Living Within Limits

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 Science paper The Tragedy of the Commons introduced many to the problem implicit in open access to common-pool resources. I believe that every thinking person must understand the tragedy of the commons because living in a world which is getting congested, we have to know the causes of our problems if we have to have a chance at solving them.

Here is Hardin within in his book Living within Limits:

… Professional publicists know there is always a good living to be made by catering to the public’s craving for optimistic reports. Such behaviour finds no justification in the attitude of the Buddha, expressed five centuries before Christ: “I teach only two things: the cause of human sorrow and the way to become free of it.” The present work, though written by a non-Buddhist, proceeds along the Buddhist path — first to reveal the causes of human sorrow in population matters and then to uncover promising ways to free ourselves of the sorrow.

Hearing the Buddha’s statement today many people think, “How depressing! Why accept such a pessimistic outlook on life?” But they are wrong: it is not a pessimistic view if we reword it in terms that are more familiar to our science-based society. Reworded: “Here is something that isn’t working right. I want to fix it, but before I can do that I have to know exactly why it doesn’t work right.” One who looks for causes before seeking remedies should not be condemned as a pessimist. In general, a great deal of looking for causes must precede the finding of remedies.

Author: Atanu Dey


9 thoughts on “Living Within Limits”

  1. Atanu,
    When Hardin wrote this piece he did not really understand how the commons was managed. He made a faulty assumption that the commons is a free for all.
    Wikipedia has a nice piece.

    Anyway, sometimes its impossible to unearth the cause or more commonly misattribute the cause, and even more commonly and dangerously, to keep thinking that what was a cause say 100 years ago will still affect things in the same way.

    As I see it, this world is beyond repair, and any solution to present problems are going to create more problems (read Kaliyuga). A case in point, yesterday’s solution to the problem of distance is today’s problem of pollution. What do you think?


  2. Pingback: Myke's Weblog
  3. “Knowing causes” implicitly means “a consensus on causes”. I claim we already know the causes, we know plenty of causes with plenty of experts to back up each cause, we just don’t have consensus on what the cause really is!!

    eg. Katrina
    1. Cause according to democrats : Inadequate funding for levees by a republican Prez in a predominantly Black state whose voters are democrats.

    2. Cause according to scientists : Global warming, Erosion of wetlands by human development.

    3. Cause according to scientists opposed to global warming : Location of New Orleans below sealevel, unusual hurricane season.

    4. Cause according to religious conservatives : New Orleans is a hotbed of homosexuals engaging in sin on the streets!

    5. Cause according to the Buddhist Dalai Lama : In an interview to CNN, he claims it was the past karma of the citizens of New Orleans. So much for the followers of Gautama Buddha…

    Atanu, I suggest a small project – read the brilliant essays posted here, then call up the members of the anarcaplib cartel or the Indian-Economy cartel or whatever else. I submit to you that even within this tiny 6-7 member coterie, most of them will tell you this – india’s rising population is not a problem at all!

    when people don’t even agree that what is a problem is in fact a problem, consensus on causes of the problem is a long way off.


  4. For those of you with access to JSTOR, the original article can be found in

    Science, v. 162, 13 Dec. 1968, p. 1243.

    Hardin also wrote an “extension” to the idea in Science, v. 280, 1 May 1998.


  5. Shyamala, thanks for your comment on Garrett Hardin’s incomplete understanding of the commons. I find myself agreeing with him about the causes of the collapse of the commons as a model which has applicability in a wide range of areas, from population studies to fisheries.

    Krishnan, understanding the causal links that bind observed phenomena is the critical step before one embarks on meddling with the system. That is the contention. The claim is not that causes are fully understood, or that it is always given that a consensus of opinions will be arrived at. By itself, consensus just means that there is a greater likelihood that the cause identified is correct. It is probable that a lot of people are right, but it is possible that a lot of people are wrong and only the minority opinion is right.

    So the contention that one should seek to find the cause (or causes) of a situation is independent of the contingencies in which people disagree. Just because it is sometimes difficult to agree on the real cause does not invalidate the argument that causes must be understood before one intervenes.

    Regarding the followers of the Buddha. I don’t know how anyone can claim that the followers of the Buddha are enlightened beings. I don’t even know if anyone has made that claim. So blaming them for not being so is rather besides the point. The Dalai Lama can be as deluded as the next guy. If he thinks that Katrina is the result of global warming or because of karma of the people of NO or elsewhere or whatever he thinks, cannot be blamed on what the Buddha preached.

    That people don’t understand the consequences of India’s population is perhaps due to their ignorance of the dire situation. Again, at some level of analysis, India’s population problem is at the root of many of our miseries. But it could be a consequence of simple ignorance and greed, at some other level of analysis.

    Thanks for your comments.


  6. Atanu, what is your take on arguments akin to
    this ?
    Would you say “simple ignorance and greed” are the motivations behind the argument ? btw, a BJP minister, I forget who, gave pretty much the same argument on TV when she came to the US last year. Its a pretty catchy argument btw…I heard it from a few buddies in B’lore as well.

    In this case, there is genuine disagreement even on accepting a problem as a problem…finding causes is door ki baat.

