Jay Hanson: The Fatal Freedom

* Die Off: Jay Hanson: The Fatal Freedom.


by Jay Hanson (Revised 8/29/97) | DieOff


Exploit: To employ to the greatest possible advantage.

There is now scientific consensus that humanity is “unsustainable,” and may have less than 35 years before the “functional integrity” of its life-support system is destroyed. [1] Despite this staggering evidence of its colossal stupidity, humanity remains firmly committed to a paradoxical struggle against itself. Moreover, caught by an insatiable drive for power [2]—like a school of sharks caught in a feeding frenzy—humanity resorts to self-deception and is conspicuously unable to rationally question its own premises. In this essay, I endeavor to point out the fatal flaw inherent in capitalism [3]: the fatal freedom to exploit the commons.



A few million years ago, our ancestor Homo Habilis developed a hierarchical social life based on hunting and gathering. Habilis males and females shared meat and produce, dividing jobs by gender: child care and gathering to females, fighting and hunting to males. Habilis originated the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that was to last for millions of years until the invention of settled agriculture.

Hunter-gatherers exploited an area until it was exhausted and then moved on to a new one. For millions of years, exploitation contributed to survival of the species and evolution selected for the best exploiters.

The transition to settled agriculture began around 12,000 years ago and was primarily subsistence in nature. Farmers generally grew only enough food to feed themselves and their families. Approximately 7000 years ago, the inventions of the plow and irrigation allowed food supplies to increase by dramatically increasing the power of farmers to exploit nature. Instead of just exhausting an area and moving on like the hunter-gatherers did, now farmers could totally devastate an area. And then move.

“Some 4,400 years ago, the city-states of ancient Sumer in modern-day Iraq faced an unsettling dilemma. Farmland was gradually accumulating salt, the byproduct of evaporating irrigation water. Almost imperceptibly, the salt began to poison the rich soil, and over time harvests tapered off.

“Until 2400 BC, Sumerians had managed the problem of dwindling yields by cultivating new land, thereby ensuring the consistent food surpluses needed to support their armies and bureaucracies. But now they had reached the limits of agricultural expansion. And over the next three centuries, accumulating salts drove crop yields down more than 40 percent. The crippled production, combined with an ever-growing population, led to shrinking food reserves, which in turn reduced the ranks of soldiers and civil servants. By 1800 BC, Sumerian agriculture had effectively collapsed, and this once glorious civilization faded into obscurity.” [4]

We knew that irrigation “inevitably leads to the salinization of soils and waters” [5] that long ago?! But we have been doing it ever since?! Have we been deceiving ourselves for over 4000 years?



In the late 50s, the social scientist Erving Goffman made a stir with a book called THE PRESENTATION OF SELF IN EVERYDAY LIFE, that stressed how much time we all spend on stage, playing to one audience or another. Goffman marveled that sometimes a person is “sincerely convinced that the impression of reality which he stages is the real reality.”

What modern evolution theory brings to Goffman’s observation is an explanation of the practical function of self-deception: we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better. In his foreword to Richard Dawkins’ THE SELFISH GENE, Robert Trivers noted Dawkins’ emphasis on the role of deception in animal life and added, in a much-cited passage, that if indeed “deceit is fundamental to animal communication, then there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray—by the subtle signs of self-knowledge—the deception being practiced.” Thus, “the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naive view of mental evolution.” [6]

For about 40,000 years, self-deception also contributed to survival and social evolution selected for the best self-deceivers! [7] Indeed, self-deception and exploitation certainly seem to be what we do best.



A “commons” is any resource used as though it belongs to all. In other words, when anyone can use a shared resource simply because one wants or needs to use it, then one is using a commons. For example, all land is part of our commons because it is a component of our life support and social systems.

A commons is destroyed by uncontrolled use—neither intent of the user, nor ownership are important. An example of uncontrolled use is when one can use land (part of our commons) any way one wants.

The inevitable outcome of self-deception and exploitation is brilliantly illustrated in Garrett Hardin’s classic, THE TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS (1968). The “commons” refers to the common resources that are owned by everyone. The “tragedy” occurs as the result of everyone having the fatal freedom to exploit the commons.

