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

By Peter Elicor
Ateneo de Davao University

The Philippines, on the other hand, is dependent on the world market when it comes to the importation of oil. That’s why we are always at the mercy of the constant change of oil prices which directly affects the economic flow in the country. Yet, one may ask: aside from oil, are there other alternatives to it? Yes. But apparently, any effort to develop a technology that does not depend on oil does not succeed for many reasons. Daniel Dingel, for instance, is a Filipino inventor who has tried to invent a water-powered car (blogs.inquirer.net). But, this again begs the question, why such a brilliant invention did not shocked the world by its seemingly cheap and eco-friendly vehicle? I am of the opinion that natural resources are abundant. The idea that mother earth is deteriorating is only a tool to shape and control public opinion.

Hence, what Hardin argues as the “limited capacity” of the lifeboat, is a hoax. No one can ever claim with full authority that a country’s capacity is limited to only this or that level. And to say that any “excess baggage” in the population is an anathema to prosperity, does not provide a sound basis for the curtailment of population.

Second, it is not accurate to say that the 3rd world countries are always dependent on the 1st world countries. To say that: “it is time to refuse to give aid in the form of food to needy countries that do not accept responsibility for limiting their population growth” is a proud and presumptuous claim (Hardin: 1974, np). Such misses a very important point in the whole scheme of global relations, i.e. inter-dependence.

The natural resources of the earth are not confined to the US alone or to any other part of the globe. Each country needs the other for survival. The Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations are very agricultural. They are the top producers of agricultural products to the other countries who have scant food supply. On the other hand, we are also dependent on other countries in terms of several other basic commodities, especially in the field of science and technology which the other developed countries are abundant with.

Labor force is one of the strong sources of income in the country. As of 2010, a population of 38.9 million is in the labor sector, and many of which are working as expatriates. If, for the sake of an argument, the government enacts a law that recalls all the OFWs and further prohibits anyone to leave the country to render service, what will happen to the nations which basically depend on the labor force from other countries (due to its cheaper labor compensation)? One may answer, “The Philippines is not the only country that allows its constituents to work abroad”. Such is precisely the point. If all countries withdraw all the goods or services they usually export, then the economic health of the world will be paralyzed. All countries, regardless of economic status are interdependent on each other in terms of resources.

A country cannot just categorically say that it can stand on its own without relying from the others. The world today is already a global village. And to claim that one country has all the means for survival, as in a lifeboat, is a sheer proud conjecture.

Third, Hardin notes that the increasing population of rich and poor nations poses as a threat to the survival of the lifeboat. He mentions “If the rate of population increase falls faster in the ethnic group inside the lifeboat than it does among those now outside, the future will turn out to be even worse than mathematics predicts, and sharing will be even more suicidal” (ibid.). He predicts that after 87 years (from the year he wrote his article, i.e. 1974) Americans will double its population, while the poor countries will balloon up to more than eight-fold in a matter of only 21 years.

Granted that such calculation is true, it still misses another point: the mortality rate of each country. Men are mortals; hence population growth is an arbitrary statistics of a country’s demography. It constantly changes. Though, the rate of population growth does not equally match the mortality rate in a country, it still indicates that the people living within the safety parameters of the lifeboat increases and increases.

The implications of Hardin’s idea are inhumane. Who replenishes the deceased population inside the lifeboat? Of course, it is no less than the new generation of humans who are the offspring of the constituents living inside the same lifeboat. In this sense, who survives are basically determined by the present constituents of the boat. No “outsider” can get on board. No ID, no entry.

However, in reality things do not operate this way. There are no visible “fences” between countries except embassies who decide who to allow or deny people from travelling abroad. What is a close equivalent of Hardin’s idea of the “selected few” are the oligarchs who rule a country’s economic and political arena. The Philippines, for example, is not only a neo-colonial state (by the US), but also a subtle oligarch nation. Only few rich families are on top of the food chain. They mostly own the top companies which operate as their “milking cow”. It is not a surprise to know that the top ten rich Filipinos (see Forbes.com) are subtly the “players” in the domain of politics.

My point is: it is not enough to pin point the rise of population as the culprit of poverty. Such is the most convenient and handy answer one can make when speaking about poverty. But in reality, it is not.

Fourth, Hardin’s ethics suffers a difficulty in determining the “eligibility” of the lifeboat’s constituents. Survival of the fittest is the name of the game. For one to survive, he/she has to make it inside the lifeboat. And how does one manage to get on board? Not by any idea of a Divine Right, but a “first come first serve basis”. The number of the new generation must be controlled since the previous ones have already (if not almost) reached the maximum capacity.

A case in point is the “one-child” policy in China. Chinese women are pressured to abort their second pregnancy, forced to undergo sterilization or exacted fines under such law (see geography.about.com). It is said that in the first 20 years after its enactment in 1979, the “one-child” policy has reduced the population of China for about 300 million people. Looking at China today, it is undeniable that it has risen from the ashes caused by the political turmoil it had gone through. Yet ironically, the economic prosperity the China enjoys today can be attributed mostly to its cheap labor force.

The eligibility of a person, therefore, (unborn or not) depends entirely on state policies. Whether an embryo is the president’s 2nd only son or a peasant’s 5th child, they are stripped off the right to be born, because that is what the law provides. In other words, the present generation determines who’s going to live or die.


I always believe that corruption (in both micro & macro levels) and weak public policy are few of the main causes of poverty. Human greed is inevitable, yet it does not mean it cannot be controlled. Through a strict implementation of transparency, accountability and punishment, poverty will surely weaken its stronghold. Hence, Hardin’s lifeboat ethics seems to be implausible since it fails to ground itself to the deeper domains of population and poverty.

In my opinion, people are the country’s assets. If utilized well through effective public policies, the population can be used for the advantage of the state. Bolstering the education system, upgrading the technology (especially IT), developing further the agriculture, and opening wider doors for foreign investment will surely prove that population pays off.

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