This article was originally published in 1995 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors. This piece reflects the editorial standards of the time.
Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economic and Population Taboos
Oxford University Press, 1993
Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California
University of California Press, 1994
Comparing these two books is both frustrating and enlightening. Garret Hardin’s Living Within Limits Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos, though written in turgid, obscure prose, is a sophisticated attack on immigration that spans philosophical and sociological arguments. He argues for people to think communally and act socially in the service of the planet, which is threatened by overpopulation. It is when Hardin gets into his specific definition of justice that we see beyond his vision of a healthy planet to his formula for population limitation.
Hardin is not a simple right-wing advocate of the slash-and-burn wise use movement. He doesn’t see the earth as at the service of the needs of mankind. Nor is he a radical environmentalist, who sees humans as subservient to the earth; nor a traditional environmentalist who calls for balance between man and the earth.
Instead his analysis of the need to control population growth rests on a bizarre combination of: 1) blatant self interest and 2) hard-headed advocacy of draconian policies toward some humans. He calls this perspective “ecological conservatism.”
Ultimately, Hardin fails to convince the reader of the need for strictly enforced population control measures, let alone the racially discriminatory and social Darwinist measures that he proposes. For instance, Hardin argues for more rigid national boundaries, and against global solutions to environmental and economic problems. He promotes capitalism in its unfettered form, because under pure capitalism, people are motivated to limit the size of their families. It is the welfare state that unbalances the natural order of free market capitalism.
Using misleading diagrams and mathematical formulas, out-of-context literary quotations, and neo-Malthusian population control arguments, Hardin argues against Medicare, disaster relief, farm subsidies, bilingual education, and other social services at the local, federal, and especially global levels.
Although Hardin cloaks these themes in mild language, sometimes they are not so subtle. The echo of past programs of racial control can be seen in quotes such as: “If human beings insist on interfering with the natural mortality of the young in a community that has overshot the carrying capacity, they must balance this policy by making aid to the poor contingent upon adoption of fertility-reducing measures (such as sterilization).” (p.164)
Elsewhere he is equally clear: “Thinking about the needs of [Third World] poor people, most of us can agree that two goals are desirable: to make the people more comfortable, and to bring their population growth to a halt.” (p.176) Thus, Hardin’s proposed solution to poverty is, in so many words, to prevent the poor from receiving too much humanitarian aid and to prevent them from bearing children.
The sexism in Hardin’s book is equally reprehensible, and of a variety some might have incorrectly supposed long extinct. Hardin writes: “Numerous national surveys of women’s expressed desires shows [sic] that the average woman wants a family that is greater than the number needed to produce zero population growth … We need to devise acceptable ways of influencing the desires of women in the light of community needs.” (p.258) We can only guess what these “acceptable ways” of influencing women’s desires-as opposed to unacceptable ones-might be.
Though an acknowledged, if controversial, scholar, Hardin does not recognize some basic and established facts of ecology’ and human population, especially that human life is far more valued economically depressed regions and that human consumption in these regions is confined within more reasonable limits than that of the unbridled first world. Hardin’s book falls prey to two frequent and slippery traps of population control arguments: 1) he confuses overpopulation with over-consumption, and 2) he confuses overpopulation with under-development.
On one hand, he blames poor people for problems more logically associated with the consumption patterns and environmental destruction of the corporate first world. On the other, he blames poor people for the existence of poverty, rather than blaming patterns of economic and social development and distribution that privilege certain groups in select geographical locations, and keep wages depressed and living conditions poor in others.
Hardin’s assertions are nothing new or surprising. The pseudo-scientific justification for the elimination of social service programs and the promotion of government-imposed population control of Living Within Limits is on the rise. The racial implications of these policies are clear. Third World peoples, with their refusal to limit population, are a danger to the First World. Hardin’s book fits into a growing body of conservative ecology-based views that blame people of color, women, immigrants, and Third World nations for the world’s economic, social, and environmental ills.
Living Within Limits is worth reading in that it represents a sophisticated exercise in environmental and ecological thought that targets the wrong sources of contemporary problems. In his claim to “seek a global mean,” Hardin singles out the poor of the Third World as the threat to that mean. His arguments are part of a school of xenophobic thinking that needs to be passionately resisted.
Tomas Almaguer’s Racial Fault Lines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California is a sociological account of race relations in California. The author’s research shows how economic, political, and cultural factors work to “sort out” communities by race, creating shifting hierarchies. The central thread that runs throughout Racial Fault Lines is how the factors which defined racial difference, dividing and uniting various groups, worked primarily to the advantage of whites.
Almaguer writes: “White Californians repeatedly claimed primary access to privileged positions within the system of production and effectively thwarted attempts by the nonwhite population to compete with them on an equal footing … Racial status clearly shaped each group’s life chances and served as the primary basis for determining whether one was granted access to different strata within the new class structure.” (p.14)
In Racial Fault Lines, Tomas Almaguer presents a challenging portrait of late nineteenth-century California and provides a challenge to common sense ways of thinking about race and race relations. Almaguer successfully incorporates a range of archival materials- from popular folk songs of the 1840s to media coverage of the 1903 Japanese-Mexican Labor Alliance trial and covers an impressive scope of historical and geographical territory, including an examination, of Ventura County and documentation of military campaigns against the California Indians. He analyzes a wide range of factors which continue to contribute to the system of racial inequality we are faced with today, not only in California but in the US as a whole.
Using models for analyzing race relations borrowed from authors such as Michael Omi and Ronald Takaki, Almaguer demonstrates that each racialized group’s specific relationship to the dominant white population was the result of a unique combination of cultural, economic, and political factors. Almaguer focuses on California’s Mexican, Native American, Chinese and Japanese populations to show that race relations were subject to change over time and circumstance. His research often reveals unexpected twists in how race affected people’s social and political status.
As an example, Almaguer writes that: “Although Mexicans were legally accorded the same rights as free white persons, actual extension of these privileges to all segments of this population was quite another matter … They were often denied their legal rights by being categorized as Indians.” (p.57)
While Almaguer is adept at differing between California’s varied ethnic populations, he is also careful to note similarities. For while each racial or ethnic group occupied a different position, they shared a common subordination to the dominating white population.
Almaguer is also attentive to the role that culture and social distance played in determining the shape of nineteenth-century California race relations. In a discussion of kinship and miscegenation taboos, Almaguer writes: “Unlike blacks, Indians, or Asians, Mexicans were the only ethnic population that Anglos deemed worthy to formally marry … These marriages [between white men and upper-class Mexican women] provided strategic access to land held by the old [Ranchero] elite.” (p.59) In pointing out these kinds of relationships, the book calls attention to the ways in which race pervades every level of social interaction. It also demonstrates a direct link between attitudes towards intermarriage and economic systems.
Racial Fault Lines presents new ways of looking at race in general and at California in particular. It fills in crucial missing pieces of the puzzle of historical and contemporary race relations. The information contained in often-erased histories of communities of color is key to understanding and solving problems of the current period, in which race remains the primary defining element of US politics, economics, and culture.
As an effort to elaborate an emerging model of how race works, Racial Fault Lines shows that there is possibility for changing existing patterns of racism by demonstrating racial hierarchies are not historically fixed, but instead shift according to different circumstances. Although Almaguer’s text is often dense and dry and is clearly written for an academic audience, these limitations do not lessen the importance of his book as an important contribution to an understanding of race relations today.