Hardin’s essay goes something like this: Visualize a pasture as a system that is open to everyone. The carrying capacity of this pasture is 10 animals. Ten herdsmen are each grazing an animal to fatten up for market. In other words, all the grass that the pasture can produce is now being consumed by the 10 animals.

Harry (one of the herdsmen) will add one more animal to the pasture if he can make a profit. He subtracts the original cost of the new animal from the expected sales price of the fattened animal and then considers the cost of the food. Adding one more animal will mean less food for each of the present animals, but since Harry only has only 1/10 of the herd, he has to pay only 1/10 of the cost. Harry decides to exploit the commons and the other herdsmen, so he adds an animal and takes a profit. Shrinking profit margins force the other herdsmen either to go out of business or continue the exploitation by adding more animals. This process of mutual exploitation continues until overgrazing and erosion destroy the pasture system, and all the herdsmen are driven out of business.

Although Hardin describes exploitation in an unregulated public pasture, the pasture also serves as a metaphor for our entire society. Our communities are the commons. Our schools are the commons. Our roads, our air, our water; we ourselves are the commons!

There is no “technological” solution to this fatal flaw in capitalism. A “political” solution is theoretically possible: prohibit freedom in the commons. But with capitalism serving as our political system (one-dollar-one-vote), there is no political solution either! [8]

Most importantly, Hardin illustrates the critical flaw of freedom in the commons: all participants must agree to conserve the commons, but any one can force the destruction of the commons. Thus, as long as we are free to exploit the commons, we are locked into a paradoxical struggle against ourselves—a terrible struggle that must end in universal ruin.



Three-hundred years before Hardin, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes anticipated the inevitable outcome of freedom in the commons in LEVIATHAN (1651):

“And because the condition of man . . . is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man . . . ”

“To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues.”

Every social phenomenon, according to Hobbes, is based upon a drive for power that emerges when individuals compare themselves to other individuals. The result is that the objects one seeks to obtain are not pursued for their own sake, but because someone else also seeks to obtain them.

“Scarcity” is the relationship between unlimited desire and limited means. For Hobbes, scarcity is a permanent condition of humanity caused by the continuous, innate drive for power.

Society becomes a lifeboat in which all the passengers are fighting each other. In order to escape universal ruin, men will create a great Leviathan, a semi-absolute state that controls its subjects and prevents permanent scarcity from developing into a war of “all-against-all.”



From Plato to our present society, we can trace the faith in human reason through the ideas of Aristotle, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and especially the English philosopher John Locke. In his SECOND TREATISE OF GOVERNMENT (1690), Locke argued that there is a natural law governing humans and that it can be known by human reason: “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it . . . that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”

Locke did not accept Hobbes’ idea that scarcity results from an innate drive for power. Locke said it was the invention of money that caused scarcity. Prior to money, it was solely the usefulness of things that counted, and every man should have only as much property as he needed. [9] Money caused scarcity by enabling a man “to enlarge his possessions” more than he needed. [10] Although Locke saw money as the source of the problem, he also saw that “improving” the earth could help to alleviate scarcity. [11] Moreover, improving the earth didn’t harm anyone because there was still plenty of land left: “Nor was this appropriation of any parcel of land, by improving it, any prejudice to any other man, since there was still enough, and as good left; and more than the yet unprovided could use.”

So rather than attack the source of the problem as Hobbes did, Locke chose instead to treat the symptoms by attacking nature. No doubt the great moralist would have followed Hobbes for social reform if all the land had been taken. Thus, Locke’s temporary—till the land is gone—answer to the scarcity caused by money was to exploit the earth, and Hobbes’ permanent war of “all-against-all” was reflected in Locke’s temporary war of “all-against-nature.”

Locke’s ideas legitimized colonialism as a quest to alleviate scarcity. For example, America was an empty continent that could be exploited to help alleviate the effects of scarcity in Europe. Cecil Rhodes, a well-known imperialist of the last century, even wrote about the necessity of an ongoing exploitation of the universe: “I would annex the planets if I could.” More recently, former president Reagan in a speech after the failure of the Challenger, told the American people that we have to conquer space in order to overcome war, scarcity, and misery on earth. His argument for more exploitation is exactly the same as that given by Locke in the seventeenth century.

