Poverty and Population: a critique on Garret Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics (Part I)

By Peter Elicor
Ateneo de Davao University


Poverty is as old as humanity. Generally, it is defined as a state of a person whereby his/her income falls below some minimum level necessary to meet his/her basic needs (BBC.org.uk). On a macro level, a country is basically considered poor when the population which falls under the poverty line outnumbers those who are above it. In a more concrete sense, economic poverty is present when there is hunger, lack of basic needs and commodities, high mortality rate due to the lack of such needs (viz. medical services and food), high rate of unemployment and social unrest.

Poverty has been always the concern of lawmakers and politicians. In the Philippines, in particular, both the Executive and the Legislative branches busy themselves every fiscal year to enact laws that will increase the country’s income in the hope of mitigating poverty, if not eliminate it. Some prove to be successful, but many do not. Still, a lot of families suffer a form of deprivation from the most basic goods and services which are due them.

Among all the possible known causes of poverty (aside from corruption), population growth is the most controversial and often disputed issue which has been a cause of rifts between the country’s basic institutions. A case in point is the most debated RH Bill which, until now, evokes disagreements among policy makers, church leaders and the private sector. (Thanks to the ongoing trial of the Chief Justice which seems to delay the deliberations of the passage of such bill. Besides, the exposition of the Corona’s assets explicitly shows how one person endowed with a powerful position can amass wealth way beyond his income and still hold the respected title of a Chief Justice. In and of itself, such is a perfect example of a “cause” of poverty.)

This humble article explores the connection between poverty and population growth against the background of Garret Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics. It aims to show the latent flaws of his theory and its implausibility. This paper basically holds that population growth does not always prove to be the cause of poverty. Reducing the population through the measures provided by RH Bill does not render a qualitative solution to this perennial problem.


Hardin’s Lifeboat Ethics views each country as a “boat” wherein inhabitants reside in order to survive. Using such metaphor, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people, while the poor of the world are in the other, much crowded lifeboats (Hardin: 1974, np). This idea operates on the basic assumption that the less population, the richer a country is (vice versa). Hence, if the boat’s capacity is only 50, then a population of more than 50 puts the boat in a difficult and risky situation. The goal, therefore, is to always maintain the number of “passengers” according to the limitations of the vessel.

Applying this metaphor in reality will automatically show the seeming discrepancy between the population and the country’s capacity to accommodate them. In the Philippines, specifically, one does not need to go far just to see and prove the reality of poverty. As of July 2011, there were approximately 101,833,938 inhabitants in the country with a population growth rate of 1.903%. As of 2010, the country’s GDP, meanwhile, only amounts to $188.7 billion (indexmundi.com). In a simple calculation, each Filipino, using the figures above, is allocated only Php 3,846 in a year.

I do not claim accuracy, much less authority, regarding such computation. Nevertheless, it shows where such lifeboat ethics revolve. Population is the main root of poverty. An increase in the population lessens the financial capacity of the country to provide for its needs. Conversely, a stabilized, if not decreased, population spells economic prosperity.

Hardin further argues that the present policy of rich nations to support the poor countries by providing for their needs, such as food and monetary support, only prove to be detrimental to their lifeboat. In such kind of ethics, it is immoral to always provide support to poor countries for it may only engender irresponsibility regarding their policies and increase their population. Hence, no matter how “unchristian” and unjust it sounds, it is better to “admit no more to the boat and preserve the small safety factor” (Hardin: 1974, np).


I have to admit that such kind of ethics is logically sound - at least in paper. However, in my opinion, it suffers several difficulties.

First, it oversimplifies things. The use of a lifeboat as a metaphor does not mirror reality. To say that each country is likened to a lifeboat and that it has to stay afloat by controlling the number of passengers on board, is a very limited, if not erroneous view of the ontological nature of mother earth.

Nature is dynamic. It always replenishes its consumed resources, provided that it is not abused beyond what it can generously provide at a certain period. For instance, the increasing consumption of oil and the skyrocketing prices of basic goods due to its limited supply, is said to be a manifestation of the apparent reality of the diminishing oil reserves of the earth. If such is true, then why do the manufacturers of automobiles and other machineries (which basically depend on oil) are still in operation? Better yet, why does the general world market still make use of oil as the prime mover, so to speak, of basic trade and industry?

The obvious answer is not difficult to surmise. Natural resources are not depleting. They look as if they are getting insufficient because its outflow is controlled. Several countries in the Middle East make their fortune out of their oil reserves. A case in point is the Kingdom Saudi Arabia. Aside from religious tax, its government does not levy income taxes from both its constituents and expatriates working in the country (asiatradehub.com).

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