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Garrett James Hardin (Dallas 1915—Santa Barbara 2003)

Vaclav Smil

Moral Outrage—And Outrageousness

Even when I disagreed with him, I always admired Hardin's moral fervor—a quality in such short supply in modern, avowedly value-neutral science—and welcomed his infusion of ethics into science and public decision-making. And I particularly liked the way he did it: delivered with style, in an unapologetic, forthright, true agent provocateur fashion, but one built on firm beliefs and on wide-ranging scientific knowledge. He stressed true literacy (by which he meant the correct use of terms, and abhorrence of phrases that might even slightly resemble the currently rampant political correctness) and numeracy (a skill that is in even shorter supply). This is exactly what I preach to my students and emphasize in my writings. His anguish about the state of the global environment could be mine. And I could readily agree with a number of his arguments advanced in favor of birth control and legalized abortion, but I was never comfortable with Hardin's militant stance on these topics.

What is one to do, for example, upon reading in Hardin's open 1997 letter to the American Civil Liberties Union that "a medical abortion, particularly in the early stages, costs only a fraction as much as a medically supported childbirth—not to mention the costs of education and other social services to the child for 18 years. So: when a woman elects to have a child, she is committing the community to something like $100,000 in expenses for the bearing and rearing of that child. Is it wise to extend individual rights that far?" Here he tops even the draconian family planners of China. As a former demographer, I am not afraid, as Hardin was, that we will ever get to 50 billion people. (Most current forecasts put the likely maximum even below 10 billion.) And I see excessive consumption as a much greater threat to the integrity of the biosphere than a temporarily large, but eventually self-regulating, global population.

And being myself a lucky double immigrant (first from Europe to the United States, then from there to Canada), I could never go along with his harsh and categorical condemnation of moving from a poorer to a richer place. I emigrated from what was then the westernmost outpost of the Soviet empire for political and intellectual reasons, but that motivation would not have made any difference to Hardin's basic argument: Whereas ours may be a relatively frugal household, there is no doubt that since 1969 my family has certainly consumed more living on this continent (helping to sink the Hardinian lifeboat that much faster) than we would have by staying in the impoverished Communist paradise. But should we, and millions of others who made that journey before or after us, then see our coming to live in the New World as a fundamentally immoral act? And would Hardin's judgment be the same had he grew up in a Stalinist country or in the Haitian countryside?

Given my background, I'd probably be the last ecologist on Earth to defend Hardin's stance on immigration. Nor can I muster any enthusiasm for Hardin's two other great causes, legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide: I just cannot dismiss the many concerns these policies would inevitably raise—at least not as easily as he did, by saying that "every ethical decision puts you on the slippery slope." But I am always delighted to repeat Hardin's definition that "ecology is the overall science of which economics is a minor specialty." And I wholeheartedly endorse his longstanding conviction that ethics must guide us whenever we face difficult choices and must be built on scientific foundations.

Such a dichotomy of reactions to Hardin should not be surprising. As a radical thinker and, fundamentally, a combative moralizer fond of categorical pronouncements, Hardin did not make things easy for his readers. So it's possible to mix enthusiastic approval of some of his unconventional judgments with qualified acceptance of other conclusions and with outright rejection of some of his favorite views. Only one thing was impossible: to remain indifferent in the face of his impassioned arguments. Of course, Hardin also attracted many devoted admirers, whose virtual gathering place is the Web site of The Garrett Hardin Society (, which contains much about his life and work.

There, for example, one learns that Hardin had a rather settled academic career. He came to the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1946 (his Stanford Ph.D. was granted in 1941), becoming a professor of human ecology. He stayed in Santa Barbara after his nominal retirement in 1978, remaining active in many ways (lecturing, writing, giving interviews) for another two decades. This geographic stability was quite atypical for that generation of America's peregrinating professors and was in a great contrast to his bold intellectual forays. But, true to himself, in death he was a resolute radical: He and his wife, Jane, belonged to the Hemlock Society, and on September 14, shortly after their 62nd wedding anniversary, they committed a double suicide at their Santa Barbara home. The great moralizer lived and acted as best as he could in accord with his favorite saying of the Buddha: "I teach only two things: the cause of human sorrow and the way to become free of it."

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