Both Hobbes and Locke knew that scarcity originates in human relations and that people trying to escape scarcity would inadvertently spread and propagate it to the ends of the earth. Even into outer space.

From the beginning, rationality has never held a prominent place in our society. In the final analysis, the call for endless economic growth is rooted in a hidden, insatiable drive for power; rational debate rarely manages to bring this fact out into the open, let alone confront it. Modern society remains a crumbling monument to self-deception and exploitation.



“Every man . . . is left perfectly free to pursue his own interests in his own way, and to bring both his industry and capital into competition with those of any other man, or order of men.”—Adam Smith (1776)

“We human beings are being led into a dead end—all too literally. We are living by an ideology of death and accordingly we are destroying our own humanity and killing the planet. Even the one great success of the program that has governed us, the attainment of material affluence, is now giving way to poverty. The United States is just now gaining a foretaste of the suffering that global economic policies, so enthusiastically embraced, have inflicted on hundreds of millions of others. If we continue on our present paths, future generations, if there are to be any, are condemned to misery.” —Daly and Cobb (1989)

It is now obvious to anyone brave enough to look, that our continuing self-deception and exploitation no longer contribute to the survival of the species. If we are to survive, we must now recognize the necessity of giving up the fatal freedom to exploit the commons. Locke’s temporary war of all-against-nature must now come to an end.

When a society is free to rob banks, it is less free, not more so. When individuals mutually agreed (passed laws) not to rob banks—gave up the freedom to rob banks—they became more free, not less so. Only by giving up our fatal freedom can we free ourselves from the inexorable, deadly logic of the commons. Only then can we become free to establish a new organizing principle for humanity.

We’ve known for 4000 years that freedom in the commons brings ruin to all. . . . What are we waiting for?

[1] In 1992, the two most prestigious scientific institutions in the world, the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, issued POPULATION GROWTH, RESOURCE CONSUMPTION, AND A SUSTAINABLE WORLD which ended with: “The future of our planet is in the balance. Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may be crucial.” Archived http://dieoff.com/page7.htm

Also in 1992, a WARNING TO HUMANITY was issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists that began: “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.” This warning was signed by over 1,500 members of national, regional, and international science academies. Sixty-nine nations from all parts of Earth are represented, including each of the twelve most populous nations and the nineteen largest economic powers. It was also signed by 99 Nobel Prize winners. Archived http://dieoff.com/page8.htm

And finally, in 1993, THE GROWING WORLD POPULATION, a joint statement by 58 of the world’s scientific academies said: “In our judgement, humanity’s ability to deal successfully with its social, economic, and environmental problems will require the achievement of zero population growth within the lifetime of our children.” Archived http://dieoff.com/page75.htm

[2] The drive for power is the process by which we seek predictability as a means of avoiding or reducing anxiety. The more we feel in control, the more we can relax. The more power we have been granted or won or achieved, the more we generally assume we will be able to maintain control.

[3] Here when I use the term “capitalism”, I refer to American capitalism. From an ecological point of view, capitalism may be seen as an organized process to ingest natural, living systems (including people) in one end, and excrete unnatural, dead garbage and waste (including wasted people) out the other. From a thermodynamic view, capitalism may be seen as the conversion of low-entropy matter/energy into high-entropy matter/energy. From an economic view, capitalism may be seen as the high-speed depletion of natural capital. From a political view, capitalism may be seen as the world’s dominant political system—one-dollar-one-vote.

[4] p. 5, SHRINKING FIELDS: Cropland Loss in a World of Eight Billion, Gary Gardner; Worldwatch Institute, Paper #131, July 1996. Worldwatch Institute, 1776 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20036, Phone: 202-452-1999; FAX: 202-296-7365, wwpub@igc.apc.org, http://www.worldwatch.org/



“Some years ago, I read of a species of tiny woodland wasp that lives on mushrooms. It seems that when a wandering female wasp chances upon the right kind of mushroom in the forest, she deposits her eggs within it. Almost immediately, the eggs hatch and the tiny grubs begin literally to eat themselves out of house and home. The little maggots grow rapidly, but soon something very odd happens. The eggs in the larvaes’ own ovaries hatch while still inside their immature mothers. This second generation of parthenogenic grubs quickly consumes its parents from within, then breaks out of the empty shells to continue feeding on the mushroom. This seemingly gruesome process may repeat itself for another generation. It doesn’t take long before the entire mushroom is over-filled by squirming maggots and fouled by their bodily wastes. The exploding population of juvenile wasps consumes virtually its entire habitat which is the signal for the largest and most mature of the larvae to pupate. The few individuals that manage to emerge as mature adults then abandon their mouldering birthplace, flying off to begin the whole process over again.

