing returns. The critique of Hardin’s argument, although beyond the scope of our chapter, would focus on Hardin’s assumption of a static nature of “diseconomies” in an innovation-poor setting.

Pessimist Argument 4: Technological Innovation and Synthetic Products Cannot Be Substituted for Natural Capital

As we observed in the previous subsection, technological innovation and change were not highly regarded by pessimist thinkers. Writing in 1948, Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., a conservationist and longtime president of the New York Zoological Society, insisted that the “grand and ultimate illusion would be that man could provide a substitute for the elemental workings of nature.”79Henry Fairfield Osborn Jr., Our Plundered Planet (Boston: Little, Brown, 1948), 199, available at catalog/chla2932687?c=chla;idno=2932687. His examples of endeavors in which technology must fail humanity in the long run included chemical fertilizers,80Osborn, Our Plundered Planet, 68. now known to be one of the great successes of early agrochemical engineering.

William Vogt similarly considered agricultural innovation and mechanization “of dubious value to the land, as it is more purely extractive than older methods,”81Vogt, Road to Survival, 147. bringing poorer land under cultivation, being too dependent on rapidly dwindling petroleum reserves, and triggering a migration from rural to urban areas, thereby reducing agricultural populations that should be kept on farms as human buffers in case of future recessions. Moreover, Vogt observed, agricultural machinery had little to contribute to the land: one does “not find a manure pile outside the tractor shed.”82Vogt, 147.

Pessimist Argument 5: The Prosperous Should Not Help the Poor

Like Hardin, several Malthusian thinkers opposed famine relief and other measures to help the poor, arguing that they would only make a bad situation worse. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the French mutualist theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon thus condemned Malthusianism as having been from its beginning “the theory of political murder; of murder from motives of philanthropy and for love of God . . . [Malthusians] cannot conceive how, without some sort of an organization of homicide, a balance between population and production can exist.”83Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Malthusians, trans. (1848; repr., International Publishing Company, 1886), available at Benjamin Tucker translated the essay for the May 31, 1884 issue of Liberty. It was reprinted two years later by the International Publishing Company. Half a century later, the Catholic economist Charles Stanton Devas observed that the practical results of Malthusian thinking had “been a grave discouragement to all works of social reform and humane legislation, which appeared as foolish sentiment defeating its kind aims by encouraging population.”84Charles Stanton Devas, Political Economy, 3rd ed. (1907; repr., London: Longmans, Green, 1919), 198, available at https://archive. org/details/politicalecon00deva.

The case against helping the poor was restated forcefully at the end of World War II by prominent writers, who urged policymakers to let nature run its course rather than ship vast quantities of new synthetic pesticides and medicine to poor economies. William Vogt, for one, considered such measures inadvisable. He even argued that the “flank attack on the tsetse fly with DDT or some other insecticide,” then being carried out by “ecologically ignorant sanitarians, entomologists, and medical men,” was going to make things worse because there was no “kindness in keeping people from dying of malaria so that they could die more slowly of starvation.”85Vogt, Road to Survival, 257, 13.

In a 1952 presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that would later be denounced by both the Kremlin and the Vatican,86 Bernard Katz, “Archibald Vivian Hill: 26 September 1886–3 June 1977,” Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 24 (1978): 71–149. distinguished British scientist Archibald Vivian Hill—who also happened to be brother-in-law to famous economist, eugenicist, and neo-Malthusian John Maynard Keynes87Phillip Magness and Sean Hernandez, “The Economic Eugenicism of John Maynard Keynes,” Journal of Markets and Morality 20, no. 1 (2017): 79–100.—asked, “If men were certain that the present overpopulation trends would eventually engulf them, would they be right in withholding such things as insecticides, fertilizers, and anti-malarial and anti-tuberculosis drugs?” and if “men bred like rabbits should they be allowed to die like rabbits?”88Archibald Vivian Hill, The Ethical Dilemma of Science and Other Writings (1962; repr., London: Rockefeller Institute Press in conjunction with Oxford University Press, 1960), 82. Novelist and philosopher Aldous Huxley laid out the same logic in his 1958 essay Brave New World Revisited:

We go to a tropical island and with the aid of DDT we stamp out malaria and, in two or three years, save hundreds of thousands of lives. . . .

Quick death by malaria has been abolished; but life made miserable by undernourishment and over-crowding is now the rule, and slow death by outright starvation threatens ever greater numbers.89Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited ( New York: Harper & Brothers, 1958), available at

Pessimist Argument 6: Past Successes in Overcoming Natural Limits Are Irrelevant to Present Conditions

To Hardin, as to most pessimist thinkers, humanity was living in a most perilous time, facing uniquely difficult problems. In 1923, Edward Murray East opined in his influential book Mankind at the Crossroads that the facts of population growth and the facts of agricultural economics point . . . severally to the definite conclusion that the world confronts the fulfillment of the Malthusian prediction here and now. Man stands to-day at the parting of the ways, with the choice of controlling his own destiny or of being tossed about until the end of time by the blind forces of the environment in which he finds himself.90East, Mankind at the Crossroads, viii.

There was no comfort in looking at past developments, he argued, as the “present age is totally unlike any previous age.”91East, viii.

A few years earlier the prominent British economist Alfred Marshall had also turned to Malthus, but in order to absolve him for not foreseeing the technological revolution in transportation and power generation brought about by the steam engine, which had delayed the Malthusian population catastrophe. Marshall noted that that grim future was getting nearer by the day, however, “unless the checks on the growth of population in force at the end of the nineteenth century are on the whole increased.”92Alfred Marshall, Principles of Economics, vol. 1 (New York: MacMillan, 1890), 180, available at

Two prominent American pessimists, Robert Carter Cook and the geochemist and eugenicist Harrison Brown, wrote similar reflections on Malthus’s work half a century later. As Cook put it, Malthus “lived at the threshold of an age in which a profound revolution in the physical circumstances of Western life was to occur” in terms of new modes of transportation, the opening of new territories, and scientific advances.93Cook, Human Fertility, 319. Unfortunately, “the nineteenth-century refutation of the population crisis is still a part of most contemporary belief” and the “man in the street sees no compelling reason to be apprehensive that the science which has served him so handsomely thus far will fail him in the future.”

For his part, Brown similarly excused the deficiencies of Malthus’s extrapolation into the future, as they “suffered not from lack of proper reasoning, but from lack of sufficient knowledge of the potentialities of technological development.” Brown was a better observer of the nature of technological and population changes through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as he wrote of Malthus,

Further, he could not have foreseen the extent to which the changed way of life in an industrial age would result in drastically declining birth rates coupled with decreasing mortality. In short, the scientific knowledge of his time was too meager to permit his drawing valid quantitative conclusions, no matter how sound his reasoning was.94Harrison Brown, The Challenge of Man’s Future: An Inquiry Concerning the Condition of Man during the Years That Lie Ahead (New York: Viking, 1954), 6.

Brown was referring to the demographic transition brought about by increasing prosperity and galloping technological innovation, the shift from a high-fertility society of large families to a society with increasingly fewer children. The implications of the demographic transition are important to us, and we will return to the economic relationship between population growth, technological progress, and the rise in individual prosperity as denoted by rising per capita incomes in industrializing countries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hardin’s views, as expressed over nearly five decades of his life, did indeed resonate with those of earlier neo-Malthusian writers and pessimist eugenicists, as we have indicated throughout this section. Although Hardin was more familiar with the history of thought than most of these writers, like other pessimist writers of his time he nevertheless failed to engage with the opposing view and he did not entertain the idea that past historical outcomes might be problematic for his outlook.

