The Tragedy of Garrett Hardin

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Thu Oct 23 05:11:54 PDT 2003

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The Wall Street Journal

October 21, 2003


The Tragedy of Garrett Hardin


The philosopher Garrett Hardin and his wife Jane died last month by mutual
suicide. His passing received too little attention; perhaps this week's
memorial service at the Unitarian Society in Santa Barbara, Calif., will
change that. Hardin was a brilliant, wise and gentle man who was often
desperately wrong, and the ways in which a person can be wise and gentle
and yet wrong can tell us much.

Hardin is known for his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," which created a
sensation when published in Science magazine in 1968, and became among the
most widely read essays ever penned. In "The Tragedy of the Commons,"
Hardin supposed that unrestricted access to a commons would cause herdsmen
to graze so many animals that eventually the commons, which might have
supported a few, would collapse and all starve. Market theorists protested
that creating property rights would prevent the commons from being
overburdened, as rights-holders would acquire an incentive to safeguard
resources. Hardin thought "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon" was the
solution to the tragedy of the commons. Government should fence the commons
and turn away herdsmen. Government, Hardin thought, should prohibit a great
deal of human action, in the interest of preserving resources for future

Today people think of "The Tragedy of the Commons" as an argument against
selfishness. Actually, Hardin was arguing for government-imposed population
control: only by reducing the number of people, Hardin thought, could we
prevent excessive demand on the commons.

Reducing the human population became the cause of Hardin's life. On
becoming an intellectual celebrity, he spent much of the 1970s making
speeches in favor of abortion -- not just in favor of the right of a woman
to control her own body but in favor of abortion itself, as a good in
itself, because abortion prevents life. "Freedom to breed is intolerable,"
he declared. The newborn's cry was not, to him, a celebration of life; it
was just more breeding. "The only way we can preserve and nurture other and
more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed," Hardin
thought. And though he had a long, happy marriage with his wife Linda,
Hardin disliked the fact that women were reproductive vessels. "Population
does not grow globally; it grows very locally, at each spot occupied by a
fertile woman," Hardin declared.

Hardin said the U.S. should withdraw from the United Nations because U.N.
policy held that family size was a private decision. He also wanted a total
ban against immigration -- "we must bring immigration virtually to an end
and do so soon." When the world learned of forced sterilization in China,
Hardin cheered: "There is no talk in China of a woman's 'right' to
reproduce or of married couples' 'right to privacy,'" he wrote in 1989.
Hardin wanted forced-sterility programs extended to all developing nations.

Thomas Malthus believed it would be physically impossible for agricultural
production to increase faster than population; the Green Revolution proved
that wrong, invalidating Malthusian assumptions. Hardin believed it would
be physically impossible for a rising human population to have any result
other than runaway pollution; "The Tragedy of the Commons" depicts the near
future as choking on smog and toxins. Instead, throughout the United States
and European Union, all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases have
been in decline pretty much since the moment Hardin wrote that they could
not decline, and population steadily rises. Hardin simply failed to
estimate how rapidly technology could respond to the needs of the commons.

Globally, the human population has almost doubled since "The Tragedy of the
Commons" was written, yet U.N. figures show that malnutrition has declined
in that period, while developing-world per-capita income, literacy,
education levels, longevity and political freedom all have improved.
Meanwhile no resource, not even petroleum, is near exhaustion. Countless
problems remain across the globe, but things simply have not gotten as bad
as Hardin assumed they would.

That Hardin was wrong on his most basic contention, that humanity would
overwhelm the Earth, should not obscure his other achievements. He spoke
wisely of the need to temper materialism: "The maximum is not the optimum"
was Hardin's best aphorism. He insisted that future generations make a
legitimate claim on us today; Hardin endlessly reminded of the future's
power to judge us, and of how we will, in the next life, wish to be thought
well of by the living. And Hardin's ability to be wise, caring and
accomplished, yet to say foolish things, reminds us all of our humanity.

I am haunted by the thought that the final expression of Garrett Hardin's
ambivalence regarding human life was the pact that brought his and his
wife's death. Both were in their eighties and in poor health; when the end
is near, each person needs the right to exit on his or her own terms. But I
liked the world much better when Garrett Hardin was in it, and am glad his
parents never took the advice their child later gave.

Mr. Easterbrook is a senior editor of The New Republic, a visiting fellow
of the Brookings Institution, and the author of "The Progress Paradox,"
forthcoming from Random House.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

--- end forwarded text

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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