Environmentalists use the metaphor of the earth as a "spaceship" in trying to persuade countries, industries and people to stop wasting and polluting our natural resources. Since we all share life on this planet, they argue, no single person or institution has the right to destroy, waste, or use more than a fair share of its resources. But does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources? The spaceship metaphor can be dangerous when used by misguided idealists to justify suicidal policies for sharing our resources through uncontrolled immigration and foreign aid.
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Environmentalists use the metaphor of the earth as a "spaceship" in trying to persuade countries, industries and people to stop wasting and polluting our natural resources. Since we all share life on this planet, they argue, no single person or institution has the right to destroy, waste, or use more than a fair share of its resources.
But does everyone on earth have an equal right to an equal share of its resources? The spaceship metaphor can be dangerous when used by misguided idealists to justify suicidal policies for sharing our resources through uncontrolled immigration and foreign aid. In their enthusiastic but unrealistic generosity, they confuse the ethics of a spaceship with those of a lifeboat. A true spaceship would have to be under the control of a captain, since no ship could possibly survive if its course were determined by committee.
Spaceship Earth certainly has no captain; the United Nations is merely a toothless tiger, with little power to enforce any policy upon its bickering members. If we divide the world crudely into rich nations and poor nations, two thirds of them are desperately poor, and only one third comparatively rich, with the United States the wealthiest of all. Metaphorically each rich nation can be seen as a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people.
In the ocean outside each lifeboat swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth. What should the lifeboat passengers do?
First, we must recognize the limited capacity of any lifeboat. For example, a nation's land has a limited capacity to support a population and as the current energy crisis has shown us, in some ways we have already exceeded the carrying capacity of our land.
So here we sit, say 50 people in our lifeboat. To be generous, let us assume it has room for 10 more, making a total capacity of Suppose the 50 of us in the lifeboat see others swimming in the water outside, begging for admission to our boat or for handouts. We have several options: we may be tempted to try to live by the Christian ideal of being "our brother's keeper," or by the Marxist ideal of "to each according to his needs.
The boat swamps, everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe. Since the boat has an unused excess capacity of 10 more passengers, we could admit just 10 more to it. But which 10 do we let in? How do we choose? Do we pick the best 10, "first come, first served"?
And what do we say to the 90 we exclude? If we do let an extra 10 into our lifeboat, we will have lost our "safety factor," an engineering principle of critical importance.
For example, if we don't leave room for excess capacity as a safety factor in our country's agriculture, a new plant disease or a bad change in the weather could have disastrous consequences. Suppose we decide to preserve our small safety factor and admit no more to the lifeboat. Our survival is then possible although we shall have to be constantly on guard against boarding parties.
While this last solution clearly offers the only means of our survival, it is morally abhorrent to many people. Some say they feel guilty about their good luck. My reply is simple: "Get out and yield your place to others. The needy person to whom the guilt-ridden person yields his place will not himself feel guilty about his good luck. If he did, he would not climb aboard. The net result of conscience-stricken people giving up their unjustly held seats is the elimination of that sort of conscience from the lifeboat.
This is the basic metaphor within which we must work out our solutions. Let us now enrich the image, step by step, with substantive additions from the real world, a world that must solve real and pressing problems of overpopulation and hunger.
The harsh ethics of the lifeboat become even harsher when we consider the reproductive differences between the rich nations and the poor nations. The people inside the lifeboats are doubling in numbers every 87 years; those swimming around outside are doubling, on the average, every 35 years, more than twice as fast as the rich.
And since the world's resources are dwindling, the difference in prosperity between the rich and the poor can only increase. As of , the U. Outside our lifeboat, let us imagine another million people say the combined populations of Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Morocco, Pakistan, Thailand and the Philippines who are increasing at a rate of 3. Put differently, the doubling time for this aggregate population is 21 years, compared to 87 years for the U.
The harsh ethics of the lifeboat become harsher when we consider the reproductive differences between rich and poor. Now suppose the U. Initially the ratio of Americans to non-Americans in this model would be one-to-one.
But consider what the ratio would be after 87 years, by which time the Americans would have doubled to a population of million. By then, doubling every 21 years, the other group would have swollen to 3. Each American would have to share the available resources with more than eight people. But, one could argue, this discussion assumes that current population trends will continue, and they may not. Quite so. Most likely the rate of population increase will decline much faster in the U.