3. The Optimist Case in Brief

We now turn to a more detailed examination of the insights of the optimist writers. Since the early decades of the nineteenth century, optimist analysts have drawn their readers’ attention to key empirical facts such as the increasing longevity, better health, higher incomes, and burgeoning technological innovation accompanying an increasing population as proof of the validity of their perspective. To the extent that pessimists acknowledged such facts,95See Hardin, “Feast of Malthus,” and the discussion of his critique of economic growth in footnote As stated earlier, our choice was to use material that predates the publication of TC, material that would therefore have been accessible to Hardin and other post– World War II neo-Malthusian writers. For the most part we will discuss both Hardin and Ostrom within the range of the literature available to them when they wrote the key works in question, such as TC and, in Ostrom’s case, works published before her Nobel prize in 2009. There will be exceptions to this material selection constraint in the final section and in the conclusion, but the majority of such exceptions will illustrate points about Hardin’s or Ostrom’s views, not new empirical or theoretical insights on the topic of population growth and resource management. To provide an example of this exclusion, this chapter does not engage with the population implications of China’s one-child policy or of its repeal at the end of 2015, because neither Ostrom nor Hardin addressed the former in great detail, and they had no opportunity to learn of the latter.. they saw them as fleeting aberrations, intellectual shiny objects that have the power to distract those who do not understand the science of limits. The unspoken critique of optimists’ reliance on such facts was their lack of a theoretically satisfactory explanation, expressed in a way that met the conventions of modern science, of the mechanisms behind the simultaneous increases in population and prosperity that could overcome natural limits. Hardin’s sarcastic “Grow! Grow! Grow!”96Hardin, “Feast of Malthus,” 183. was just such an indictment of the seemingly limitless economic and population growth endorsed by optimists.

There is, however, at least one elegant theoretical model that reconciles the empirical observations of the simultaneous population and prosperity growth of the Industrial Revolution while predicting the current postindustrial demographic transition. We will present this model before fleshing out the optimist case, because the model gives a context for the predominantly empirical arguments that follow.

In 2000, Israeli economist and influential theorist Oded Galor, and David N. Weil, American economist and Galor’s Brown University colleague, proposed a relationship between population growth, technological progress, and the increase in individual prosperity. For Galor, this work culminated a decade later in the introduction of unified growth theory, a holistic approach to the complex problem of development grounded in the entire span of human history. Galor and Weil modeled the behavior of population growth, technological progress and individual prosperity over long periods of time, identifying three distinct regimes. The first regime is known as Malthusian and it is characterized by what economists call stagnation: a near-zero population growth, no long-term increase in individual incomes, and very little technological change.97 Oded Galor and David N. Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth: From Malthusian Stagnation to the Demographic Transition and Beyond,” American Economic Review 90, no. 4 (2000): 806.

While Malthus turned out to be right about the properties of this regime, we also know that Malthus’s description did not apply to the population-wealth-technology relationship during the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The regime witnessed, but not characterized, by Malthus during early rapid industrialization, according to Galor and Weil, was the Post-Malthusian Regime.98Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” In this regime population was increasing and technological development was accelerating, yet individual incomes were also rising. Thus, unprecedented population levels coexisted with unprecedented prosperity while appearing to ratchet up the pace of technological progress. Galor and Weil did, in fact, show there is a feedback mechanism between these variables,99Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” but what put the loop in motion?

Before we analyze this further, we must return to today’s Modern Growth Regime, characterized by “steady growth in both income per capita and the level of technology . . . [with] a negative relationship between the level of output and the growth rate of population,”100Galor and Weil, 806. so that the richest countries have population growth rates near zero.

What connects these three regimes is, in fact, population growth, at least according to the Galor and Weil model101Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” (to which we will add a proviso shortly). In the Malthusian Regime, each increase in wealth also increased the population. Initially, as income per capita rose, population grew more quickly. In places like industrializing Europe, however, economic output increased fast enough to allow income per capita to continue rising even as population was rising. Galor and Weil explained this as follows: “During this Post-Malthusian Regime, the Malthusian mechanism linking higher income to higher population growth continued to function, but the effect of higher population on diluting resources per capita, and thus lowering income per capita, was counteracted by technological progress, which allowed income to keep rising.”102Galor and Weil, 808. Thus, “a feedback loop between technology and population generates a transition from the proximity of a Malthusian equilibrium to the Post-Malthusian Regime.”103Galor and Weil, 809. The key mechanism of this shift was the accelerating technological progress, facilitated by the growing, denser, and more efficiently interconnected population.

The shift from the Post-Malthusian to the Modern Growth Regime was marked by the demographic transition. This momentous societal shift in reproductive strategies was noticeable even to the pessimist writer Harrison Brown.104Brown, Challenge of Man’s Future. The demographic transition happens when parents stop having numerous children, presumably of lower societal fitness, “human capital,” or “child quality,”105Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth,” 809. and start raising fewer children with substantially increased human capital—represented in the Galor and Weil model, as most often in life, by education. Significantly, Galor and Weil pointed out that the disequilibrium caused by the rapid and unabated technological change was what changed the value of, or the rate of return on, human capital.106Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” Parents reacted to the higher valuation of human capital by having fewer children but educating each child as much as they could afford.

The conclusion of Galor and Weil’s research was even more shocking: The very stable and seemingly inevitable Malthusian steady state can vanish, and will vanish in the long run because of the impact of population size on the rate of technological progress. At a sufficiently high level of population, the rate of population-induced technological progress is high enough that parents find it optimal to provide their children with some human capital. At this point, a virtuous circle develops: higher human capital raises technological progress, which in turn raises the value of human capital.107Galor and Weil, 811.

Thus, the transition from the Malthusian steady state into the Post-Malthusian dynamic regime of rapid increase is triggered by population growth and sustained by technological change that can be generated only through—yes—higher and more efficiently interconnected populations. The threshold of technological innovation at which progress really does take off is a function of population size: the greater the population, the faster the rate of innovation. The transition into the next steady state of Modern Growth is triggered by the parental shift of child-rearing strategies toward producing very few, but very highly educated, children that best succeed in the high-tech, high-prosperity, high-population (but low-population-growth) society of today.

The elegance of the Galor and Weil model108Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” is not only in how it shows the key significance of the population variable in setting economic development in motion, but also in how it demonstrates that the Modern Growth Regime is a near-steady state of near-zero population growth and a steady (not exponential) rise in incomes and innovations. There does not need to be an infinite exponential growth of incomes and population because, for the foreseeable future, humanity can maintain a constant rate of income and technological growth at this higher population plateau. Applying Hardin’s prescription of population control would needlessly thwart the stability of Modern Growth by trying to force humanity right back to the Malthusian steady state, with much individual and societal suffering, particularly in the economies that need the human capital the most to get to the new stable state.

It is time for our proviso. The Galor and Weil positive feedback loop between population growth and technological innovation can only function where the social and political climate is sufficiently hospitable to change. Many writers have pointed out the foundational value of openness to social and economic change in political institutions and cultures.109Stephen Davies, The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity (Brighton, UK: Edward Everett Root, 2019); Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006); Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). In Ostrom’s work, not only do we find further support for the importance of institutions to the flourishing of cooperation and prosperity, we also find practical support for the key fact that such institutions can develop between willing individuals in a matrix of acceptance and awareness from above, not rigid top-down control. The right institutions matter, and they are not a function of authoritarian power.

Although Ostrom wrote little about population, she by and large adopted a perspective according to which humans are not only mouths to feed, but also hands to work and brains to think up solutions to pressing problems. Consequently, a brief discussion of the key points made by more optimistic writers is useful in providing additional historical context for her work. Let us now examine the historical insights of the optimist thinkers in light of the theoretical and empirical support for their observations.

Optimist Argument 1: A Larger Population That Engages in Trade and the Division of Labor Will Deliver Greater Material Abundance per Capita

In 1821 the French economist Jean-Baptiste Say criticized the belief that a reduction in population would “enable those which are left to enjoy a greater quantity of those commodities of which they are in want” as nonsensical because it ignored the fact that a reduction in manpower simultaneously destroyed the means of production.110Jean-Baptiste Say, Letters to Mr. Malthus, and a Catechism of Political Economy, trans. John Richter (London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, 1821), available at After all, one did not see in thinly populated countries that “the wants of the inhabitants are more easily satisfied.” On the contrary, it was “abundance of productions, and not the scarcity of consumers, which procures a plentiful supply of whatever our necessities require.”111Say, Letters to Mr. Malthus. This is why the most populous countries were generally better supplied.

