The question concerning the allocation of natural resources is one of the fundamental global issues of human existence: namely, there is a clear imbalance extant in the world between rich and poor nations. Thinkers such as Garrett Hardin have suggested the metaphor of a lifeboat to describe this situation. In the imagined scenario, hundreds of swimmers surround a lifeboat at sea containing 50 people; within the lifeboat there is room for more. This metaphor is used by Hardin to stress the ethical obligation of those within the lifeboat to provide place for those at sea. Within the context of the natural resources question, therefore, there is an ethical obligation of those who control such resources to aid those who do not. Yet at the same time, there is an underlying logic to such a question: namely, why are the poor nations poor to begin with?
Perhaps the very reason why such nations are impoverished and require help is because there is an injustice in how are resources are divided and controlled. Namely, the rich nations have become rich because they have denied the very validity of ethical obligations such as those presented by Hardin. A fundamental re-thinking of the current economic divides that characterize the disproportion in the world’s natural resources is required to not only ameliorate the lives of those afflicted by poverty, but also to emphasize the prosperity of the earth as a whole not only in terms of a more fair distribution of wealth, but also from an ecological perspective.
Hardin’s compelling arguments of for ethical obligation are essentially based on an idea of community over an idea of individuality. For example, Hardin’s lifeboat metaphor will only make ethical sense for those who do not view individual gains and happiness as the fundamental moral obligation of the human being. The lifeboat metaphor is consistent with Hardin’s concept of the “tragedy of the commons.” There is an ethical tragedy that occurs when individuals or groups base their actions on a principle of their own interests. In the context of resources, therefore, the concept of the “commons” would indicate something that we all share, for example, national parks or oceans. The exploitation of these resources by some specific party against the greater majority destroys the long-term interests of the community as a whole. The reason why this argument is tied to the lifeboat argument is that both positions which Hardin criticize only have their own self-interests in mind, serving as the guide in their ethical decision making. Natural resources thus become something to be exploited for self-interest, as opposed to something to be carefully used with the best interests of the entire world in mind. Accordingly, affluent nations, following Hardin’s scheme, must re-think their relation to poorer nations so as to satisfy this imperative of long-term interest of the world as a whole: this is the ethical obligation of his account.
At the same time, the very pertinent question can be asked: why do rich nations become rich, whereas poor nations become poor? Natural resources, namely, are found throughout the world: valuable resources, such as diamonds, are found even in the poorest countries, such as in the heart of Africa, while these countries still remain impoverished. Therefore, there is a clear case of a form of explanation being practiced by wealthy nations, to the extent that they are using the natural resources of poorer countries for their own self-interest. The gap between rich and poor in other words is the product of one’s group placing its ethical interests over another, much like Hardin argues. However, the point becomes not merely to aid poorer nations, but better understand the causes of why such discrepancies exist. Why do countries with abundant natural resources still remain impoverished, even though these resources are being extracted, bought and sold everyday on the world’s stock markets?
From this perspective, the issue is not only that of an ethical obligation to poorer nations, but a fundamental reevaluation of how our current society is structured. But this can only be done by defeating the position of self-interest. This is precisely what Hardin attempts to accomplish with his concept of the tragedy of the commons. The world’s natural resources are being governed in a manner that is defined by self-interest. But merely emphasizing the ethical importance of rejecting self-interest does not explain the gap between rich and poor which is founded on self-interest. We have to understand why natural resources are organized in the manner that they are and determine real alternatives, instead of clinging to the signifiers of rich and poor which are products of this same exploitation.
In addition, another argument can be added to Hardin’s thesis: the notion of group interest over self-interest also includes an environmental and ecological aspect. By re-thinking how natural resources are allocated and why they are allocated, we will also be emphasizing the importance of the environment. Namely, we will no longer be treating resources as something to be exploited, but part of our long-term existence. The human being is not separate from nature, but a part of nature.
Arguments concerning natural resources address how we live with each other as well as our relationship to our ecosystem. These are fundamental questions, in so far as they concern the very future of the human race. Hardin presents key arguments as to why we should re-evaluate the relationship between rich and poor. At the same time, perhaps it is also important to supplement this discussion with one in which we understand why rich and poor in relation to natural resources exists in the first place.