The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 21 October, 2003

The Great Tree in Santa Barbara

Tribute to Garrett Hardin

by Al Bartlett

In June of 2003, my wife and I were on AMTRAK train No.14, (the "Coast Starlight") northbound from Los Angeles to Portland and Seattle. A little after noon the train stopped briefly at the station in Garrett Hardin's hometown of Santa Barbara. As I looked out the train window at the grounds surrounding the station, I thought of Garrett and regretted that the time the train would be stopped was insufficient to allow me to find a phone and call him to give my greetings.

While I pondered this mild frustration, it slowly dawned on me that as I stared out the train window, I was seeing something that was truly unusual. It was a tree of magnificent structure, shape, and dimensions. The trunk was massive and the elegant branches spread out horizontally to provide shade and comfort over an enormous circle on the pleasant ground beneath. On the ground people were relaxing and enjoying the cool shade the tree provided. The tree dominated the minor flora which clustered around it. It was clearly a celebrated tree because it seemed that the streets and driveways that might encroach on its territory all circled around it at safe and respectable distances.

Although the local landscape was lush with tropical plants, there was nothing in sight, or in memory that I could recall, that could compare to that tree. As I gazed at the great tree in awe, admiring its height and the enormous lateral dimensions of its canopy, I wondered what kind of a tree it was. I made a mental note that when we returned home, I would write to Garrett to ask about that tree.

As is often the case with mental notes, the urgency evaporated, and after we returned home, I managed to fill all of my available time with things of little consequence. After all, there was no need to hurry to write Garrett. I could always do it tomorrow.

Alas, it was not to be.

Since Garrett's passing, I have thought about that great tree. It is a perfect reflection of Garrett. In his time, he was a giant who was massive and solid in the core, with influence that reached out great distances in every direction. We lesser students clustered around Garrett, while those who could not countenance his scholarship circled around him at respectable distances. Garrett's strength and courage made him a towering figure, not given to yielding to the minor storms that sought to push him off course.

With the patience of a great teacher, with charm and grace, and with impeccable logic, Garrett took on the problem of overpopulation, identifying it as the number one problem faced by the human race. He challenged people to think, even though thinking is pretty much contrary to the modus operandi of contemporary society. Garrett's cause was clearly "politically incorrect," but this made Garrett sharpen his logic and analysis, ever strengthening the case for stopping the growth of populations and for reducing the size of populations to levels that can be sustained.

A few days earlier, as AMTRAK train No.3 (the Southwest Chief) was bringing us down out of the mountains toward Los Angeles from the east, I watched the transformed landscape as it swept by outside of our window. I had had a brief acquaintance with the Los Angeles area fifty years earlier, and I was trying to imagine how the beautiful valley must have looked eighty years ago at the time Garrett was a child in the mid-west. I tried to imagine the valleys quilted over with the endless bountiful agriculture of citrus and other crops, with small hamlets and towns scattered randomly about.

But as the train moved through the valley toward Los Angeles, most of what one could see was now the melancholy miasmic landscape of an industrial wasteland, punctured by run-down residences, abandoned autos, and all manner of debris and decay. Streets and highways were everywhere. Vehicles that jostled for places on the roadways were emitting the largely invisible gases that contribute to an ominous and oppressive atmosphere that is better not breathed. In Garrett's lifetime this beautiful valley had been largely transformed from Eden to anthills, and the tentacles of the cancerous transformation were reaching ever outward, seeking new lands to despoil.

Why? People; large numbers of people, forever crowding into paradise past, hoping to savor what little remains of the earlier flavor. But the panorama passing the train window was clearly one of paradise largely lost. The lifeboat is full and is in danger of sinking, as thousands who founder are trying to scramble aboard, making the situation ever more perilous for all. The lifeboat and all in it are in danger of being swamped and lost.

Garrett understood this. Garrett wrote about this. Garrett had the courage to speak about the problem of overpopulation. Few have the good sense to listen, and fewer still have the willingness and courage to act to advance his message and to work to preserve our great land from the perils of overpopulation. Garrett recognized that H.L. Mencken was right in observing that people tend to reject those things that are true but unpleasant and to embrace what is obviously false but comforting. But, in spite of this recognition, Garrett never gave up his crusade to educate the public to the perils and problems that face the human race.

The tree in Santa Barbara provides a refuge from the irrationality of the technological world that has surrounded it and which will ultimately engulf it in a continuing re-enactment of the tragedy of the commons. In time, it too will pass, and it is unlikely that the circumstances of genetics, birth, nurture, and environment will ever combine again in just the right mix needed to produce another such great tree. Unfortunately, trees are not a part of the world technologists have in mind for us.

With Garrett's passing, we must all redouble our efforts to advance the message that he so courageously set forth. He will be missed. But if the human race is to have even a chance of achieving sustainability, we must not relax in our efforts to keep Garrett's message on the public agenda. He has led the way. We must follow, using his work and inspiration as our guide.

Albert Bartlett
Professor Emeritus of Physics
University of Colorado at Boulder
See the Prof. Al Bartlett website for articles, presentations, and video.