In 1879, anticipating the insights of Galor and Weil with observations,112Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” Henry George, the American political economist who might arguably be called the most widely read economist of the nineteenth century, similarly noted that while one could see “many communities still increasing in population,” they were also “increasing their wealth still faster.”113Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry into the Cause of Industrial Depressions and of Increase of Want with Increase of Wealth; The Remedy (1879; repr., Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page, 1912), book 2, chapter 4, available at George/grgPP.html. Indeed, “among communities of similar people in a similar stage of civilization,” the “most densely populated community is also the richest” and the evidence was overwhelming that “wealth is greatest where population is densest; that the production of wealth to a given amount of labor increases as population increases. These things are apparent wherever we turn our eyes.” In the end, the “richest countries are not those where nature is most prolific; but those where labor is most efficient—not Mexico, but Massachusetts; not Brazil, but England.” Where nature provides modest resources, George commented, “twenty men working together will . . . produce more than twenty times the wealth that one man can produce where nature is most bountiful.”114 George, Progress and Poverty, book 2, chapter 4. This was because the denser the population the more minute becomes the subdivision of labor, the greater the economies of production and distribution, and, hence, the very reverse of the Malthusian doctrine is true; and, within the limits in which we have reason to suppose increase would still go on, in any given state of civilization a greater number of people can produce a larger proportionate amount of wealth, and more fully supply their wants, than can a smaller number.115George, Progress and Poverty, book 2, chapter 4.

One of the best short overviews of the anti-Malthusian stance can be found in an anonymous essay published in 1889 in the Westminster Review:

The Malthusian theory does not accord with facts. As population grows, instead of production being less per head, statistics clearly prove it to be greater. The intelligence which is fostered in large communities; the advantages of the division of labour; the improved transit, which increases in efficiency with an enterprising people in proportion as numbers become large, and is impracticable until population has developed— are more than a match in the competition of production for any advantage a thinly scattered community may in some respects gain on a virgin soil. Malthus and his followers, while bringing prominently forward the needs of an increasing population, keep out of view the increasing means of supply which the additional labour of greater numbers will produce. . . . And so long as there are a pair of hands to provide for every mouth, with intelligence and energy ample production is assured, unless society erects artificial barriers by means of its laws regarding the distribution of wealth.116 “Statistics versus Malthus,” Westminster Review 131, no. 3 (1889): 287, available at

Of key importance to us in considering Ostrom’s position is the optimist writers’ repeated emphasis on human cooperation and emergent organization, whether they make transportation or manufacturing more efficient or provide more diverse markets for goods. Ostromian insights align with the importance of individual choice as well as of group coordination in achieving complex social goals.117Ostrom, Governing the Commons.

Optimist Argument 2: Human Creativity Can Deliver Increasing Returns

A long-standing tenet of population optimism is that knowledge, or creative application of the human intellect, is the key factor in overcoming scarcity and diminishing returns. As American resource economists Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse observed two generations ago, “Recognition of the possibility of technological progress clearly cuts the ground from under the concept of Malthusian scarcity,” and the historical evidence “mainly show[s] increasing, not diminishing, returns.”118Harold J. Barnett and Chandler Morse, Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability (Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1963), 7–8.

What optimist writers have also long understood is that a greater division of labor also favors the development of new ways of doing things. Writing in 1857, the social theorist Herbert Spencer observed,

By increasing the pressure on the means of subsistence, a larger population again augments these results; seeing that each person is forced more and more to confine himself to that which he can do best, and by which he can gain most. Presently, under these same stimuli, new occupations arise. Competing workers, ever aiming to produce improved articles, occasionally discover better processes or raw materials.119 Herbert Spencer, “Progress: Its Law and Cause,” in Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative, by Herbert Spencer, vol. 1 (1857; repr., London: Williams and Norgate, 1891), available at https://oll.–5?q=Progress%3A+Its+law#lf0620-01_head_003.

Spencer believed this made possible not only the development of better alternatives to what had existed before, but also the development of things not possible before. For instance, the replacement of stone tools by similar bronze tools paved the way for the development of new things that could not have been made out of stone. These advances, in turn, would increase the manipulative skill, comfort, and intelligence of the population, refining “their habits and tastes,” transforming “a homogeneous society into a heterogeneous one”120Spencer, “Progress.” and ultimately resulting in social and political change.

A generation later Henry George, criticized by Hardin as unscientific for documenting the rapid growth of the Post-Malthusian Regime,121Hardin 1998, “The Feast of Malthus.” commented that “even if the increase of population does reduce the power of the natural factor of wealth, by compelling a resort to poorer soils, etc., it yet so vastly increases the power of the human factor as more than to compensate.”122George, Progress and Poverty, book 2, chapter 4. The American entrepreneur, inventor, and economic writer Edward Atkinson observed at about the same time that the “mind of man when applied to the direction of natural forces is the principal agent in material production, in fact, the controlling element. Those who claim that labor is the source of all production are utterly misled because they do not admit this fundamental principle.”123Edward Atkinson, The Industrial Progress of the Nation: Consumption Limited, Production Unlimited (1889; repr., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), 160, available at The basic Malthusian hypothesis was thus “utterly without warrant either in fact or in experience,” because “Malthus appears to have had no imaginative faculty, a very essential quality in dealing with economic questions.” As Atkinson saw it, Malthus “could not forecast the future nor foretell the wonderful results that would be attained through the new scientific discoveries and the better understanding of the art of production and distribution which had begun even in his own day to work a profound change in the relations of men to each other.”124Atkinson, Industrial Progress, 8. Atkinson further discussed the case of land that “itself may be exhausted when treated as a mine,” but “may be maintained when worked as a laboratory” and might one day be potentially enriched by diverting “nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere and converting these elements into food for man and beast,”125Atkinson, 158. a prediction that, in the case of nitrogen, would become a large-scale reality a few decades later.

A few years before he coauthored the Communist Manifesto, a young Friedrich Engels argued that the “productive power at mankind’s disposal is immeasurable: and the ‘productivity of the soil can be increased ad infinitum by the application of capital, labour and science.”126Friedrich Engels, “Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy,” Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, trans. Martin Milligan, available at df-jahrbucher/outlines.htm. In later decades, several German and Russian writers expanded on this point.127David Grigg, “Ester Boserup’s Theory of Agrarian Change: A Critical Review,” Progress in Human Geography 3, no. 1 (1979): 64–84. Vladimir Lenin thus argued that the law of diminishing returns “does not at all apply to cases in which technology is progressing and methods of production are changing” and “has only an extremely relative and restricted application to conditions in which technology remains unchanged.”128 Vladimir I. Lenin, “The Agrarian Question and the ‘Critics of Marx,’” in Lenin: Collected Works, ed. Victor Jerome, trans. Joe Fineberg and George Hanna, vol. 5, May 1901–February 1902 (Moscow: Progress, 1977), available at lenin/works/1901/agrarian/index.htm. Writing nearly five decades later, Mao Zedong celebrated China’s big population and argued that even “if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production.” He dismissed the “absurd argument of Western bourgeois economists like Malthus that increases in food cannot keep pace with increases in population” as both having been “thoroughly refuted in theory by Marxists” and exploded in practice in the Soviet Union and in other Marxist regimes. He added that “of all things in the world, people are the most precious. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, as long as there are people, every kind of miracle can be performed.”129 Mao Tse-tung, “The Bankruptcy of the Idealist Conception of History,” in Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, trans., vol. 4 (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, n.d.), available at reference/archive/mao/selected-works/volume-4/mswv4_70. htm. (This source uses the older Wade-Giles spelling for Mao’s name, rather than the now more common Pinyin spelling we have adopted.) Although most scholars working within the Marxist tradition today have converted to the pessimist ideology, mainline Marxists dismissed neo-Malthusian thought for most the twentieth century.130 Joseph Hansen, Too Many Babies? A Marxist Answer to Some Frightening Questions (New York: Pioneer, 1960), available at http://; Frank Furedi, Population and Development: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1997).