    Consider a problem closer to my home. Here in the US, one in three Americans is obese. Lets not go into causes…is it even a problem ? There are several groups who feel media is promoting thinness & anorexia, & that “a little bit of weight is not a problem at all” 🙂 Especially among NRIs, you’ll find some terribly funny observations, because the majority of NRIs are prosperous & on the stocky side…their contention is that Indians are naturally inclined to put on weight, & the reason they don’t do so in India is because of poverty, poor nutrition, poor transportation & tropical country, whereas a person say in NYC commuting by Toyota, never having to walk even a mile a day, eating 4 high-calorie meals & engaging in sedantary labor will indeed be obese.
    There are groups that question the line between overweight & obesity…metrics like BMI are in dispute, there are obese actresses & obese porn & obese magazines…

    If I were a doctor & my mandate was to sharply reduce obesity & make the US an athletic state, I’d not even bother to find the causes…because it essentially boils down to an assault on prosperity & cars & cheap gasoline & cheap highcalorie foods…all of which have powerful lobbies which can simply kill any initiative to malign them. Instead, I’d do what the anti-tobacco lobby does. They are stupendously successful & win billion dollar lawsuits & the US smokes much less than say France ( or maybe even India ).

    Basically, I would totally ignore the cause. Why do people smoke ? Well, who cares.

    What matters is not the cause but the consequence. Bombard ppl with images of the insides of a tar-filled cancerous lung, show people speaking thru artificial voice-boxes, essentially brainwash them with anti-tobacco literature & audiovisual feeds, & pretty soon even a giant like Philip Morris will quietly morph into a much feebler Altria.

    Should we care on why ppl are obese, or just make them scared of the exponentially high risk & cost of cardiac arrest & diabetes ? The cause is immaterial, the consequence very real. The cause has some nice sociological implications & will enable a few dozen PhDs to graduate with fancy thesis papers, the consequence costs the US upwards of a trillion dollars. What is more pressing ?

    I guess this is why the popular perception “India is poor because it has the smartest economists!” takes root. These smart chaps want to find the cause of everything & create an economic model & then regulate that model, leading to a pre-91 stifled socialist price-controlled central-planned regime. If these smart ppl simply step aside & let the free market do its thing, the consequences will be frightful for some but certainly very welcome to the vast majority.

    A forced sterilization policy like China’s focuses on consequence. A free-Nirodh social-worker-familyplanning-pamphlet policy focuses on cause. What works ?

    Why is India poor ? Who really cares ? Its an interesting sociology question at best. Important thing is consequence. Focus on that & you will get an entirely different set of answers…

    I’m being quite radical here simply because I’m convinced that focusing on consequence has actually solved several pressing problems, whereas cause-oriented thinking invariably becomes an intellectual playground with participants masturbating in rhetoric.

    Here in the US, some firms have actually gotten a thinner workforce. How ? Not by asking their employees to walk from their home to workplace…which will certainly burn the desired calories, but which American is insane enough to abandon his car ? Instead, put departments on different floors & eliminate elevators! Yes, force people to trudge up down staircases & burn calories. Refuse health-insurance coverage unless they go to the office gym an hour a day! Rather than have indoor billiards & pingpong, have outdoor swimming pool & basketball, so employees are forced to take their clothes off & their obesity embarasses them to make the required change to their body. Office cafetria serves only salad & carrot juice…sure the employees can bring coke & candy from their home, but chances are they won’t. A few obese employees have left the firm because they don’t fit in with the health-culture…but the majority adapt & thrive.

    The above consequences-oriented approach says, if you consume 3000 calories, we’ll make you burn 3500 calories, so you’ll still grow thinner. A cause-oriented approach will ask- why consume 3000 calories in the first place, why not just 1500 calories….advocating some sort of portion-control & fat-food elimination & so on, few ppl have the willpower for that sort of thing.

    Consequence before cause, for a change.


  7. Krishnan,

    Thanks for the link on Gauravs post. Though this is meant for Atanu, I can’t resist taking a stab at it 😉

    One things that is blatantly wrong is “Water is not Scarce” etc.

    Haven’t you heard of tensions between TN and Karnataka fighting over this ? Two Cheif ministers holding umpteen meetings and never being able to conclude etc ?

    Population may not be a problem in the universal context, but in Indian context (with low nehruvian growth as the base, inept politicians all throughout squandering all that we have, pathetic FDI, idiotic red tape, poor health facilities for masses etc) population is the major pain in the ****. Sure, population fuels corruption. Too many people competing for too few resources etc.

    Its not good to pick one aspect and nail it as “you are the cause of chaos”. All problems are entwined. Its a vicious circle as I had commented in an earlier post.

    The fact is we would have bit better off with less population…. and we are going to get worser because of the growth in population.

    Btw, we are going to be the most populous soon. Atleast, we are going to comfortably beat chinese in this.


  8. Population problem is simple Mathematics. Population will cause problems to anyone.

    W.r.t India, we are more than 100 crores now. Now, if we go down by 50%, will our poverty be reduced? May be the rich get more comfortable. True, population needs to be checked. But the actual problem lies in the Indian mind and attitude. With increase in population, we are going to have more people with poor attitude and problems will grow exponentially.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: