3. Juli 2023

The tragedy of population policies: how Garrett Hardin inspired extreme policies against reproductive choices

Autor*in: Roman Birke

In 1968, Science published Garrett Hardin’s often-cited essay “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin made a broad argument about problems arising from using common goods which related to a long-standing debate about private versus public property. Hardin, like others before him, argued that the unregulated use of commons like land, forests or seas would ultimately wield destruction because individuals would seek to maximize their own benefits rather than keeping the common good intact. “Each man,” Hardin argued, “is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit—in a world that is limited.” He concluded that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” (p. 1244).

The title of Hardin’s essay became so well known that a reference to the tragedy of the commons today is shorthand for this wider debate. Taking a step back from the essay’s popularity, it is peculiar why Hardin discussed the commons in 1968 in such a highly politicized manner. Historically, the debate was over, at least in those Western countries Hardin wrote for. The process of so-called enclosures, which referred to the privatization of the commons and the exclusion of the public from its use, was a controversial philosophical and political issue in many Western societies of the 18th century. Enclosing the land was disruptive, fundamentally changing the way social relations based around property were organized. But when Hardin published the essay, the commons had long stopped existing as a meaningful institution of structuring these societies. They became replaced by a system of private property relations. For Hardin’s contemporaries like Immanuel Wallerstein, private property became so dominant, that, in the 1970s, he spoke about an all-encompassing “World Capitalist System.”

So why did Hardin’s essay become so well known? There is no doubt that Hardin argued against the commons. But the specific political intervention of his essay was not meant to address landed property or the common use of the sea. Rather, his main topic related to questions of population growth and overpopulation discourse, which were highly topical in the 1960s and 1970s and remain controversial today (ranging from arguing about the negative effects of the Anthropocene to claiming that overpopulation is a myth). The often forgotten subtitle of Hardin’s essay reads “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality” (p. 1243).

In the same year as Hardin’s essay, Paul Ehrlich published his highly influential book Population Bomb. The book represented the peak of a debate about global population growth that had accelerated since the late 1940s and argued that existing resources would not be sufficient to sustain this growth. Also in the 1960s, campaigns like Zero Population Growth or organizations like the Population Council advertised and administered programs that encouraged people to have smaller families. Almost all of these efforts targeted poor women in the Global South and in many instances used violent methods that ranged from concealing side-effects of certain contraceptives to forced sterilizations. A wide array of historiographical studies has highlighted the atrocities committed in the name of tackling “overpopulation.” Movements like the Reproductive Justice movement, theorized and popularized by Black feminists in the 1990s, and organizations like the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective and FINRRAGE, emphasized the racial discrimination inherent in these campaigns and argued for ending policies aiming at the state-driven regulation of reproductive choices.

Hardin’s essay advocates such authoritarian practices and puts population growth front and centre. Early in the essay, he argues that a “finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero” (p. 1243). Based on debates about the commons, he proposed a far-reaching solution to achieve zero population growth: he conceptualized reproductive choice as a common that should be coercively curtailed. In Hardin’s thinking, the expansion of a herd of cattle that feeds on common land and eventually overgrazes became comparable to having a large number of children that would destroy the world’s natural resources. There would hence be a need, Hardin argued, “to reexamine our individual freedoms to see which ones are defensible” (p. 1244). He concluded that the “most important aspect of necessity that we must now recognize, is the necessity of abandoning the commons in breeding. … Freedom to breed will bring ruin to all” (p. 1248). This was a call for radical governmental intervention into reproductive choices, particularly those of women.

While historical justifications varied, violently limiting reproduction was not a novelty in the late 1960s. But even within this discoursive realm, Hardin’s argument is fascinating because it represents an inversion of how the relationship between private property and the commons is structured. Curtailing the commons historically referred to a process through which public land, for example, was transformed into private property. Access was restricted. But abandoning “the commons in breeding,” as Hardin suggested, would have turned intimate reproductive choices into a matter of direct interventions based on public policies. While enclosures meant the exclusion of the individual from public land, Hardin’s suggestions represented the highly gendered extension of public authority over the individual.

