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Growing concerns about the impacts of population growth on the environment began to emerge in the 1960s among academics and the public due to high levels of population growth and growing concerns about food scarcity. In the debate surrounding the problems of common resources, scholars have tended to fall into two broad camps: those who saw the perils of population growth and those who saw the benefits. Paul Ehrlich(1971), author of The Population Bomb and Garret Hardin’s (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons fall into the former camp, predicting eventual famine and environmental ruin from unchecked population growth. Detractors such as Simon (2010), argue that population growth benefits society and the environment through increased technological innovation and productivity. In the 50 years since Hardin’s work was published, scholars have continued to debate the merits of his thesis and the validity of his proposed solutions to reduce environmental degradation and potential ruin. For example, Lam (2013) argues that demographic change results in natural reductions in population growth rates over time, while Hunter and Prakash (2019) argue that solutions to the population problem should consider the complex role of social and cultural institutions. A discussion of Hardin’s work and differing perspectives is presented below.
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Garret Hardin’s (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons explores the problem of global overpopulation, natural resource use, and environmental degradation. He provides a persuasive argument through the use of a parable, or the “tragedy of the commons”. In this parable, induvial famers using common lands increase their livestock to increase productivity which eventually leads to the destruction of the common lands and eventual ruin of all. Hardin connects this story to concerns surrounding overpopulation, fear of famine, and environmental degradation (Hardin 1968). Hardin proposes two solutions to the problem of overpopulation; (1) the privatization of common lands as an alternative way to preserve the commons, and (2) a community effort to reduce fertility thus reducing population growth and pressure on the environment. Given the uncomfortable topic of restricting individual fertility decisions, it is not surprising that this article has generated a great deal of debate. While Hardin’s recommendation of mutual coercion may seem logical, he fails to consider the complexity of social structures and institutions that shape fertility decisions. In addition, Hardin’s recommendation to privatize the commons assumes that all individuals use resources equally. This assumption fails to consider that differences are present in per-capita use within and between countries.
In distinct contrast to Hardin’s work, Simon’s (2010) “Resources, population, environment: An oversupply of false bad news” agues the benefits of population growth by attempting to debunk negative views about population growth and the environment. Simon’s work appears to be influenced by the work of Boserup, who argued that agricultural production increases occur with population increases due to intensification of production (de Sherbinin et al. 2007). This study is somewhat persuasive on the surface as Simon provides evidence to counter statements about the negative impacts of population growth on food security and the environment. For example, while presenting increasing rates of global per-capita food production as evidence that population growth does not lead to food shortages, the author fails to acknowledge differences that exist between and within countries due to inequalities. Simon does acknowledge that some countries have lagged behind global averages in food production but explains this difference as a result of war or political upheaval rather than inequalities in access to resources or the complex interactions between political economy, society, and environmental resources. Similarly, economic models used to show positive aspects of population growth do not consider the influence of social or environmental variables. Simon’s argument regarding connections between population growth and the environment is somewhat flawed. Life expectancy largely reflects improvements in mortality rates resulting from innovations such as improved sanitation and medical innovations rather than the majority of life expectancy gains being a result of improved environmental quality.
In “‘Customs in common’: The epistemic world of the commons scholars”, Goldman (1997) provides a discussion of different perspectives of the commons debate. Goldman argues that despite the flaws of the commons model, Hardin’s work has strongly informed policy debates surrounding ways to preserve and protect common environmental resources. Goldman outlines three different perspectives: The Human Ecologist, the Development Expert, and the Global Resource Managers. Human ecologists emphasize the complexity of the commons from a local or community-level perspective and stress the preservation of common lands. Development experts argue for the modernization of communities and look to technological solutions to alleviate poverty. Finally, global managers are concerned with the preservation of global environmental resources. The authors argument that Hardin’s thesis shapes these perspectives is persuasive: All three perspectives consider connections between population growth, economic development, and the environment especially from the perspectives of Western (or more developed countries) ideas about poverty, economic development and preservation of natural resources. A key point of Goldman’s argument is that potential approaches should consider the role of modernization and capitalism; the scarcity of environmental resources has been shaped by overproduction – where inefficient methods of production keep costs down but harm the environment – and underproduction – where companies do not employ more expensive measures that would protect the environment. The political economy perspective seems largely absent from critiques and advocates of Hardin’s work and Goldman provides this welcome perspective.
In “Climate ethics and population policy”, Cafaro (2012) posits that technical innovations will be unsuccessful in reducing human impacts on the environment. He argues that reducing human population growth rates is best approach to mitigate global climate change through voluntary action. This argument is persuasive given that numerous studies have found that providing safe and reliable contraception is associated with increased maternal and child heath and economic wellbeing. However, the recommendation that economic development must coincide with reduced fertility is not fully examined. Additionally, the statement that “…we may have to accept stricter limits on our freedom to consume or to have more children” (Cafaro 2012) suggests a more coercive approach than voluntary change in fertility behaviors. Somewhat problematic is Cafaro’s assumption that women have freedom or agency in their own fertility decisions. Individual fertility decisions are made within the context of social and cultural institutions and place. In the United States, some women are unable to meet fertility intentions – women tend to have less children than they intend – which has been associated in part with government anti-natalist policies (Morgan and Rackin 2010). Conversely, Hunter’s (2008) work connecting fertility and the environment shows that resource scarcity can encourage larger family sizes in sub-Saharan Africa.
Hunter (2008) explores connections population growth and the environment through a gendered lens, arguing that efforts to reduce population pressures should focus on gender equity. In contrast to the authors above, Hunter provides examples of the complex connections between fertility, gender, social structures and institutions, and the environment. Her main thesis argues that improving women’s livelihoods results in improved environmental quality. Programs that have introduced micro-credit, reproductive health and education provide alternative livelihood strategies for women and have been shown to improve women’s empowerment within the context of family planning decisions. Reducing gender inequality results in lower birth rates, increased maternal and child health which also places less burden on natural resources. Hunter sees approaches as an effective way to break the vicious cycle model of poverty and environmental resource use. To build on Hunter’s work, it would be interesting to see how gender equity shapes fertility decisions within the context of urban communities or resource use in more developed countries.
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In the final article, Hunter and Prakash (2019) present a short and important critique of Hardin’s thesis in “Hardin’s oversimplification of population growth”. Hunter and Prakash argue that individual actions are more complex. For example, many individuals, communities, and countries have taken steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to preserve the public landscape. This finding is in direct contradiction of Hardin’s assumption that all individuals make decisions contrary to the common-good. Hunter and Prakash argue that The Tragedy of the Commons presents a simplistic model of fertility decision-making. The authors argue that fertility decisions are complex and often not voluntary, but made within the context of social, cultural, and political institutions specific to place. While this article is limited in its discussion of how such complex interactions should be considered, it would be interesting to explore how future policies could incorporate a more nuanced approach to reducing fertility rates as suggested by these authors.
These readings highlight the complex debate surrounding population growth and environmental change in the last 50-years. Given the advantage of time, it is easier to critique some of these arguments, but perceptions seem to persist regarding the role of scholars in more developed countries to advise less developed countries to curb population growth and protect the environment. How should we frame potential solutions to overpopulation, resource scarcity, and environmental pollution when more developed countries continue to use higher levels of per-capita resources and ship much of our waste to the global South?
A discussion of China seems largely absent from these critiques given that the country used more coercive methods for fertility reduction. Population growth rates have slowed in China but there is still a lot of pressure on the environment. How has that shaped discussions surrounding population and the environment? Is this too unique a case?
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