British economist and historian of economic thought Edwin Cannan opined that while one might occasionally observe “diminution of returns,” these have typically been only temporary until the development of “inventions and the introduction of better methods.” Indeed, the belief that “diminishing returns was the general rule throughout history” was “so contrary to the results of direct observation that it seems difficult to believe that it could ever have been accepted.”131Edwin Cannan, Wealth: A Brief Explanation of the Causes of Economic Wealth (1914; repr., London: P. S. King and Son, 1922), chapter 4, available at As a matter of fact, “no reasonable person can have any doubt that the productiveness of agricultural industry has enormously increased” and that “the population of the civilized world is much better fed, and yet has to spend far less a proportion of the whole of its labor on the acquisition of food.” If agricultural returns had actually diminished in agriculture, a “larger and ever larger proportion of the world’s labor would clearly have to be expended in producing food,”132Cannan, Wealth, chapter 4. something that obviously did not happen in the early years of the twentieth century.

Writing at the end of World War II, the agricultural economist Karl Brandt observed, During World War I and immediately after, the belief was common among scholars and statesmen that Malthus’ doctrine was still valid and that, owing to the progressive propagation of man, scarcity of food was not only inevitable in the long run but characteristic also for the second quarter of the twentieth century. A few years after the war the situation in the world market contradicted those assumptions. The war had fostered rapid progress in farm technology. It brought the internal combustion engine into general use for agriculture, first in America and later elsewhere. The truck, tractor, and combine were some of the machines in which it was applied. Millions of horses were replaced, and millions of feed acres were released for food production. Enormous savings in manpower and in production costs became possible. New varieties of plants made available for crop production many areas that previously could be used only for scanty grazing. Research in animal nutrition and genetics also led to much greater efficiency in converting feed into animal products. The really revolutionary progress in food production technology revealed the economic fallacy of the more than centuryold secular “law of diminishing returns,” as commonly applied to food production. It became apparent that technological progress made increasing economic returns and a lowering of the costs of food production possible within sufficiently wide boundaries.133Karl Brandt, “The Marriage of Nutrition and Agriculture,” in Food for the World, ed. Theodore W. Schultz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1945), 135–36.

In a personal reply to and further face-to-face conversation with Malthus, the American diplomat Alexander Everett suggested that an expanded division of labor not only made people more productive, but further laid the foundation for “the invention of new machines, an improvement of methods in all the departments of industry, and a rapid progress in the various branches of art and science” that resulted in a level of labor productivity that far exceeded the proportional increase in population numbers.134 Alexander H. Everett, New Ideas on Population: With Remarks on the Theories of Malthus and Godwin (Boston: Oliver Everett, 1823), 26, available at A belief in decreasing returns, he argued, ultimately assumed that “labor becomes less efficient and productive in proportion to the degree of skill with which it is applied; that a man can raise more weight by hand, than by the help of a lever, and see further with the naked eye than with the best telescope.”135Everett, New Ideas on Population, 28.

Friedrich Engels also stood Malthus on his head by observing that “science increases at least as much as population. The latter increases in proportion to the size of the previous generation, science advances in proportion to the knowledge bequeathed to it by the previous generation, and thus under the most ordinary conditions also in a geometrical progression.”136Engels, “Outlines of a Critique.” More than a century later, Barnett and Morse similarly commented that “a strong case can be made for the view that the cumulation of knowledge and technological progress is automatic and self-reproductive in modern economies, and obeys a law of increasing returns” as “every cost-reducing innovation opens up possibilities of application in so many new directions that the stock of knowledge, far from being depleted by new developments, may even expand geometrically.”137Barnett and Morse, Scarcity and Growth, 236. Interestingly, the economic insights of Galor and Weil do bear out these observations via the positive feedback loop between population growth and the accompanying growth of innovation.138Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.”

One can thus identify at least two key arguments on the benefits of growing population numbers in terms of delivering increasing returns. The first is that the more human brainpower becomes available, given some means of creating communities of interest, the greater the likelihood of new beneficial inventions. As the British political economist William Petty observed more than a century before Malthus, it was “more likely that one ingenious curious man may rather be found out amongst 4,000,000 than 400 persons.”139William Petty, Essays on Mankind and Political Arithmetic (1682; repr., London: Cassell, 1888), 49, available at details/essaysonmankindp00pettuoft. Cannan similarly disagreed with the notion that agricultural productivity would have been greater in his time if population numbers had remained small, because fewer active individuals would have meant that fewer advances would “have been discovered and introduced.”140Cannan, Wealth, chapter 4.

The second key argument points to the cumulative nature of technological development: the fact that present and future advances build on past ones. In his 1944 book The Theory of Economic Progress, institutionalist economist Clarence Ayres emphasized the importance of “the principle of combination” to human creativity and applied it in a variety of ways. The exponential growth or proliferation of technical devices could be explained, for instance, because “the more devices there are, the greater is the number of potential combinations” and because the cross-fertilization of ideas was a key component of the discovery process.141 Clarence E. Ayres, The Theory of Economic Progress (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1944), chapter 6. Available at tep/TEP.html Ayres added that natural resources, which he termed “materials,” were therefore not static:

The history of every material is the same. It is one of novel combination of existing devices and materials in such fashion as to constitute a new device or a new material or both. This is what it means to say that natural resources are defined by the prevailing technology, a practice which is now becoming quite general among economists to the further confusion of old ways of thinking (since it involves a complete revision of the concept of “scarcity” which must now be regarded as also defined by technology and not by “nature”).142 Ayres, Theory of Economic Progress, chapter 6.

The economist Fritz Machlup perhaps put it best more than half a century ago when he distinguished between the “retardation school” of technological change, whose proponents believed that “the more that has been invented the less there is left to be invented,” and the “acceleration school,” according to which “the more that is invented the easier it becomes to invent still more” because “every new invention furnishes a new idea for potential combination with vast numbers of existing ideas” and the “number of possible combinations increases geometrically with the number of elements at hand.”143Fritz Machlup, “The Supply of Inventors and Inventions,” in The Rate and Direction of Inventive Activity: Economic and Social Factors, by the National Bureau of Economic Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 156. The roles of individuals as well as of their communities in developing governance solutions is, indeed, a key point of Ostrom’s work, as we will see in the next section.

Optimist Argument 3: Human Standards of Living Are Not Constrained by Local Resources

Henry George famously observed that of “all living things, man is the only one who can give play to the reproductive forces, more powerful than his own, which supply him with food.”144 George, Progress and Poverty, book 2, chapter 3.Other animals survive on what they find and can only grow as numerous as their food sources allow, but increases in human numbers are possible because of their ability to produce more food:

If bears instead of men had been shipped from Europe to the North American continent, there would now be no more bears than in the time of Columbus, and possibly fewer, for bear food would not have been increased nor the conditions of bear life extended, by the bear immigration, but probably the reverse. But within the limits of the United States alone, there are now fortyfive millions of men where then there were only a few hundred thousand,145 Modern research has since established that the indigenous populations of the Americas were once much more numerous than George believed to have been the case, but this does not invalidate his argument. and yet there is now within that territory much more food per capita for the forty-five millions than there was then for the few hundred thousand. It is not the increase of food that has caused this increase of men; but the increase of men that has brought about the increase of food. There is more food, simply because there are more men.146George, Progress and Poverty, book 2, chapter 3.

George added that a key difference between animal and human was that both “the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens.” Similarly, “both the seal and the man eat salmon, but when a seal takes a salmon there is a salmon the less, and were seals to increase past a certain point salmon must diminish.” Humans, however, “by placing the spawn of the salmon under favorable conditions” can increase the numbers of salmon to such an extent as to more than make up for their catches.147George, book 2, chapter 3.

George was thus making an argument about the management of common-pool resources without recourse to the tragedy of the commons. In the end, George argued, “while all through the vegetable and animal kingdoms the limit of subsistence is independent of the thing subsisted, with man the limit of subsistence is, within the final limits of earth, air, water, and sunshine, dependent upon man himself.”148George, book 2, chapter 3. The ultimate limit to human population was therefore physical space, not raw resources.

Historically one of the main ways to break local limits was to increase agricultural outputs on the same piece of land, by introducing new crops, developing new crop rotations, improving the productivity of existing crops, or enriching the soil through various means. Commenting on the last case, the anarchist theorist and physical geographer Pyotr Kropotkin observed that the high agricultural productivity of Belgian farmland had nothing to do with some inherent superior fertility of the local soil—because, to use the words of [Émile Louis Victor de] Laveleye, “only one half, or less, of the territory offers natural conditions which are favourable for agriculture;” the other half consists of a gravelly soil, or sands, “the natural sterility of which could be overpowered only by heavy manuring.” Man, not nature, has given to the Belgium soil its present productivity. With this soil and labor, Belgium succeeds in supplying nearly all the food of a population which is denser than that of England and Wales.149 Pyotr Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops; or, Industry Combined with Agriculture and Brain Work with Manual Work (1899; repr., London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1912), chapter 2, available at

Commenting on the market gardens that surrounded Paris, Kropotkin wrote that in “market-gardening the soil is always made, whatever it originally may have been.” It was therefore a “usual stipulation of the renting contracts of the Paris maraîchers [market-gardeners] that the gardener may carry away his soil, down to a certain depth, when he quits his tenancy,” because he had created it.150Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops, chapter 2.

More generally, optimist writers belonging to otherwise antagonistic schools of thought have long dismissed the notion of limited natural resources. To give but one illustration, the institutionalist economist Erich Zimmermann observed more than eight decades ago that, before the emergence of humans, “the earth was replete with fertile soil, with trees and edible fruits, with rivers and waterfalls, with coal beds, oil pools, and mineral deposits; the forces of gravitation, of electro-magnetism, of radio-activity were there; the sun sent forth his life-bringing rays, gathered the clouds, raised the winds; but there were no resources.”151Erich W. Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries: A Functional Appraisal of the Availability of Agricultural and Industrial Resources (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1933), 3, available at Resources, he argued, are in reality “highly dynamic functional concepts; they are not, they become, they evolve out of the triune interaction of nature, man, and culture, in which nature sets outer limits, but man and culture are largely responsible for the portion of physical totality that is made available for human use.” 152 Erich W. Zimmermann, World Resources and Industries: A Functional Appraisal of the Availability of Agricultural and Industrial Resources, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), 814–15, available at Like Ostrom, Zimmerman thus recognized the importance of human institutions in creating and maintaining viable resources.

Optimist Argument 4: Past Successes Are Grounds for Optimism

More than a century ago, Edward Cannan took issue with John Stuart Mill’s ambivalence about whether future improvements could overcome decreasing returns. The problem with Mill, Cannan argued, was that he limited his discussion to “fairly recent times” in which “it does not appear to be possible either to prove or disprove [the argument].”153 Cannan, Wealth, chapter 4. Fortunately, Cannan observed, a longer-term perspective yields a more promising outlook. While commodity prices go through cycles, in the long run valuable resources typically become less scarce and less expensive. Because of historical precedents, he added, pessimistic future projections based on very recent trends should not be taken seriously.

In his 1964 prognosis of the needs for and the availability of natural and industrial materials, the economist Hans Hermann Landsberg commented that “the indications are that the American people can obtain the natural resources and resource products that they will need between now and the year 2000” because “neither a long view of the past, nor current trends, nor our most careful estimates of future possibilities suggest any general running out of resources in this country during the remainder of the century.”154 Hans H. Landsberg, Natural Resources for US Growth: A Look Ahead to the Year 2000 (Baltimore: Resources for the Future, 1964), 11–12.

4. Elinor Ostrom’s Environmental Perspective: From Polycentricity to Game Theory

Before we examine the conflict of views between Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom, we will briefly sketch the key ideas in Ostrom’s background, and eventual research output, that may help in evaluating her stance as a cautious population optimist.

The concept of polycentricity, vital to Ostrom’s study of the dynamics of common-pool resource governance, may be traced to Michael Polanyi’s 1951 philosophical analysis of the relationships between freedom, authority, control, and coordination in such diverse human pursuits as scientific research and economic activity. Polanyi posited that overarching, centralized authority or a strict hierarchical organization in domains such as science or art would paralyze their progress.155Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty: Reflections and Rejoinders (London: Routledge, 1951), chapter 3. Such human endeavors benefit from an informal social organization and do best when not forced toward a rigid methodology, relying instead on the concept of freedom that “consists in the right to choose one’s own problem for investigation, to conduct research free from any outside control, and to teach one’s subject in the light of one’s own opinions.”156Polanyi, Logic of Liberty, 33. Polanyi further noted how freedom enhances coordination:

The existing practice of scientific life embodies the claim that freedom is an efficient form of organization. . . . if the scientists of the world are viewed as a team setting out to explore the existing openings for discovery, it is assumed that their efforts will be efficiently co-ordinated if only each is left to follow his own inclinations.157Polanyi, 34.

Thus, Polanyi’s “optimum coordination [would be] achieved here by releasing individual impulses.” How does this individual freedom of mature scientists in the social matrix of science enhance coordination? “The co-ordinative principle of science thus . . . consists in the adjustment of each scientist’s activities to the results hitherto achieved by others.”158Polanyi, 34. This adjustment is a spontaneous phenomenon emergent from individual communication efforts.

Polanyi applied this insight of polycentric social organization toward showing the impossibility of the socialist calculation problem.159Paul D. Aligica and Vlad Tarko, “Polycentricity: From Polanyi to Ostrom, and Beyond,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration, and Institutions 25, no. 2 (2012): 237–62. The market, as a polycentric system similar to the self-coordinating network of scientific research, is a “web of many agents that constantly adjust their behavior to the decisions made by others.”160 Aligica and Tarko, “Polycentricity,” 238. The proponents of socialist central planning, or any other command system, expected to do much better than the market at reaching equilibrium provisioning through the elimination of overlap and “pointless” competition. On the surface, this made sense, but as Polanyi pointed out, the self-coordinating, nonhierarchical mechanism of emergent order was still, and will always be, more efficient than central planning:

I affirm that the central planning of production— in the rigorous and historically not unwarranted sense of the term—is strictly impossible. . . . My point is that it can be demonstrated that an overwhelming reduction, amounting to a standstill in the possible rate of production, must arise from the administrative limitations of a system of central direction. . . . The operations of a system of spontaneous order in society, such as the competitive order of a market, cannot be replaced by the establishment of a deliberate ordering agency.161Polanyi, Logic of Liberty, 111–12.

Thus, polycentricity, as presented by Polanyi, offered two key principles that differentiated it from a hierarchical and centrally imposed authority: (1) It emphasized the importance of individual agency and motivation to work toward an abstract goal in the choice of activities, and (2) it reinforced the observation that those individual decisions take place within a self-organizing social matrix where choices of any given agents are constantly influenced by, and adjusting to, the actions of others. Polanyi’s polycentric social matrix is thus one of constant internal calibration and exquisite sensitivity to many feedback channels.

American political economist and Elinor’s husband Vincent Ostrom, working with his colleagues Charles Tiebout and Robert Warren, adopted Polanyi’s polycentricity construct as a general organizing principle applied to the problem of municipal government.162Vincent Ostrom, Charles M. Tiebout, and Robert Warren, “The Organization of Government in Metropolitan Areas: A Theoretical Inquiry,” American Political Science Review 55, no. 4 (1961): 831–42. For more details about the history of the polycentric model and the Ostroms’ work at the Bloomington School of Institutional Analysis please see, Paul D. Aligica and Peter Boettke, Challenging Institutional Analysis and Development: The Bloomington School (London: Routledge, 2009). Their summary of the then de rigueur understanding of metropolitan governance as inefficient and chaotic highlights the parallels between Polanyi’s theoretical work and their emergent application of polycentricity:

This [standard pre-polycentric] view assumes that the multiplicity of political units in a metropolitan area is essentially a pathological phenomenon. The diagnosis asserts that there are too many governments and not enough government. The symptoms are described as “duplication of functions” and “overlapping jurisdictions.” Autonomous units of government, acting in their own behalf, are considered incapable of resolving the diverse problems of the wider metropolitan community. The political topography of the metropolis is called a “crazyquilt pattern” and its organization is said to be an “organized chaos.” . . . A political system with a single dominant center for making decisions is viewed as the ideal model for the organization of metropolitan government.163Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren, “Organization of Government,” 831.