Hardin’s argument built on long-established practices of control of female reproduction and sexuality. But he was also a particularly extremist proponent in this debate. He was not only concerned about population growth in the abstract, but especially about the growth of non-white populations and their immigration to the United States. He openly rejected egalitarian ideas, calling in his essay to “openly deny the validity of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (p. 1246). But the essay became so popular, also because his suggestions relate to a wider debate developing from the 1940s about the ownership of the earth’s natural resources. When Hardin published his essay, there was an increased sense on the part of an emerging environmental movement and within an expanding academic and political debate that the world’s resources were finite.

Only four years after Hardin’s essay, the Club of Rome published its infamous report on “The Limits to Growth.” In the context of population growth, advocates of fertility control, like Paul Ehrlich, understood the enjoyment of these resources—independent of whether national parks, rivers, seas, or the air were considered private property or not—as a common good that had to be defended from the negative effects of population growth. Ehrlich argued that if humanity wanted to continue to enjoy nature, the right to procreation would have to be limited. Such discourses collided with a strong belief among Western elites that nature, including human reproduction, could be controlled and altered by human intervention.

The link between reproductive choices, environmental concerns, and the expansion of human rights after 1945 created competing rights claims. In the context of overpopulation discourse, individual reproductive rights regularly were sacrificed in order to defend imagined collective rights. Or, as Paul Ehrlich put it: “By stressing the right of parents to have the number of children they want, it evades the basic question of population policy, which is how to give societies the number of children they need.” The US-based Population Council, which became instrumental in funding and organizing fertility control programs in Southeast Asia, emphasized a utilitarian understanding of human rights that aimed to protect collective rights by limiting individual reproductive rights. In an internal memorandum, the Population Council’s President, Bernard Berelson, strongly defended “the right to select interventions into ‘natural processes’ even though the interventions themselves may have deleterious consequences for some, on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis demonstrating the markedly greater good for all” (Bernard Berelson: The Ethics of Population Control, internal memorandum archived at Rockefeller Archive Center). The approach of limiting individual rights in defence of the imagined rights of collectives was also adopted by elites in the Global South. Indira Gandhi, for example, oversaw one of the most violent sterilization campaigns after 1945 in which more than eight million people were sterilized during the Indian Emergency in the 1970s. Emphasizing a collective right of the nation to modernize, she argued that “personal rights have to be kept in abeyance, for the human rights of the nation, the right to live, the right to progress” (Shah Commission of Inquiry, Third and Final Report, New Delhi 1978, p. 154).

Hardin’s commons approach connected many of these policies, as he provided a powerful ideology, rooted in Western enlightenment thinking, that justified the public control over human reproduction. But he also was so extreme in his rhetoric that he did not become an influential figure within the movement of Gandhi and her powerful Western allies that aimed to reduce fertility rates in the Global South. While bureaucratically administered fertility control programs became less violent over time—mainly because such approaches were seen as ineffective—, the link between individual reproductive choices and the defence of an imagined public good still exists. In some regions of the Global South, campaigns against large families still thrive, as is highlighted by frequent scandals in Indian sterilization camps, for example. In many Western countries, the most common expression of claiming a public good in women’s reproduction today comes from a pro-natalist perspective. In several bills introduced in US states shortly before and after the fall of Roe v. Wade, the public was granted a right to sue over abortions. In Texas, for example, based on the so-called Heartbeat Act (SB 8), anyone can bring charges if they suspect that an illegal abortion was carried out. Several other states followed suit. Policies in Eastern Europe, for example in Hungary, aim to increase birth rates while restricting immigration to deal with a specific version of demographic anxiety.

Hardin would probably not recognize his own aims in such policies, given his fight against overpopulation and his subsequent support for abortion rights. But his call for limiting reproductive choices by public intervention fuelled debates on which several arguments for the control of women’s bodies are based—both for anti-natalist policies limiting the number of children women have and for radical pro-natalist policies of restricting abortions or the availability of birth control. Hardin’s essay should hence not only be remembered as a contribution to the debate about the commons but as connecting it to the idea of extending public control over reproductive choices.

Image credit: Hardin’s demand of ending the ‘commons in breeding’ was used to justify both forced sterilization and the restriction of abortion. Such policies were criticised by the reproductive rights movement in the 1970s, © Poster from a Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition March in 1972, Library of Congress, Yanker Poster Collection, 2016648123.