Reading reflection #2

16 02 2009

In his article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin takes a look at an ethical problem that he says technology can’t fix — overpopulation. He calls overpopulation and its extensions examples of “No technical solution problems.” Though several instances and taking a logical approach, Hardin argues how sharing common resources amongst a growing population simply doesn’t work, regardless of how technology can assist. He calls it the “tragedy of the commons” because there is no happy ending. Uplifting stuff.

For the purposes of this post I’d like to talk about his idea that problems exist that technology can’t solve. Is this really true, or just unimaginative?

Hardin uses an example of animals grazing a shared plot in his article. He assumes that by increasing the population of animals on the shared plot of land, the animals will lose resources at least as fast of the rate of their growth. But what if with technology we could grow the crop faster, or at multiple, vertical levels? What if we could optimize the nutrition of what was growing? These are the kind of creative ideas that Hardin should have considered before so quickly dismissing technology.

Even if technological development can help the issue of overpopulation, it may not be the most effective measure. This much is true. Hardin says in his conclusion, “The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon.” Certainly stopping people from repopulating is the ultimate solution, but it’s no more viable than leaning on technology because people consider freedom to repopulate a fundamental human right. Hardin says himself, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity,” and people find it necessary to procreate, to create new generations.

Hardin says “It is the role of education to reveal to all the necessity of abandoning the freedom to breed.” While there are bigger philosophical statements at play here, I find it interesting the way Hardin defines the role of education. What if education’s role were instead to be training for technological innovation? Would we need to abandon our very basic freedoms and human desires if education were used as a tool rather than a rallying cry?

Although I’ve brought up a a lot of counterarguments, Hardin’s core argument is valid: To stop overpopulation, limit reproduction. It’s just not realistic though. I know that it’s far-fetched to assume that technology won’t be able to solve major ethical issues like overpopulation, but considering the development of technology over the last 100 years, I’d place my bet that technology will be able to answer some of the big issues that we can’t answer with or without it today.

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