Vincent Ostrom and his coauthors contrasted this orthodox view with the “polycentric political system” where “‘polycentric’ connotes many centers of decision-making which are formally independent of each other.”164Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren, 831. Nonhierarchical organization and coordination happens when polycentric organizations evolve the right rules via social choice mechanisms. Polycentricity allows for a characterization of the concept of emergent order even—in the case of social governance systems—without a price mechanism.165Aligica and Tarko, “Polycentricity.” While polycentricity is evident in markets, the scientific community, and municipal or federal governance, Elinor Ostrom proposed to apply and adapt the concept to the study of arrangements for the governance of common-pool resources (CPRs)—resources that, like deep-sea fishing stocks, bridges, and irrigation water, will be depleted through use but from which users or “extractors” are very difficult to exclude.166Poteete, “Elinor Ostrom.”

In the opening lines of her Nobel lecture, Elinor Ostrom noted that her research on the institutional arrangements for public goods and CPR governance “builds on classical economic theory while developing new theory to explain phenomena that do not fit in a dichotomous world of ‘the market’ and ‘the state.’”167Elinor Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review 100, no. 3 (June 2010): 1-12. (This piece was originally presented as Ostrom’s Nobel prize lecture at Stockholm University on December 8, 2009.) One of the reasons, she suggested, that the dichotomy of the market and the state did not adequately represent the governance issues emerging with CPRs and public goods was that it did not allow researchers to model human behavior as involving agency and nonrational, or noneconomic, motivations. Ostrom recognized that people evolve economic structures and systems for a variety of reasons that are themselves multilayered, changeable, and subject to feedback loops: “The humans we study have complex motivational structures and establish diverse private-for-profit, governmental, and community institutional arrangements that operate at multiple scales to generate productive and innovative as well as destructive and perverse outcomes.”168 Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States,” 1. Ostrom’s Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework was flexible enough to model different social variables and complex behaviors but also rigorous enough to support quantitative and qualitative investigations.169Larry L. Kiser and Elinor Ostrom, “The Three Worlds of Action: A Meta-Theoretical Synthesis of Institutional Approaches,” in Strategies of Political Inquiry, ed. Elinor Ostrom (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1982); Elinor Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 18; Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States.”

Elinor Ostrom’s outside-the-box insight and analytical finesse may indeed be the key factors contributing to her ability to counter the “tragedy of the commons” perspective on development and population growth championed by Hardin. Ostrom’s first powerful insight was understanding the philosophy behind the scientific tools she and her colleagues were using. Ostrom, a political scientist among economists, appears to have appreciated how scientific theories, falsifiable hypotheses170 Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 38. derived from theories deductively, and models focusing on particular outcomes predicted by theories differ from one another. In addition, she added to this fundamental philosophical understanding a recognition of the difference between such models, the theories they relate back to, and the metaphors that may be used to highlight model outcomes. In the first chapter of her magisterial analysis of institutions, Understanding Institutional Diversity, Ostrom stated, “While the usefulness of a universal model of rational behavior is challenged in chapter 4, the assumption of a universal framework composed of nested sets of components within components for explaining human behavior is retained throughout the book.”171 Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity, 19. Italics in original. Insightfully, Ostrom thus dispensed with a “systems” school (Hardinian) approach of hierarchical modeling in favor of a looser framework of nested components, each steeped in its context.

Elinor Ostrom retained the desire to craft elegantly simple theories: “As a scholar committed to understanding underlying universal components of all social systems, I do not introduce complexity lightly. I view scientific explanation as requiring just enough variables to enable one to explain, understand, and predict outcomes in relevant settings.”172Ostrom, 20. Yet Ostrom’s genius was to be acutely aware of the level of abstraction at which she was working, given a metaphor, model, theory, or framework, and what kinds of generalizations, if any, could be made from it to other situations. She noted that “explanations occur at multiple levels and different spatial and temporal scales.”173Ostrom, 23.

That exquisite sensitivity to the extent and nature of what she called the action arena—composed of participants and the action situation174Ostrom, 25.—allowed Ostrom to find and utilize the optimal analytical tool: game-theoretical analysis.175Ostrom, 19. With the power of game theory, a tool that incidentally allowed for quantitative descriptions of the dynamics of action arenas, Ostrom was poised to explore human institutions at many levels, and to do justice to the complex interactions, choices, and kinds of communication that were affecting behaviors leading to observed outcomes: “Whenever interdependent individuals are thought to be acting in an organized fashion, several layers of universal components create the structure that affects their behavior and outcomes they achieve.”176Ostrom, 18. Within the IAD framework, any action arena is composed of a set of dependent variables that may also be complexly interconnected: the various rules participants use within their relationships, the properties of the world—Ostrom called them “biophysical and material conditions”177Ostrom, 33.—that affect the action arena, and the community structure.

Ostrom not only understood the difference between these tools, but she also understood their unique domains, their overlaps, and the conditions under which each could become invalid. Indeed, much of the IAD framework may be used to refute formulations such as the “tragedy of the commons” as applied to CPRs, not because the outcome described by the metaphorical story is always invalid, but because Ostrom’s analysis can show rigorously that it may be invalid under many different circumstances, and to a differing degree, just as it may occasionally be valid under other circumstances and with another set of actors. In other words, Ostrom brought to the analysis of human governance of CPRs an understanding of scale and degree, a granularity that placed everything from the nature of goods to the behaviors of people on a continuum, finally freeing economic analysis of social behavior from navigating between extremes. Ostrom wrote,

The diversity of regularized social behavior that we observe at multiple scales is constructed, I will argue, from universal components organized in many layers. In other words, whenever independent individuals are thought to be acting in an organized fashion, several layers of universal components create the structure that affects their behavior and the outcomes they achieve.178Ostrom, 18.

An excellent example of Ostrom’s analytical finesse is her input into the redefinition of Paul Samuelson’s theory of public goods.179Paul A. Samuelson, “The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure,” Review of Economics and Statistics 36, no. 4 (1954): 387–89. The classical understanding of the differences between private goods and public goods focused on whether individuals must compete for depletable or finite units of a good—so whether the goods necessitate rivalry among users—and on whether one may exclude others from partaking in such a good. Pure public goods cannot be exhausted through use, so they are, in the classical sense, nonrivalrous. They are also nonexcludable. For example, a transmitter-to-air broadcast signal from a radio station is a public good: One cannot prevent others from taking advantage of the signal if they have the receiver (local signal jamming aside), and additional listeners do not deplete the signal for others. Peace is Ostrom’s example of a public good.180Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity, 35. Private goods are the exact opposite of pure public goods, in that they are both rivalrous and excludable: A loaf of freshly baked olive bread may be desired by many customers of a small bakery, but only the few lucky individuals who shop when the batch becomes available will be able to obtain a unit of that good. In addition, it is easy to exclude others from access to such a good. This classical picture lacked detail when it came to goods that may be depleted by use but are essentially nonexcludable—CPRs such as deep-sea fisheries or irrigation systems—and when it came to excludable but nonrivalrous goods such as private parks or satellite TV, which Samuelson called “club” goods.181Ostrom called these goods “toll” goods; see discussion in Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity, 35–37.

Ostrom’s analysis brought a nuanced understanding of human actions to the latter two classes of goods, revolutionizing their definitions. Ostrom refocused the discussion of the non-excludable, rivalrous goods on the subtractability of use by resource appropriators: “the extent to which one individual’s use subtracts from the availability of a good or service for consumption by others.”182Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity, 35. A discussion about subtractability of CPRs, and the differences between producers, providers, and resource appropriators and coappropriators can be found in Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 31–38. Her definition of CPRs touched on both properties of those goods: “Common-pool resources yield benefits where beneficiaries are hard to exclude but each person’s use of a resource system subtracts units of that resource from a finite total amount available for harvesting.”183Ostrom, Understanding Institutional Diversity, 35. The problem at the core of CPR use is the free-rider problem: “A strong incentive exists to be a free-rider in all situations where potential beneficiaries cannot easily be excluded for failing to contribute to the provision of a good or service.”184Ostrom, 36.

