Intended for healthcare professionals

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 (, 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 …

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