Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin


Garrett James Hardin (April 21, 1915 – September 14, 2003) was an American ecologist and philosopher who warned of the dangers of overpopulation. His exposition of the tragedy of the commons, in a famous 1968 paper in Science, called attention to “the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment”. He is also known for Hardin’s First Law of Human Ecology: “We can never do merely one thing. Any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable.”

A major focus of his career, and one to which he returned repeatedly, was the issue of human overpopulation. This led to writings on controversial subjects such as advocating abortion rights, which earned him criticism from the political right, and advocating eugenics by forced sterilization, and strict limits to non-western immigration, which earned him criticism from the political left. In his essays, he also tackled subjects such as conservation and creationism.

Managing the Commons by Garrett Hardin

Neomalthusian approach and “Tragedy of the commons”
In 1968 Hardin applied his conceptual model developed in his essay “The tragedy of the commons” to human population growth, the use of the Earth’s natural resources, and the welfare state. His essay cited an 1833 pamphlet by the English economist William Forster Lloyd which included an example of herders sharing a common parcel of land, which would lead to overgrazing.

Hardin blamed the welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons; where the state provides for children and supports over-breeding as a fundamental human right, Malthusian catastrophe is inevitable. Hardin stated in his analysis of the tragedy of the commons that “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.” However, environmental historians Joachim Radkau, Alfred Thomas Grove and Oliver Rackham denounced Hardin “as an American with no notion at all how Commons actually work”.

In addition, Hardin’s pessimistic outlook was in contradiction with Elinor Ostrom’s later work on success of co-operative structures like the management of common land, for which she shared the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences together with Oliver E. Williamson. In contrast to Hardin, they stated neither commons or “Allmende” in the generic nor classical meaning are bound to fail; to the contrary “the wealth of the commons” has gained renewed interest in the scientific community. Hardin’s work was also criticized as historically inaccurate in failing to account for the demographic transition, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources.

It should be noted that Lloyd’s original example, re-discovered by Hardin, could only apply to unregulated use of land regarded as a common resource. Normally, rights of use of Common land in England and Wales were, and still are, closely regulated, and available only to “commoners”. If excessive use was made of common land, for example in overgrazing, a common would be “stinted”, that is, a limit would be put on the number of animals each commoner was allowed to graze. These regulations were responsive to demographic and economic pressure; thus rather than let a common become degraded, access was restricted even further. Controls on usage can help mitigate the tragedy of the commons.

Lifeboat metaphor and denial of food aid
In September 1974, he published the article “Living on a Lifeboat” in BioScience magazine, arguing that contributing food to help the Ethiopian famine would add to overpopulation, which he considered the root of Ethiopia’s problems.

Living within Limits by Garrett Hardin

Living Within Limits
In 1993, Hardin published Living Within Limits, which he described at the time as a summation of all his previous works. In this book, he argues that natural sciences are grounded in the concept of limits (such as the speed of light), while social sciences such as economics are grounded in concepts that have no limits (such as “infinite-Earth” economic models). He notes that most of the more notable scientific (as opposed to political) arguments concerning environmental economics are between natural scientists, such as Paul R. Ehrlich, and economists, such as Julian Simon. Hardin goes on to label those who reflexively argue for growth as “growthmaniacs”, and argues against the institutional faith in exponential growth on a finite planet, illustrating this with the example of compound interest, or “usury”. This, he claims, must eventually fail, and he argues that society has been duped into confusing interest with debt. Hardin writes, “At this late date millions of people believe in the fertility of money with an ardor seldom accorded to traditional religious doctrines.”

Participation in the Death with dignity movement and suicide
Hardin, who suffered from a heart disorder and the aftermath of childhood polio, and his wife Jane, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, were members of End-of-Life Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society, and believed in individuals choosing their own time to die. They committed suicide in their Santa Barbara home in September 2003, shortly after their 62nd wedding anniversary. He was 88 and she was 81.

Garrett Hardin Society
The Garrett Hardin Society is dedicated to the preservation of the writings and ideas of Garrett James Hardin. A common thread throughout his work is an interest in bioethics. Trained as an ecologist and microbiologist and a Professor of Human Ecology at the University of California for more than thirty years, he is best known for his 1968 essay, The Tragedy of the Commons.

