Logo IMG


Garrett James Hardin (Dallas 1915—Santa Barbara 2003)

Vaclav Smil

Containing Multitudes

Hardin was a man of many causes, yet several of his major writings were variations on the theme of the ruined commons. This is true about another of his widely read and reprinted essays, "Living on a Lifeboat," published in BioScience in 1974. There he used another parable to argue that immigration of the poor to affluent countries hurts those already living there, just as taking too many drowning people into a lifeboat risks sinking everybody. If the connection between these two essays wasn't apparent enough, it became so in 1995, when he published a book with the title The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons.

Clearly, Hardin was concerned about the number of people the United States could support. So it should not come as a complete surprise to learn that he was a founding member of Planned Parenthood and one of the nation's most influential advocates of population control and abortion on demand—the issue he said occupied most of his time between 1963 and 1973, the year that the Supreme Court made its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. (It might come as a surprise, however, to learn that Hardin and his wife had four children.)

Figure 2. Hardin's parable . . .Click to Enlarge Image

But Hardin was more than a policy advocate: He was also an intellectual pioneer. Both his earliest bioethical writings and his last books, written during the 1990s, are widely seen as important stepping-stones to the newly created field of "ecological economics." This discipline tries (perhaps quixotically) to reform the tradition of ignoring nature in economics, which normally shares with ecology little more than the descriptive Greek root in its name.

It is thus not an easy task to understand this man. For those who want to explore Hardin through just a single volume of his writings, I would recommend Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos, published in 1993. All of the great causes, targets and taboos that have been at the core of modern environmental and ecological debates and that Hardin defended, attacked and confronted during his long life are here: limits to growth, overpopulation, cowboy economics, demographic transition, nuclear energy, carrying capacity, human rights, globalization, Spaceship Earth, economic growth, altruism, birth control, energy consumption, immigration, and the irreconcilability of ecology and traditional economics. There are, not surprisingly, extended quotes from Aristotle, the Marquis de Condorcet, Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Kenneth Boulding, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin, but also, revealingly, Hardin includes bits from Galileo, Sir Arthur Eddington, William Stanley Jevons, Otto Frisch, Thomas Huxley and C. P. Snow.

The book is full of Hardin's terse, politically incorrect one-liners, which he often used as headlines of chapter sections—In Praise of Discrimination, Compassion Breeds Taboo, A Suicidal Right (meaning the right to have children)—and arguments that can almost instantly reverse a reader's feeling from approbation to shock. To argue for population control is one thing, but it's quite another to write that we need to reexamine the assumption that a low rate of infant mortality serves as a valid measure of the state of a civilization. How, after all, could any advanced society not do all it could to preserve the lives of newborns? And what would Hardin's alternative be, anyway? Would he have some state bureaucrat decide which birth defect is economical to fix and which one should spell an immediate death sentence?

Hardin was well aware of how difficult it was for most of his fellow citizens to approve of his drastic prescriptions. Still, he pushed his argument mercilessly, writing that "mortality—death—can be easily tallied, but morbidity—pain and suffering—is much harder to measure. Yet morbidity may be the more important measure of happiness." How much of this focus on anguish comes from the experience of a man whose physical life was constrained by the polio he contracted at the age of four, which weakened his right leg and made it 5 centimeters shorter than his left one. Decades later, polio's delayed effects weakened the muscles in his left leg enough that he was confined to a wheelchair, and the fear of losing strength in his arms led him to talk openly about looking for Dr. Kevorkian.

comments powered by Disqus


Subscribe to American Scientist