Choosing a way out of misery

Observations on two books read back-to-back:

On the surface they could not be more different. Hardin was a distinguished academic, a professor of ecology at UC Santa Barbara best known for his 1968 article Tragedy of the commons. Limits is densely written, carefully argued and creates a compelling story out of an overload of evidence. It does not make for easy reading, dwelling at length on the words of Malthus, Keynes and Smith. Mohammad is the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Grameen foundation on micro-finance. His work is auto-biographical and very personal, freely mixing anecdotes from his own upbringing in Bangladesh, frustration with the disconnect of his economics department in Bangladesh from the reality of the country around it and harsh criticism of World Bank policies on foreign aid.

But both are concerned with the same problem at the end of the day: reducing misery in the world. Given their different starting points, it may have been inevitable that both also arrived at very different conclusions. Hardin insists on the importance of recognizing natural limits. These are “hard” physical limits imposed by the parameters of planet Earth, distinct from artificial scarcity created by economics. (This is our home, he argues, dismissing as an adolescent fantasy the common science fiction vision of leaving the Earth behind and colonizing other planets.) The overall message is very pessimistic: unless we learn to respect these limits and stop runaway, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources, at some point the entire race will experience drastic decline in standards of living. By contrast Mohammad is optimistic, arguing that given the necessary resources, individuals will improve their own condition.



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