Education And Debate

To the point of farce: a martian view of the hardinian taboo—the silence that surrounds population control

BMJ 1997; 315 doi: (Published 29 November 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;315:1441
  1. Maurice King (mhking{at}, honorary research fellowa,
  2. Charles Elliott, dean and chaplainb
  1. a University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT
  2. b Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 1TJ
  1. Correspondence to: Dr M King 1 bis Rue du Tir, Geneva 1204, Switzerland
  • Accepted 9 September 1997


We humans have problems controlling our population. We apply the “Hardinian taboo”—a refusal to consider or discuss population control—so as to prevent ourselves having to deal with the problem adequately. Our worst problem is demographic entrapment. If the Hardinian taboo on entrapment is not removed, there will be increasing slaughter and starvation throughout much of Africa and elsewhere (malignant uproar), as recently shown in Rwanda.1 If it is removed, there will be intense discussion (benign uproar), followed—we argue—by behaviour change in the countries of the North (sustainable lifestyles) and of the South (reduced fertility). Which is it to be? Do we open the dialogue or don't we? The “foundations” of this taboo include the problems of one child families. The US State Department has, we believe, been orchestrating the global population debate to the point that it has corrupted critical aspects of academic demography, to the greatest possible disadvantage of trapped populations, presumably lest its own consumption of resources be criticised. We follow Hardin2 in thinking that, with modern communications, the solution to “the population problem” could come quite quickly. The difficulty is removing the taboo sufficiently to get enough “benign uproar.”

The problem seen from…

Summary points

The Hardinian taboo is a refusal to contemplate overpopulation as a problem

The choice is between the vigorous argument that will follow the lifting of the Hardinian taboo and the slaughter and starvation of letting it remain

The world wide web could be the key factor in lifting it

Lifting the taboo has important implications for the market economy

Lifting it would be a powerful agent for good

Lady M: Back home in Mars we have long been interested in you humans. We can measure Earth's rising temperature and see your disappearing ice caps and your vanishing forests. We watch your television and subscribe to the BMJ. One thing especially mystifies us. Why is it that, when your population is increasing at 10 000 people an hour—and is set to double—you do so little about it, especially when it contributes so largely to your poverty, your hunger, your street children, and your slaughter? You seem to have extraordinary hangups in controlling your population.

How the “experts” avoid discussing entrapment

The “experts” avoid considering these five variables together: a specific area; its carrying capacity; its population (especially itsprojected future population); migration out of it; and its economy. If they consider these variables separately, they can assume that whatever they have not considered will solve the problem. For example, they can assume that economic development will provide sufficient exports, and therefore sufficient imports, especially food, even though there is no reasonable hope of this happening—in time.

Self: We do indeed. There is an ecologist in California called Garrett Hardin2 who has been describing these hangups for many years. He calls them taboos. The other animals have their populations controlled for them by such mechanisms as predators and the competition between species. We try to avoid thinking about our population growth, or the methods we need to control it. For example, there was great hype over world population at the first Earth Day in 1970. Twenty years later, when the world had nearly 50% more people, the second Earth Day was almost completely ignored.2 Interest in population is presently at a low ebb; funding is even lower3; and family planning is being subsumed under reproductive health.

Let me give you a recent trivial example. I had described the Hardinian taboo to one of the participants at a conference of paediatricians in Kampala. She saw it in operation the following day. She described how her colleagues had broken up into small groups to discuss the causes of malnutrition in their parts of Africa. After some hesitation, they all had reluctantly put “overpopulation” at the bottom of their lists. When the reports of the small groups were eventually summarised, overpopulation had somehow disappeared. This happens not only in our little conferences but also in our big ones. Our population conference in Cairo in 1994 failed to address adequately the issue of rapid population growth, which many poor countries consider their first priority4—and which should have been its major task. Our food conference in Rome in 1996 failed even to notice that in percentage terms the rate of growth of the grain yield of our fields is now less than that of our population.5 The grain available to the average human is now steadily falling.

The Hardinian taboo

Self: Curiously, the taboos that we have in dealing with population have only recently been given an overall name. I sent a paper6 on demographic entrapment to Paul Demeny, the editor of our most respected demographic journal, the Population and Development Review. He replied that “the Hardinian taboo is already well known in the literature.” It turns out that the term “Hardinian taboo” isn't listed in the standard demographic database popline—so it can't be traced in the literature. The taboo has been so powerful and so well hidden that we haven't needed to name it. By naming it, Demeny took the first step towards finally abolishing it. By rejecting our paper, he was applying the taboo to his own discipline in his own journal. This is remarkable, since the Population and Development Review is an organ of the Population Council, which should be clarifying population issues, not obfuscating them.

What is demographic entrapment?

A community is demographically trapped if its population exceeds three criteria: the carrying capacity of its ecosystem; its opportunities for migration; and the ability of its economy to produce sufficient goods or services that can be exchanged for food and other necessities from elsewhere in the world. A community is also trapped if, because its population is increasing, it is expected to be in this unhappy state before long. A trapped community faces starvation or slaughter, or both (malignant uproar).