Humankind is embedded in a finite biological setting. Garrett Hardin’s writings enable us to responsibly assess our surroundings to optimize the quality of life for present and future generations. By perpetuating Dr. Hardin’s writings, the Garrett Hardin Society will provide a meaningful framework to discuss ecological, economic, demographic, and ethical issues.

Hardin is the author of among others: 1965, Nature and Man’s Fate – New American Library; 1972, Exploring new ethics for survival: the voyage of the spaceship Beagle – Viking Press; 1973, Stalking the Wild Taboo – W. Kaufmann; 1974, Mandatory Motherhood: The True Meaning of ‘Right to Life’ – Beacon Press; 1977, The Limits of Altruism: an Ecologist’s view of Survival – Indiana University Press; 1980, Promethean Ethics: Living With Death, Competition, and Triage – University of Washington Press; 1982, Naked Emperors: Essays of a Taboo-Stalker – William Kaufmann, Inc.; Filters Against Folly, How to Survive despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent – Viking Penguin; 1993, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos – Oxford University Press; 1999, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia – Oxford University Press.


Garrett Hardin Quotes

“In Stalking the Wild Taboo, by Garrett Hardin : Part 4: Competition: Competition, a Tabooed Idea in Sociology; The Cybernetics of Competition; Population, Biology and the Law; Population Skeletons in the Environmental Closet; The Survival of Nations and Civilisations, he deals with the concept of Competition, a process that is inescapable in societies living in a finite resource world. He proves that the end result of perfect laissez-faire, competition’s end result reduces all competitors until there is only one left. The monopolist will try to manipulate the machinery of society in such a way as to extend his powers everywhere, without limit. The same applies to labour monopolies. Under these conditions it is important to seek the boundary conditions within which the rule of laissez-faire can produce stability. …  Ben Bagdikian described the systemic process of corporate media cannibalism in Media Monopoly.” – CCT 06-11: Alien on Pale Blue Dot vs SANEF.

“Mutual Coercion Mutually Agreed Upon: The social arrangements that produce responsibility are arrangements that create coercion, of some sort. …… The tragedy of the commons is involved in population problems in another way. In a world governed solely by the principle of “dog eat dog”–if indeed there ever was such a world–how many children a family had would not be a matter of public concern. Parents who bred too exuberantly would leave fewer descendants, not more, because they would be unable to care adequately for their children. David Lack and others have found that such a negative feedback demonstrably controls the fecundity of birds . But men are not birds, and have not acted like them for millenniums, at least. If each human family were dependent only on its own resources; if the children of improvident parents starved to death; if, thus, overbreeding brought its own “punishment” to the germ line–then there would be no public interest in controlling the breeding of families. But our society is deeply committed to the welfare state, and hence is confronted with another aspect of the tragedy of the commons. In a welfare state, how shall we deal with the family, the religion, the race, or the class (or indeed any distinguishable and cohesive group) that adopts overbreeding as a policy to secure its own aggrandizement? To couple the concept of freedom to breed with the belief that everyone born has an equal right to the commons is to lock the world into a tragic course of action. Unfortunately this is just the course of action that is being pursued by the United Nations.” – Garrett Hardin; Tragedy of the Commons.

“If ecologists were ever asked to write a new Decalogue, their First Commandment would be: Thou shalt not transgress the carrying capacity.. Translated into human terms, the ecological first commandment becomes: Thou shalt not transgress the cultural capacity.” – Garrett Hardin: Cultural Carrying Capacity and Tragedy of the Commons.

“Every right must be evaluated in the network of all rights claimed and the environment in which these rights are exercised. If we hold that every right, “natural” or not, must be evaluated in the total system of rights operating in a world that is limited, we must inevitably conclude that no right can be presumed to be absolute, that the effect of each right on the suppliers as well as on the demanders must be determined before we can ascertain the quantity of right that is admissible. From here on out, ours is a limited world. Rights must also be limited. The greater the population, the more limited the per capita supply of all goods; hence the greater must be the limitation on individual rights, including the right to breed. At its heart, this is the political meaning of the population problem.” – Garrett Hardin, Limited World, Limited Rights.


SQSwans Garrett Hardin Reports.