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The Tragedy of the Commons | Context


World Population Growth

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was widespread alarm about overpopulation. In 1968, the same year Garrett Hardin published "The Tragedy of the Commons," Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University published The Population Bomb. This book, which warned of imminent mass starvation and social unrest, increased public awareness about the concerns of overpopulation. The book supported the idea of zero population growth. For example, if each couple were to have only two surviving children to replace themselves, from one generation to the next, population growth would be nil. If each couple in a generation had no children or one child, the population would decrease.

A look at statistics helps to put the essay's concerns into perspective. Based on studies of early human remains and modern censuses, the human population has been doubling at increasingly faster rates. It took almost 700 years between the ninth and 16th centuries for the world population to double. By contrast, it took only 37 years to double between 1950 and 1987, from 2.5 to 5 billion people. Projections at the time predicted dire consequences if that rate held.

According to the United Nations (UN), the global population growth rate peaked during 1962–63 with an annual growth rate of 2.1%. Using this rate as the basis for future projections, there was widespread alarm and predictions of mass starvation and social upheaval.

Since then, however, those projections have been overturned. By 2017 world population growth declined to half the 2.2% peak rate of the 1960s. Declining rates are evident around the world, from developed countries to the least developed nations. The UN projects this decline will continue, with a projected growth rate of 0.1% by the next century.

Demographers—researchers who study patterns and changes in population—now identify several stages of change. For most of human history, known as Stage 1, growth was gradual, with high birth rates countered by high mortality. During Stage 2, with improvements in health and food sources, mortality decreases but not the birth rate, leading to rapid population growth. During Stage 3, spurred by economic development, birth rates decline as women begin marrying later and gain access to modern birth control, education, and the workplace. During Stage 4, a declining birth rate along with increased longevity has changed the makeup of the population, creating an older population and a static population size. Stage 5, an age of worldwide modernization, is projected to have a slight rise.


The world population is not evenly distributed. China and India have extensive landmasses and populations of over a billion people. Population growth is uneven as well. For example, in 2017 Uganda had a growth rate of 3.2%, while Nigeria's was 2.4%, India's was 1.2%, and Australia's was 1.0%. With roughly 325 million people, the United States has the third-largest population in the world, but it only grew 0.8% in 2017. China's growth rate is even lower, at 0.4%, and many countries have a negative growth rate.

Within Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest, densest populations live in cities. Especially in overcrowded cities, overpopulation creates a scarcity of jobs and resources, resulting in generation after generation of poverty.

Attempts to Control Population

Most of the calls for population control coming from the United States and Europe are aimed at poor, developing nations in Asia, South America, and Africa. According to a 1974 report directed by Henry Kissinger, the secretary of state under President Richard Nixon, population growth was considered relevant to U.S. foreign policy. Developed countries use more resources per capita (per person) than preindustrial nations, but they have the money and influence to purchase or demand the resources of less developed countries. The 1974 report claimed large populations in developing countries would increase competition for industrial and mineral resources. Large, unstable populations could also lead to political unrest and threaten the worldwide balance of power.

Malthus's Theory of Population Growth

Much of Hardin's theory builds on the work of the 18th-century English economist Thomas Robert Malthus, the first to warn of the dangers of overpopulation. In his 1798 publication "An Essay on the Principle of Population," Malthus demonstrated as human populations keep doubling, improvements in food supply cannot keep up. As the population multiplies, the amount of food available per person diminishes, eventually leading to widespread starvation. Additional resources resulting from increased productivity or new technologies can temporarily support a larger population. However, with this increase in population, resources again become scarce, and each person's share is reduced to subsistence level.

Malthus acknowledged the roles of famine, poverty, disease, and war in reducing populations, but he recommended prevention: abstaining from sex, marrying later, and having fewer children. Although he did not condone contraception, his work inspired support for birth control and abortion.

Social Darwinism

English naturalist Charles Darwin's work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859) theorized species evolve through competition to survive. Darwin observed in nature weaker members of a group die sooner without passing along their genes to a new generation. Individuals with inheritable traits that help them successfully compete for food and other resources are able to survive longer, mate, and pass on those traits to their offspring. From generation to generation, weaker strains are winnowed out and those fittest for the environment become dominant.

In "The Tragedy of the Commons" Hardin applies Darwinian principles to human populations. Hardin explores whether the inborn urge to breed could be curtailed through appeals to altruism and the greater good. To ensure the survival of the species by curtailing overpopulation, would people voluntarily abstain from breeding? Basing his conclusion on Darwinian principles, Hardin rejects this idea. He argues altruistic individuals would refrain from having offspring, and those who selfishly bred would become the dominant strain. Therefore, Hardin states, voluntary abstention will not work. There must be legal or social restrictions to limit family size.

Social Darwinists have used Darwin's theory of natural selection to argue for eliminating weaker members of society in favor of individuals with traits the society, government, or economic system value. This idea was applied in Nazi Germany during World War II and in other countries to justify ethnic cleansing and extermination of those considered unfit. Some see Hardin's support for eugenics, which argues certain races and ethnic groups are inferior to others, along with his opposition to humanitarian aid to overpopulated countries, to be somewhat in line with these ideas.

Reproductive Rights

Although Hardin stresses the importance of limiting breeding, he does not explicitly suggest how to achieve it. Short of infanticide or the killing of infants, reducing the birth rate involves either preventing conception through sexual abstinence or contraception or preventing birth through abortion. The ability to implement these options depends on their availability and whether society bans or condones them.

Throughout human history, people have chosen to prevent or abort births for economic, social, and medical reasons. Forms of birth control such as withdrawal, condoms, vaginal blockages, and abortion-inducing concoctions have been used for millennia. However, the social acceptability of contraception and abortion has varied widely across cultures and time periods. In the United States religious and social attitudes toward women, marriage, and children have swung between an absolute rejection of all birth control and abortion to protected legal rights. Some view a woman's ability to control her reproduction as an important component of social liberation and equality.

Historical Trends

The Comstock Act was passed in 1873, which made it a federal crime to sell or distribute materials through the U.S. mail that could be used for contraception or abortion. Nearly a century later, under pressure from family planning advocates, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to prohibit married couples from acquiring and using birth control. In 1960 the first birth control pill, which prevented conception by regulating a woman's hormones, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Abortion was legalized in 1973 by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. This was the context in which Hardin wrote "The Tragedy of the Commons" in support of population control.

In 2015 about 64% of the world's married women used either a modern or traditional method of contraception, up from 36% in 1970. Africa has the lowest percentage of women using contraceptives, but their use is growing. In South America, despite harsh abortion laws and strong Catholic values, family planning programs are having an effect on population growth. However, there are differences in use between countries, ethnic groups, and rural and urban areas. Poor countries are less able to provide affordable contraception for people, and people from rural areas are less able to access family planning centers. A number of countries with overwhelming population size have attempted to aggressively reduce or reverse their population growth. Under China's one-child policy, couples who had more than one child faced the loss of civic services, salary reductions, and other severe disincentives. A number of countries, including India, have historically instituted coercive sterilization policies aimed at men and women.

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