Living on a Lifeboat by Garrett Hardin Essay

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Living on a Lifeboat by Garrett Hardin

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In his poignant article, "Living on a Lifeboat," Garrett Hardin considers philosophical and practical implications of the need to survive. He asserts that survival is a central concern for today. He declares, "No generation has viewed the problem of the survival of the human species as seriously as we have."[footnoteRef:1] He then extrapolates meaningful reflections on the survival of humanity from a metaphor which sees the world as a lifeboat. This metaphor is compared and contrasted to another metaphor, that of a spaceship, to expose some deep ethical questions and to propose some thoughtful answers. This paper shall consider the two metaphors mentions, and address a primary concerns in lifeboat ethics; namely, the creation of commons. In addition, this paper will look at two commons created by a world food bank and immigration. [1: Hardin, Garret. "Living on a Lifeboat." Garrett Hardin Society (1974): paragraph 3. Web. 8 Dec 2010.; hereafter referred to parenthetically as (Hardin, par #)]

Metaphors are used to grasp complex concepts and to search for meaning in problems that seem unanswerable. The use of a lifeboat or spaceship metaphor to search for answers to complex problems, arising from overpopulation and the distribution of recourses, can be a useful tool. Metaphors give sight and sound, through our imagination, to ideas that are otherwise invisible. The following paragraphs compare some of the insights gained from these metaphors. The first metaphor, the spaceship, was proposed by economist Kenneth Boulding in 1966. In this metaphor, the earth is a spaceship in which a limited supply of goods is available for the inhabitants. In this world view, it would be imperative that each person in the spaceship live and work in a way that was good for all. If one person ate too much food, for example, others would go without. Hardin believes this metaphor, like all metaphors, has its limits. He claims that this view, promotes "measures that are suicidal" commons (Hardin, 4) Earth, unlike a spaceship has populations divided by borders. In a spaceship it is all for one, and one for all by necessity of limited space. In order to enact that kind of mentality on earth a "generous immigration policy" must be put into action. Hardin takes this consequence of the spaceship metaphor to task because he believes this type of idealistic policy would "lead to the tragedy of the commons" (Hardin, 4). He sympathizes with the fact that generous policies are attractive but maintains that they are too short sighted and lack the proper balance between rights and responsibilities (Hardin, 6). He says, "The spaceship metaphor is used only to justify spaceship demands on common resources without acknowledging corresponding spaceship responsibilities."

The second metaphor is the lifeboat. Similar to the spaceship, the lifeboat "is effectively limited in capacity." However, this limited capacity is seen not as the whole earth, as with the spaceship, but as a nation. Hardin continues, "The land of every nation has a limited carrying capacity" (Hardin, 9). This scenario presents a more complex system of relationships between those in the boat, and those out of the boat, or those who have a boat of their own. With these relationships come questions of ethics. One such ethical question is that or reproduction. Hardin admits, "The harsh characteristics of lifeboat ethics are heightened by reproduction, particularly by reproductive differences" (Hardin, 19). In Hardin's assessment, an imbalance of reproduction puts an unbalanced demand on resources, which in turn lead some to consider an unpalatable solution which he calls a "tragedy of the commons."

The establishment of the commons, a place or system where the sharing of resources is established and is available for those in need, is of particular concern for Hardin. In an effort to expose this tragedy, he compares and contrasts the system of commons to that of private property. Using the example of a pasture, Hardin asserts that in a common pasture, the selfish drive of the herdsman would cause an imbalance between need (or want) and responsibility -- responsibility being the looser. His 'nice guys finish last" mentality is so set that he proclaims that it is "no use asking independent herdsmen in a commons to act responsibly, for they dare not." He believes, without question, that the system or private property has the inherent value of responsibility. He explains that "under a system of private property the man (or group of men) who own property recognize their responsibility to care for it, for if they don't they will eventually suffer" (Hardin, 25). He goes to blame the pollution of air and water on the fact that it is a resource used in common.

To further his point-of-view, Hardin shows how the proposal of an international food banks would create a new commons; whereas, each nation deposits or withdraws according to the needs of each. He acknowledges that "a world food bank appeals powerfully to our humanitarian impulses" (Hardin, 34) but proposes that this system is flawed and harmful due to inequality between rights and responsibilities. He predicts that, like the herdsman, "some countries will make deposits in the world food bank and others will withdraw from it: There will be almost no overlap" (Hardin, 41). This system, then, is "not a true bank but a disguised one-way transfer device for moving wealth from rich countries to poor" (Hardin, 42). His solution is to think of each country or community as having its own boat, with its own needs and resources and adapting an attitude that each boat responsibly takes care of its own passengers. Through this method, emergencies and accidents will be well planned for far in advance and the mentality of rescuing people in the event of an emergency would not be necessary. He explains, "A wise and competent government saves out of the production of the good years in anticipation of bad years that are sure to come." (Hardin, 39)

Another concern for Hardin is the creation of a commons caused by immigration laws. He addresses attitudes that seem to paralyze just immigration laws and the reluctance of the people to talk about solutions in a meaningful way. To this end, the lifeboat metaphor can become very useful. The lifeboat in question is America and, true to his consistent concern of striving for a balance between rights to and responsibilities toward limited resources, Hardin begins the discussion on immigration with data to clarify America's responsibilities concerning immigration. He states, that the legal and illegal immigrants in 1976 was 600,000 a year. By comparison, a 2007 statistic show that there were 38,000,000 foreign born workers in the United States.[footnoteRef:2] Hardin's lifeboat ethics demands that this significant increase in population be met with a counter-action in order to balance the rights and responsibilities scale. He ponders the question and replies, [2: Segal, Uma, Doreen Elliott, and Nazneen Mayadas. Immigration Worldwide: Policies, Practices, and Trends. 1st. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010. 36. Print.]

"It is quite conceivable that educational campaigns like that of Zero Population Growth,

Inc., coupled with adverse social and economic factors -inflation, housing shortage depression, and loss of confidence in national leaders -may lower the fertility of American women to a point at which all of the yearly increase in population would be accounted for by immigration. Should we not at least ask if that is what we want?" (Hardin, 60)

For Hardin, it is a math problem, and America is blind to the implications of allowing immigrants enter the border without having a counter plan of action. The only possible responses he proposes in an increase in birth-control, through education and economics. However his proposal is not realistic. As he notes, is this really what America wants?

So why would a lifeboat crew allow more people into a boat that is not able to sustain them? He claims that Americans do that, in addition to being naive, because they have "a bad conscience because of things we said in the past about immigrants" (Hardin, 62). He refers to war time propaganda where foreigners were addressed derogatorily as "Wops, Polacks, Japs, Chinks, and Krauts." He claims that this tactic was used as a means to deny immigration, and now Americans hopelessly associate the bad-name-calling behavior with strict immigration policies that a knee-jerk reaction has occurred to the point that generous immigration laws are seen as a sign of respect and, perhaps, as a way to ease our guilt for past offenses.

The world food bank and immigration laws offer solutions to poverty that are unacceptable to Hardin because of the damage they do to the environment. He believes that the "world food banks move food to the people, thus facilitating the exhaustion of the Environment of the poor. By contrast, unrestricted immigration moves people to the food, thus speeding up the destruction of the Environment in rich countries" (Hardin, 65). His persistent view is one that strongly opposes the image…[continue]

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