Hardin, Dr. Garrett (1915 – ) American Environmentalist And Writer

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Dr. Garrett Hardin (1915 ) American environmentalist and writer

Trained as a biologist (University of Chicago undergraduate degree; Ph.D. from Stanford in 1942 in microbial ecology ) Garrett Hardin spent most of his career at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where his title was Professor of Human Ecology .He was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in various places in the Midwest, spending summers on his grandparents' farm in Missouri.

Very few biologists, short of Charles Darwin, have generated the levels of controversy that Hardin's thinking and writing have. The controversies, which continue today, center on two metaphors of human-ecological relationships; "the tragedy of the commons" and "the lifeboat ethic."

Hardin is widely credited with inventing the idea of the tragedy of the commons , but his work was long preceded by an ancient rhyme about the tragedy that results from stealing the commons from the goose. He did popularize the idea, though, and it made him a force to reckon with in population studies. Seldom is an academic author so identified with one article (though his thoughts on lifeboat ethics have since become almost equal in identification and impact). The idea is very simple: resources held in common will be exploited by individuals for personal gain in disregard of public impacts; individual profit belongs to individual exploiters while they bear the brunt of only part of the impacts. Much of the controversy centers on Hardin's solutions to the tragedy: first, that private property owners "recognize their responsibility to care for" the land, thus lending at least implicit support to privatization efforts and second, the paradoxical idea that since exercise of individual freedom leads to ruin, such freedom cannot be tolerated, thus we must turn to "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." As Hardin noted, "if everyone would restrain himself, all would be well; but it takes only one less than everyone to ruin a system of voluntary restraint. In a crowded world of less than perfect human beings, mutual ruin is inevitable if there are no controls. This is the tragedy of the commons." Hardin has since expanded on his thesis, answering his critics by incorporating the differences between an open access system and an closed one. But the debate continues.

His other widely debated metaphor was of a lifeboat (standing for a nation's land and resources) occupied by rich people in an ocean of poor people (who have fallen out of their own, inadequate lifeboats). If the rich boat is close to its margin of safety, what should its occupants do about the poor people in the ocean? Or in the other boats? If the occupants let in even a few more people, the boat may be swamped, thus creating an ethical dilemma for the rich occupants. How do these occupants of the already full lifeboat justify taking in additional people if it guarantees the collapse for all? Ever since, Hardin has been accused of social Darwinism, of racism, of ignoring the possibility that "the poverty of the poor may be caused in part by the affluence of the rich," and of isolationism (since he argued that "for the foreseeable future survival demands that we govern our actions by the ethics of a [sovereign] lifeboat" rather than "space-ship" ethics that [arguably] try to care for all equitably).

What Hardin was trying to do in both of these cases was to look unemotionally at population growth and resource use, employing the rationale and language of a scientist viewing human populations in an objective, evolutionary perspective. Biologists know that "natural" populations that overuse their resources, that exceed the carrying capacity of their range, are then adjustedin numbers or in resource use levelsalso naturally and often brutally (from the perspective of many people). The problems remain that the division between the rich and the poor in the world is widening, and that many resources and ecosystems on earth are being stressed, though how close to the breaking point no one really knows. Also, nation-states are arbitrary divisions, and perhapsin a corollary to the space-ship metaphorthe ultimate life-boat is the earth and all the inhabitants must exist in it together.

Hardin retired as a professor emeritus of human ecology, a rare title that reflects his attempts to fold the human species into the evolutionary ecology perspective developed in biology. Ultimately what he tried to get across was what he called an ecolate view: ecolacy asks the question "and then what?" The basic insight of the ecolate citizen is that the world is a complex of systems so intricately interconnected that we can seldom be very confident that a proposed intervention in this system of systems will produce the consequences we want." Hardin's views are rich and variedthe themes presented here are only two of manybut he still summarizes the human condition by what he labels "the ecolate predicament": that all human interventions are doomed to failure if a population exceeds its carrying capacity, whether of a region or of the world. Doing so "will bring everyone down to a level of poverty."

[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]



Hardin, G. "Living on a Lifeboat." BioScience 24, no. 10, (October 1974): 561568.

. Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

. The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.


Bajema, C. J. "Garrett James Hardin: Ecologist, Educator, Ethicist, and Environmentalist." Population and Environment 12, no. 3, (Spring 1991): 193212.

. "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162, (13 December 1968): 12431248.

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Hardin, Dr. Garrett (1915 – ) American Environmentalist And Writer

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