Garrett Hardin -- Thank you for teaching us how...

By John Rohe
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 12, Number 1 (Fall 2001)
Issue theme: "Garrett Hardin: an introduction and appreciation"

Quite by accident you find yourself seated next to Garrett Hardin at a conference. During a break, as the attendees gravitate toward exits, the air comes alive with exchanges among old friends and new acquaintances. Dr. Hardin turns your way while reaching for his crutches. In a distinctively warm and congenial style, he gestures with a cordial nod. His expressive eyes and gentle smile invite a conversation. You are now face to face with the person who framed the ethical considerations for the pro-choice movement. Greetings are exchanged, and your awareness of the surrounding room abruptly fades. Poised for a conversation, in a split second your mind races through cascading images of his life story. You reflect upon Dr. Hardin's textbooks used in your biology classes many years ago. You recall that fertility rates in the United States plummeted from 3.5 children per woman in the 1960s to 1.7 within a single decade. Fertility rates also dropped in Europe, the Pacific Rim, China, and (at glacial speed) in the so-called "Third World." Dr. Hardin's soft voice carried a heavy message as the population growth rate tumbled. He was on the front lines during a paradigm shift. He deftly pierced conventional assumptions in making sense of the world. He taught us how to keep growing in a world where resources keep dwindling. We knew he was referring to the mental growth needed to comprehend our fragile surroundings when he spoke of the need for more growth. Physical challenges in his childhood impeded outdoor activities. Meanwhile, he was introduced to the classics by his elders. These early experiences conspired with an inquisitive mind. Unique insights and a historical frame of reference enabled him to apply a blend of intelligence and cynicism. This allowed him to probe the unexamined convictions of our times. He unveiled the operative forces behind our destructive potential even as the effects were eluding cautious observers. When bankers, brokers, and financiers quipped, "There's no free lunch," he would courteously remind them that the assumption of a "free lunch" on the environment underlies our economic system. Hardin dwells in a world of ecological, biological, economic, and ethical reality. As he is seated next to you today, this man comfortably inhabits a future domain. As his thoughts are often ignored in the present day, you know that the future will claim him. His ethics belong to the future, and perhaps he does too. They will claim his ideals and his cherished values. Ortega y Gasset reminds us that, "The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man." In a split second, while formulating thoughts for a discussion with Dr. Hardin, you reflect upon the "Tragedy of the Commons." This essay was first published in 1968 by Science magazine. It also became the very first article in the inaugural issue of The Social Contract eleven years ago. With brevity and clarity, Garrett bestowed "the commons" upon a pasture, and a powerful metaphor upon all of us. In drawing analogies between "the commons" and pauperized ecosystems, contaminated groundwaters, squandered biodiversity, and degraded air, Dr. Hardin clarified the faulty assumptions in our economic system. The failure to depreciate manmade assets (vehicles, buildings, etc.) in an accounting curriculum would surely draw a failing grade. Yet the same curriculum will ignore the depreciation of our natural surroundings! With one small essay and a powerful metaphor, the flat-earthers in macroeconomics had met their Columbus. Dr. Hardin's metaphor gave us a way to explain the human predicament for the twenty-first century. As you struggle for the right words to start the conversation, you realize that a "thank you" will fall short of the mark. How do we thank someone for sharing their accumulated wisdom and ingenuity in the face of bitter criticism and opposition? How might we, today, extend a token of appreciation for his courage and resilience in advocating for our successors? "Thank you" will just not suffice. We need a bigger word - a more expansive concept. Unable to summon the right expression of gratitude for his ingenuity, his resourcefulness, and his commitment to our children and our children's children, we remain humbled by our inability adequately to frame our appreciation for such a gift.

[Visit the Garrett Hardin Society website for more information, articles, and biographical information.]

About the author

John F. Rohe is an attorney in Petoskey, Michigan with a long-standing concern for the environment. He is the author of A Bicentennial Malthusian Essay Conservation and the Indifference to Limits, available from The Social Contract Press, 1-800-352-4843.

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