Lady M: That's odd. Demography is the key science for your UN population agency, UNFPA. It seems to me that demography is now gravely flawed as one of the sciences on which your agencies base their population programmes; one might say that certain parts of it are now grossly corrupt.

Self: Exactly! The head of one “centre for population studies” told me that he could not investigate demographic entrapment because all he had was demographers. The head of one “institute of development studies” told me that he could not investigate it because he had no demographers.

Lady M: In that case, both disciplines have reached the point of farce.


Lady M: If this is the demographic trap, how does a community get out of it?

Self: Theoretically, it would be possible for a population to escape the demographic trap in one of four ways: increasing the carrying capacity of its ecosystem sufficiently—making its fields grow more; providing enough opportunity for migration; developing an economy which would produce sufficient exports which could then be exchanged for the necessary imports; or reducing the birth rate, if necessary to one child only. In practice, although everything possible should be done to make the most of the first three of these options, it seems that the reduction of fertility has to be the major one.

Foundations of the Hardinian taboo

  • The fear of uproar—both benign and malignant

  • The economic foundations of the global society—its materialist, consumerist, market economy, driven as this is by diabolical processes of advertising and marketing to promote ever more luxurious and unsustainable lifestyles

  • The means of employment that the Northern lifestyle provides, in that to alter it (unless other radical and difficult changes are also implemented at the same time) is likely to increase unemployment

  • Northern food habits, which are integral to this economy and lifestyle

  • Current notions of human rights, particularly as they relate to human reproduction

  • The Holy See's attitude to abortion and most methods of family planning

  • The cultural attitudes of the South that favour high fertility

  • The “starting line taboo” (see website)

  • The high status of “the child” in Western liberalism

  • The metaphysical position of late capitalist man (“What are we here for anyway?”)

  • A dread of “the future” in that abolishing the taboo acknowledges that “the population future” now approaching us at nearly a billion a decade, is already upon us

  • Self interest, peer group disapproval, inertia, hopelessness, and “loss of face”

  • The political interests of the US State Department (see website)

Demographic momentum

Lady M: Surely, if every female were to have only two children from now on, one to replace herself and one to replace her husband, this would immediately stop the population growing?

Self: Yes—but only if there are the same number of people in each age group. If a population is young, with many people in the younger age groups, even instant two child families would allow the population to continue growing for several generations, although at a progressively slower rate. This is demographic momentum—the motion you give a ball when you kick it. African communities are very young indeed, with about half the population under 15. African mothers still have about six children. The unhappy fact is that, on average, as much population growth occurs after the number of children per couple has fallen to 2 (strictly 2.2) as took place before it.7 There is thus an enormous amount of population growth to come. If communities really want to disentrap themselves, mothers need have to have one child only, for a generation or more, until the population stabilises.

Foundations of the Hardinian taboo

Lady M: You humans aren't half screwed up by this Hardinian taboo thing. Just why should the Hardinian taboo be so difficult for you people?

Self: On earth, as I expect on Mars, everything is linked to everything else. The Hardinian taboo seems to be linked to at least a dozen other factors, which we have called its foundations.

Lady M: Let me be sure I've got it straight. Do you mean that these “foundations” have got to change, or at least be under great stress, if the taboo is lifted?

Self: Yes. Our reluctance to think through the necessary changes in the foundations and to introduce those changes, is what holds the Hardinian taboo in place. Let me discuss one of them.

China's one child families

Self: In the 1970s China's population was rising so fast that the country became worried about its “grain problem”—its population looked like exceeding the carrying capacity of the country. It had realised that it was demographically trapped, although it did not use this term. To slow its population growth it started its one child family programme. It provided various incentives and disincentives to encourage mothers to have one child only. The choice facing China was either one child families—or starvation and slaughter. China could do this only because Chinese culture is largely independent of the rest of the world, so that the Hardinian taboo does not operate there. Unfortunately, the world has many more trapped communities, which do not have the cultural independence from the Hardinian taboo—or the courage—that China has. Few people in these countries know they are trapped, and the demographers dare not tell them so.

Lady M: It seems to me that you humans now have a choice. Either you can lift the Hardinian taboo and face up to the heated argument that will certainly follow as you adapt to one child families and changed Northern lifestyles—or you can continue to close your eyes to reality, hold the Hardinian taboo tightly in place, and allow a continent (Africa), and more, to continue its drift into starvation and slaughter, while a minority of you enjoy unbelievable luxury. Inequity is now such that 500 of you now own as much wealth as half of humanity. Are you going to make this choice or aren't you?

Orthodoxy really does seem to be out on a limb. Have we reached the very bottom of entrapment?

Self: Not quite. In the end it seems that the distinction between benign and malignant uproar is quite simply whether one cares—about the world and its people, and about Africa and India in particular, and about the other creatures in this marvellous Creation; whether one loves them, or whether one doesn't.

Lady M: So in the end it is either love—or tragedy—and farce. Tell me, are you hopeful?

Self: Yes, abundantly, provided there is enough benign uproar, and provided we get down to it quickly! See you at our website!


Funding: None.

Conflict of interest: None.


“Lady M” continues her discussion at

We welcome comments at, which will keep these discussions updated.


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