Garrett Hardin -- Salute to a Prophet

By Walter Youngquist
Volume 12, Number 1 (Fall 2001)
Issue theme: "Garrett Hardin: an introduction and appreciation"

In 1968, the United States produced more oil than it used. Now it imports more oil than it produces. The world now consumes twenty-seven billion barrels a year. Water tables are declining worldwide, particularly in India and China where populations have boomed. In the United States in 1968, the Colorado River flowed into the Gulf of Lower California. It no longer reaches the sea. The "commons" of world oil and water supplies now have unsustainable demands upon them. These and many other examples illustrate the concept of the "tragedy of the commons" - more and more people drawing from limited resources, some taking more than others. But in 1968 this was apparent to only a few. Garrett Hardin was one. That year Hardin delivered his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons" as a presidential address before the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Later published in Science, it has since been reprinted in twenty-seven languages. The message of the commons is even more relevant today than when it first appeared. Hardin summarizes "The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality." Growing problems of human existence are honestly confronted by few individuals. Good news sells, but bearers of unpopular realities are not happily received. It takes courage to carry such tidings. For nearly fifty years Hardin has stated sometimes unpopular truths. A scientist and a moralist, Hardin asks essential questions. Today's citizens in industrialized countries enjoy unprecedented prosperity, but some are becoming aware of the problems of population and resources. Since "The Tragedy of the Commons" was published, world population has almost doubled. Hardin's book Exploring New Ethics for Survival on the Voyage of Spaceship Beagle (1972) examined the concept of sustainability and optimum population size. He asked how this will be accomplished by intelligent choice, or by nature's harsh realities. These thoughts in 1972 were ahead of their time, but given today's understanding of environmental interconnections, Hardin's concerns were prophetic. Another early volume, Stalking the Wild Taboo, addressed the issue of abortion. Today's strident discussions of this and other population issues demonstrate that science and morality are inexorably intertwined. In Living Within Limits (1993), Hardin explores another sensitive issue, immigration. Here the concept of "lifeboat ethics" and the idea of "equality" emerge. A ship carrying a hundred people is sinking. There is only one lifeboat which can hold ten people. Do the ten in the lifeboat make it to the far shore safely, or do they take responsibility for the ninety in the water and attempt to take them aboard, whereupon the lifeboat sinks and everyone drowns in perfect equality - and catastrophe? The heading of one section in Living Within Limits, "Population Growth, Destroyer of Dreams," asks what qualities of life population growth destroys. Clogged freeways, two-hour commutes, standing in long lines, open space and wildlife habitat converted to subdivisions and malls are everyday examples. Hardin again raises a key issue of our time in asking how population growth impacts individual experiences and aesthetics - our quality of life. Hardin's most recent book, The Ostrich Factor Our Population Myopia, again sets scientific knowledge alongside moral goals by addressing the politically sensitive topic of immigration. He asks that we look dispassionately at the essential issue the inseparability of population size and the resources needed to support it. Energy supplies (even renewables) and water resources, two of life's basics, are finite. Immigration is often only understood as a moral question, but Hardin reminds us of the interconnection between population and physical science, exposing the myth of unending abundance supporting an ever-growing human population. Garrett Hardin has accurately, perceptively, and courageously presented the fundamental issues of human survival. His contributions will remain relevant as long as humanity exists. The good news is that Garrett Hardin is active, and writing another book.

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

About the author

Walter Youngquist, Ph.D., is a consulting geologist who has studied the relationship between Earth's resources and its population in over seventy countries. A Fellow of the Geological Society of America and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as author of GeoDestinies, he makes his home near Eugene, Oregon.