In addition to the nuanced substitution of the concept of rivalry (a human behavior) for subtractability of a resource (a property of the system), Ostrom introduced the concept of a continuum of gradations to evaluate the extent of subtractability or the difficulty of exclusion. Ostrom’s picture of every instance of a “tragedy of the commons” moved the analysis beyond a dualistic system and into the realm of the IAD framework, a “multitier conceptual map.”185Ostrom, 36. Instead of envisioning participants driven to act blindly on one kind of incentive, Ostrom developed the concept of the action arena in which “participants and an action situation . . . interact as they are affected by exogenous variables . . . and produce outcomes that in turn affect the participants and the action situation.”186Ostrom, 25. The strength of this approach is the built-in understanding that participants are indeed that—individuals who make choices, not pawns driven blindly by instinct or by force—and that they actively respond to feedback.

5. Ostrom versus Hardin: A Philosophical Conflict

A discussion of Ostrom’s framing of the CPR problem brings our analysis back to Garrett Hardin, authoritarian control methods in the socioeconomic arena, TC, and the tragedy of the commons, the issue most often associated with the governance of CPRs.

Hardin’s legacy has taught analysts to see the tragedy of the commons as a conflict between two behaviors: (1) the individualistic response exemplifying the liberty of rational self-interest of the laissez-faire approach (with the assumption that an individual will always elect to subtract from the CPR without contributing to its maintenance); and (2) top-down authoritarian governance that would rein in the self-interest of the individual in a prescribed and coercive manner.” It is worth mentioning that despite significant interactions with economists and free market environmentalists,187Garrett Hardin and John Baden, eds., Managing the Commons (San Francisco, CA: W. H. Freeman, 1977). Hardin ultimately saw no real value in economic analysis and the optimist case built on human creativity.188Hardin, “Feast of Malthus.” Hardin dismissed both Marx’s and George’s arguments, according to which a larger population would be better provided for than a smaller one, by denigrating them as “pre-Darwinian” because the authors “baldly assume[d] that the laws of nature which govern all other species of plants and animals were negated for man by the God of Genesis.”189Hardin, 181. Apart from the optimist economist’s refusal to admit that humans live “in a limited physical world subject to limitless demands,” such an economist’s main mistake, Hardin wrote, was the belief in economies of scale.190Hardin, 185. Fortunately, Hardin wrote, “Scientists know better. At some level of production, the balance shifts to diseconomies of scale” and “in reality, there is no anti-Darwinian world: wherever there is growth, diseconomies of scale ultimately rule.”191Hardin, 183.

Ostrom appears to have been well aware of the philosophical and theoretical undercurrents of Hardin’s work, even if we have no evidence that she conceptualized them as part of the larger pessimist discourse. We do know that Ostrom attended a lecture by Hardin after the publication of TC in 1968.192Levi, “An Interview with Elinor Ostrom.” She described her immediate reaction to Hardin’s ideas during her conversation with Margaret Levi:

Hardin gave a speech on the [Indiana University Bloomington] campus, and I went to it, and he indicated the more general—but then it was that he really was worried about population. . . . He was very serious about it. . . . I was somewhat taken aback: ‘My theory proves that we should do this,’ and people said, ‘Well don’t you think that that’s a little severe?’ ‘No! That’s what we should do, or we’re sunk.’ Well, he, in my mind, became a totalitarian. I, thus, had seen a real instance where his theory didn’t work.193Levi, “An Interview with Elinor Ostrom.” 8.

Ostrom had both a visceral reaction to Hardin’s dogmatic authoritarianism and a methodological issue with his refusal to admit that his hypothesis was falsifiable or questionable.

While Ostrom did not contribute to the debates on human population and fertility choices, she noted that “Hardin himself used the grazing commons as a metaphor for the general problem of overpopulation.”194Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 3. Consequently, she understood the significance of the metaphor and its ubiquitous use in the literature and in popular culture.195Ostrom, Governing the Commons. Ostrom’s own dissection of Hardin’s tragedy-of-the-commons metaphor used the tools of game-theoretical analysis to mobilize both the quantitative aspect and its modularity: She formalized Hardin’s parable as a prisoner’s dilemma game, a “noncooperative game in which all players possess complete information . . . , communication among the players is forbidden or impossible or simply irrelevant.”196 Ostrom, 4. Each player has a dominant strategy: to defect, thus exploiting the commons and the other players. When there are no other considerations in the game (such as interplayer communication), all players choose the dominant strategy of abusing the commons and all obtain a suboptimal outcome. The prisoner’s dilemma game demonstrates “the paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes.”197 Ostrom, 5. On the strength of metaphors such as the tragedy of the commons and their game theory representations such as the prisoner’s dilemma game, it would appear that the optimistic expectations of individual choices benefiting the group are unrealistic. It would appear that perhaps Hardin and the pessimists are right: people will not voluntarily pass up fleeting individual gain for the good of the community.

Ostrom, however, was able to expose the weaknesses of such pessimist conclusions. Ostrom was scrupulous in documenting instances when tragedy-of-the-commons models do indeed obtain realistic outcomes, but she followed this with a warning about the generalizability of these approaches: “What makes these models so dangerous—when they are used metaphorically as the foundation for policy—is that the constraints that are assumed to be fixed for the purpose of analysis are taken on faith as being fixed in empirical settings.”198 Ostrom, 6. Hardin’s tragedy of the commons is thus a tragedy of researcher assumptions, participant isolation, lack of communication, and lack of agency. His pawn-like humans exhibit a single-minded and unwavering commitment to one of the worst long-term outcomes possible, a feature that hardly reflects the reality of human choice in social settings. Individual participants in CPR problems seek to understand the rules of engagement and to change the constraints imposed on them through communication and other mechanisms. Hardin’s humans, on the other hand, appear to be captives, or—worse yet—zombies. Ostrom noticed this feature of the prisoner’s dilemma: “As long as individuals are viewed as prisoners, policy prescriptions will address this metaphor. I would rather address the question of how to enhance the capabilities of those involved to change the constraining rules of the game to lead to outcomes other than remorseless tragedies.”199 Ostrom, 7.

Thus, in Ostrom’s view, Hardin’s model fails to account for variables affecting the action arena of CPR governance from the participant’s point of view. There is, however, a more fundamental failure at the heart of how the tragedy of the commons is used in both theoretical and policy discussions. As Ostrom pointed out, Hardin’s original article used the commons pasture as a metaphor.200 Ostrom, Governing the Commons. Hardin and others then started doing more than using the metaphor to rapidly convey information about the superficial features of a situation: they started modeling solutions on the assumption that the metaphor was harboring deeper truths about human action at many levels.201 Ostrom, 7-8. In effect, they exceeded the carrying capacity of the metaphor.

Ostrom analyzed this problem:

The similarity between the many individuals jointly using a resource in a natural setting and the many individuals jointly producing a suboptimal result in the model has been used to convey a sense that further similarities are present. By referring to natural settings as “tragedies of the commons,” “collective-action problems,” “prisoner’s dilemmas,” “open-access resources,” or even “common-property resources,” the observer frequently wishes to invoke an image of helpless individuals caught in an inexorable process of destroying their own resources. . . . Public officials sometimes do no more than evoke grim images by briefly alluding to the popularized versions of the models, presuming, as self-evident, that the same processes occur in all natural settings. [This is] an empirically incorrect inference. . . . As such, it has been assumed that the individuals have been caught in a grim trap. The resulting policy recommendations have had an equally grim character.202 Ostrom, 8.

Most researchers commenting on the tragedy of the commons are unaware of the methodological and philosophical shortcomings of the metaphor. A few may be less worried about its adherence to the truth than they are about the “wrong” policies being enacted. Indeed, Hardin’s tragedy-of-the-commons model envisioned the biosphere and the habitable world as the limited commons, albeit broken up into statist jurisdictions. Hardin’s users had so little agency that they are hardly worth describing as participants. Consequently, the metaphor strains the model by negating any human agency, choice, or reflection, and any social capacity for communication or feedback. As in all pessimist formulations of the natural resources problem, people are only users, never creators.