“We wrote this book in the belief that the bizarre life-cycle of the mushroom wasps may offer a lesson to humankind. The tiny wasps’ weird reproductive strategy has apparently evolved under extreme competitive pressure. Good mushrooms—like good planets—are hard to find. Natural selection therefore favored those individual wasps and reproductive traits that were most successful in appropriating the available supply of essential resources (the mushroom) before the competition had arrived or became established.” OUR ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT, Wackernagel and Rees; New Society Pub., 1996; ISBN 0-86571-312-X Phone: 800-253-3605 http://www.newsociety.com/

[5] http://www.ussl.ars.usda.gov/salinity.htm

[6] pp. 263-264, THE MORAL ANIMAL, Robert Wright; Pantheon, 1994; ISBN 0-679-40773-1.

[7] leedean@ix.netcom.com says:

“If you subscribe to the idea that religious or spiritual beliefs contain self-deceptive aspects, then the first archeological evidence of self-deception occurs in Western Europe approximately 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. A profound change in behavior took place at this time. In fact, this segment of human development has been referred to as ‘the creative explosion’ or ‘cultural takeoff.’ In addition to evidence of ritualized religious behavior, art, music, jewelry for personal adornment, trappings of status, and even the concept of inherited status, suddenly appears in the archeological record.

“We have physically evolved very little in the past one hundred thousand years—and certainly not in the past 30,000. So I would have to say that self-deception had little or nothing to do with our physical evolution. Self-deception, no doubt, played a substantial role in our cultural evolution.

“Humans are the only animals known to self-deceive. There is no evidence to suggest that any other species besides our own possesses this capability. At a conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences in 1991, Washington University anthropologist Robert Sussman said, ‘Self-deception is what separates us qualitatively from all other animals and even early hominids.’

“Hierachies certainly exist within animal groups. But, a hierachial system does not need deception or self-deception to exist. Science generally recognizes two types of thinking. Concrete thinking—thought that occurs within the realm of the senses—is the form of thinking found in most animals. Concrete thinking is a linear progression like beads on a string or rungs on a ladder.

“Abstract reasoning is the second form of thinking and is found in only a few species: humans, chimps, gorillas, dolphins, etc. Since an intentional lie is an abstraction, only animals with brains complex enough for abstract reasoning can intentionally deceive. A chimpanzee is a notorious liar. But it takes the even more complex brain of a human to self-deceive. Self-deception is a relative newcomer on the behavioral scene. It didn’t help make us human. Self-deception didn’t exist until human brains reached their current level of complexity. In short, self-deception had no part in making us—we made self-deception.”

[8] http://dieoff.com/page109.htm

[9] “. . . what portion a man carved to himself, was easily seen; and it was useless, as well as dishonest, to carve himself too much, or take more than he needed.”

[10] “. . . there is land enough in the world to suffice double the inhabitants, had not the invention of money, and the tacit agreement of men to put a value on it, introduced (by consent) larger possessions, and a right to them . . .” Locke continues, “Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now; for no such thing as money was any where known. Find out something that hath the use and value of money amongst his neighbours, you shall see the same man will begin presently to enlarge his possessions.”

[11] “God and his reason commanded [man] to subdue the earth, i.e. improve it for the benefit of life . . .” Locke said that the earth needs improving because nature herself is nearly worthless: “I think it will be but a very modest computation to say, that of the products of the earth useful to the life of man nine tenths are the effects of labour: nay, if we will rightly estimate things as they come to our use, and cast up the several expences about them, what in them is purely owing to nature, and what to labour, we shall find, that in most of them ninety-nine hundredths are wholly to be put on the account of labour.” Hobbes Locke and Smith are available several places on the web. See, for example: http://dorit.ihi.ku.dk/~peterr/histphil.html