In sharing with "each according to his needs," we must recognize that needs are determined by population size, which is determined by the rate of reproduction, which at present is regarded as a sovereign right of every nation, poor or not. This being so, the philanthropic load created by the sharing ethic of the spaceship can only increase. The fundamental error of spaceship ethics, and the sharing it requires, is that it leads to what I call "the tragedy of the commons.
A farmer, for instance, will allow no more cattle in a pasture than its carrying capacity justifies. If he overloads it, erosion sets in, weeds take over, and he loses the use of the pasture. If a pasture becomes a commons open to all, the right of each to use it may not be matched by a corresponding responsibility to protect it.
Asking everyone to use it with discretion will hardly do, for the considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater. If everyone would restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint. In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings, mutual ruin is inevitable if there are no controls. This is the tragedy of the commons. One of the major tasks of education today should be the creation of such an acute awareness of the dangers of the commons that people will recognize its many varieties.
For example, the air and water have become polluted because they are treated as commons. Further growth in the population or per-capita conversion of natural resources into pollutants will only make the problem worse.
The same holds true for the fish of the oceans. Fishing fleets have nearly disappeared in many parts of the world, technological improvements in the art of fishing are hastening the day of complete ruin. Only the replacement of the system of the commons with a responsible system of control will save the land, air, water and oceanic fisheries.
In recent years there has been a push to create a new commons called a World Food Bank, an international depository of food reserves to which nations would contribute according to their abilities and from which they would draw according to their needs.
This humanitarian proposal has received support from many liberal international groups, and from such prominent citizens as Margaret Mead, U. A world food bank appeals powerfully to our humanitarian impulses. But before we rush ahead with such a plan, let us recognize where the greatest political push comes from, lest we be disillusioned later.
Our experience with the "Food for Peace program," or Public Law , gives us the answer. This program moved billions of dollars worth of U.
But when P. And indeed it did. In the years to , U. Though all U. Farmers did not have to contribute the grain; the Government or rather the taxpayers, bought it from them at full market prices.
The increased demand raised prices of farm products generally. The manufacturers of farm machinery, fertilizers and pesticides benefited by the farmers' extra efforts to grow more food. Grain elevators profited from storing the surplus until it could be shipped. Railroads made money hauling it to ports, and shipping lines profited from carrying it overseas. The implementation of P. Those who proposed and defended the Food for Peace program in public rarely mentioned its importance to any of these special interests.
The public emphasis was always on its humanitarian effects. The combination of silent selfish interests and highly vocal humanitarian apologists made a powerful and successful lobby for extracting money from taxpayers.
We can expect the same lobby to push now for the creation of a World Food Bank. However great the potential benefit to selfish interests, it should not be a decisive argument against a truly humanitarian program.
We must ask if such a program would actually do more good than harm, not only momentarily but also in the long run. Those who propose the food bank usually refer to a current "emergency" or "crisis" in terms of world food supply. But what is an emergency? Although they may be infrequent and sudden, everyone knows that emergencies will occur from time to time.
A well-run family, company, organization or country prepares for the likelihood of accidents and emergencies. It expects them, it budgets for them, it saves for them. What happens if some organizations or countries budget for accidents and others do not? If each country is solely responsible for its own well-being, poorly managed ones will suffer.
But they can learn from experience. They may mend their ways, and learn to budget for infrequent but certain emergencies. For example, the weather varies from year to year, and periodic crop failures are certain.
Lifeboat ethics is a metaphor for resource distribution proposed by the ecologist Garrett Hardin , who is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a white nationalist whose publications were "frank in their racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism. Hardin's metaphor describes a lifeboat bearing 50 people, with room for ten more. The lifeboat is in an ocean surrounded by a hundred swimmers. The " ethics " of the situation stem from the dilemma of whether and under what circumstances swimmers should be taken aboard the lifeboat. Hardin asserts that the spaceship model leads to the tragedy of the commons. In contrast, the lifeboat metaphor presents individual lifeboats as rich nations and the swimmers as poor nations.
Hardin's thesis: People in rich nations should do nothing for the people of poor nations, and we should close our borders to them. Although people talk about our common bonds here on "spaceship earth," that metaphor is misleading. We don't have one ruler, a captain, who makes sure everyone behaves. A better metaphor is a lifeboat.