The distortions created by Hardin’s constantly reused yet “empirically incorrect inference”203 Ostrom, 8. led him and others to advocate policy solutions with equally biased governance implications. When arguing that political systems everywhere were failing to protect the environment in an adequate manner, Hardin claimed that human inability to do better had much to do with a “cloud of ignorance” that allowed people to be complacent.204Garrett Hardin, “Political Requirements for Preserving our Common Heritage,” in Wildlife and America, ed. H. P. Bokaw (Washington, DC: Council on Environmental Quality, 1978), 310. Hardin lamented that humanity, through such ignorance and lack of leadership, has failed to realize that there is only one real solution, a coercive and authoritarian one brought about from above through “whatever force may be required to make the change stick.”205Hardin, “Political Requirements,” 314. Indeed, Hardin continued: “If ruin is to be avoided in a crowded world, people must be responsive to a coercive force outside their individual psyches, a ‘Leviathan.’”206Hardin, 314. This distortion was an abuse of the metaphor leading to both biased science and lopsided policy: “The presumption that an external Leviathan is necessary to avoid tragedies of the commons leads to recommendations that central governments control most natural resource systems.”207Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 9.

As Ostrom and her numerous colleagues have shown over the decades, reality is much more complex than the simple prisoner’s dilemma. Empirical situations deny researchers the comfort of an obvious outcome:

Instead of there being a single solution to a single problem, I argue that many solutions exist to cope with many different problems. Instead of presuming that optimal institutional solutions can be designed easily and imposed at low cost by external authorities, I argue that “getting the institutions right” is a difficult, time-consuming, conflict-invoking process.208Ostrom, 14.

According to Ostrom, instead of relying on one overly general metaphor to fit every issue, a scientist wanting to understand the issues of CPR governance should do empirical work without presumptions that may dictate a biased outcome. “Large studies of irrigation systems in Nepal and forests around the world challenge the presumption that governments always do a better job than users in organizing and protecting important resources.”209Ostrom, 409. Thus careful fieldwork and theory building, such as Ostrom carried out, must precede heavy-handed policy prescriptions.

6. Conclusion: Was Ostrom a Population Optimist?

By the time Hardin published his seminal TC essay, if Galor and Weil are correct, all the developed countries had reached the Modern Growth Regime with respect to the population-prosperity-technology relationship, and most developing countries were in the rapid-growth Post-Malthusian regime210Galor and Weil, “Population, Technology, and Growth.” The Malthusian regime had been left behind by decades or by centuries, while the Malthusian doctrine itself had been debated for over a century and a half. The opponents of the doctrine had been proved largely correct in the context of market economies. Among the optimists the author of the anonymous 1889 Westminster Review essay thus wrote in unequivocal terms that statistical evidence incontrovertibly proves that a large community, other things being equal, is capable of producing more food and more wealth generally, man per man, than is possible in a smaller community. Europe has overgrown the dread of famine, and no doubt in future days will outlive the dread of pestilence. Famines are objects of terror in the early stages of social growth when numbers are numerically weak. Thus the last great famine that visited England was in the fourteenth century. At the present day, with a population in round numbers eleven times greater, a famine is so exceedingly improbable that such a calamity is no longer feared.211“Statistics versus Malthus,” 287.

By the mid-twentieth century, Harrison Brown had to acknowledge that the “disaster which Malthus foresaw for the Western World did not occur. Instead, Western populations [are] far beyond the levels he would have considered possible, and the poverty and deprivation so widespread in Malthus’s time [have] enormously decreased.” Brown even added that “so widely divergent were the predictions from the actual course of events that, if we were to look only at the predictions divorced from the reasoning, we would be inclined to say that he was incompetent.”212Brown, Challenge of Man’s Future, 5. Now we know Malthus was correct within a range of population-wealth-technology relationships that were stable over long time periods and low population densities, but not inevitable. Despite much contemporaneous evidence and some familiarity with the opposing perspective, and despite potential access to both empirical and theoretical results challenging his assertions, Hardin was and remained an avowed neo-Malthusian from the 1940s to his death in 2003.

What about Ostrom? We have seen that she considered Hardin’s ideological position repugnant and opposed Hardin’s model because of its misrepresentation of the participants and the action arena. The evidence presented here shows that rather than being an outright optimist Ostrom was a cautious one, a researcher more likely to opt for Popper’s falsification than for any self-serving, and ultimately impossible, proof.213Ostrom, Governing the Commons, 38. Ostrom would be perhaps better characterized as a cautious optimist about the ability of individuals to arrive at collaborative solutions that best fit the needs and properties of their action arenas. She reacted negatively to the tendency of pessimists, statists, and dichotomous thinkers to strip participants of their ability to choose, cooperate, and reflect. She insisted, “Instead of basing policy on the presumption that the individuals involved are helpless, I wish to learn more from the experience of individuals in field settings.”214Ostrom, 14.

In that mode of thoughtful individual empowerment, in her IAD framework mindset of seeing individuals as actors in complex feedback loops, Ostrom appeared to express optimism about humanity’s ability to resolve its resource issues cooperatively. One of the lessons and potential policy prescriptions we can learn from the Ostrom-versus-Hardin debate over the tragedy-of-the-commons metaphor we have outlined is a distrust of persistent yet poorly articulated metaphors that masquerade as theories or frameworks for systemizing knowledge. The Hardinian tragedy of the commons violates Ostromian principles in a variety of ways, the chief being its propensity to find the authoritarian solution a panacea. As Ostrom wrote, “‘One-size-fits-all’ policies are not effective.”215Ostrom, “Beyond Markets and States,” 2.

Mark Pennington summarized three Ostromian arguments against Hardinian central planning and totalitarian solutions.216 Mark Pennington, “Elinor Ostrom, Common-Pool Resources and the Classical Liberal Tradition,” in The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulation, ed. Elinor Ostrom (London, UK: Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012). These are fitting recommendations for what to avoid in developing governance solutions or metaphors. First, Pennington noted that central authorities lack situated and tacit knowledge about the action arena and, in particular, about the nature of incentives facing resource users.217 Pennington, “Elinor Ostrom,” 31–32. Some central authorities, nodding along with Hardin, may not care about such knowledge; what they impose on the resource users will be a much poorer fit as a result. Second, the “very act of regulating from the center undermines the incentive for resource users themselves to devise an appropriate set of rules.”218 Pennington, 32. Third, centrally imposed solutions remove the motivation for users to learn about what would work best for them.219 Pennington, 34. For Ostrom, denying participants the opportunity to learn may be one of the most sinister legacies of Hardin’s metaphor. With learning, change for the better is possible for participants and for our shared environment—and so is the hope for more improvement.

In the most generous sense, Ostrom’s cautious optimism is optimism about the human capacity to learn, and this optimism embraces population growth as well. Even though Ostrom does not address human reproduction as a CPR issue directly, her empirically supported outcomes show that people do evolve methods for dealing productively and positively with scarcity. At the very least, Ostrom’s framework is open to many actors and many processes, showing that restricting such inputs is not at all necessary to the success of cooperative ventures revolving around both resource provision and depletion. Ostrom’s outlook champions individuals’ ability to find the best solutions for their resource issues through a collaborative process emphasizing choice, trust, and feedback mechanisms, not a reliance on solutions imposed coercively from above. To be fair, Ostrom’s eight rules for successful CPR governance emphasize the importance of institutions that are conducive to the support for, and the nurturing of, cooperative learning and decision-making.220Ostrom, Governing the Commons. As with the population-technology feedback loop in the Post-Malthusian Regime, without institutional support for nascent polycentric governance, or for new technology, change is impossible. But given institutional openness, Ostrom’s research echoes the insights of Julian Simon, a prominent environmental and population optimist, who found that humanity’s endless creativity and resourcefulness were the “ultimate resource.”221Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (1981; repr., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), available at

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.