Updated 11 October, 2003
Tribute to Garrett Hardin
by Leon Kolankiewicz
"We can never do merely one thing." - Garrett James Hardin
"I teach only two things: the cause of human sorrow, and the way to become free of it." - The Buddha
As an undergraduate, I worked a couple of years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at its Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland. Patuxent was renowned for groundbreaking research on endangered species like the whooping crane and on the effects of chemical contaminants like DDT and mercury on majestic raptors like the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, brown pelican and osprey. The Wildlife Society, an organization of professional wildlife managers, bestowed its prestigious Aldo Leopold Award on Patuxent's director Lucille Stickel for her own research contributions and those of the center she headed. Dr. Stickel was a contemporary of Rachel Carson's in the Fish and Wildlife Service, and Carson drew upon Stickel's research (and many others') in writing Silent Spring.
Among the many exceptional scientists I came to know at Patuxent, the one who made the single greatest impression on me was field naturalist Francis Morey Uhler, a Minnesotan by birth who'd dedicated more than half a century to investigating the food habits and conserving the wetland habitats of North American waterfowl. Then in his late seventies, Fran was a living encyclopedia of knowledge about nature. His motto was, "With a little curiosity, there's never a dull moment." Before his death, Fran donated much of his life's savings to purchase open space along the rapidly developing Patuxent River corridor and permanently save it for posterity and nature. This humble gentleman with an ever-inquiring mind was an inspiration.
It was about this time that I was first exposed to Garrett Hardin's brilliant and brave writings. While "The Tragedy of the Commons" certainly left its mark on me, I was just as impressed, and I have to confess, sometimes troubled, by his other works. One that impressed me considerably was his essay "The Economics of Wilderness," published in the American Museum of Natural History's monthly magazine Natural History, and first delivered as an address to the Sierra Club's Western Wilderness Conference in 1969.
As a wilderness devotee, I was sick and tired of arguments being made at that time that it was elitist, unfair, or discriminatory to deny access to beautiful backcountry areas to those unwilling or unable to shoulder 50-lb. packs and hoof several miles. Wilderness should be made accessible for the masses to use and appreciate, went the ostensibly egalitarian reasoning. Thus I was struck by Garrett's spirited defense of the wilderness ideal, in spite of the fact that with his own disability, he would never be able to visit true wilderness in person. Garret didn't think it was fair to allow his physical limitations to reduce the limited supply of remaining wilderness even further. Perhaps for Garrett it was enough to be as captivated as I was by Aldo Leopold's timeless evocation of Alaskan and Canadian wilderness in A Sand County Almanac: "Where nameless men by nameless rivers wander, and in strange valleys die strange deaths alone."
On the other side of the coin, I was troubled by Garrett's unflinching examination of taboo ethical issues of the kind he explored in his controversial essay "Living on a Lifeboat," because the implications of his cogent analysis conflicted with my own devout Catholic upbringing and the sort of humanitarian instincts that later led me to join the Peace Corps and serve three years in hapless, overpopulated Central America. But his inquiries invariably displayed a piercing precision, his prose was lucid, and his conclusions often profound. I could not reproach him, and in fact lauded him, for treading forbidden territory, intellectual and ethical regions deemed off-limits by intolerant, politically correct elites. Garrett's books and essays were reviled by commentators from the obnoxious left, religious right, and middle-of-the-road center. They were denounced as unduly harsh, selfish, racist, alarmist, just plain grim, or as an affront to human dignity. One would've thought the man an ethically-challenged ogre rather than the gentle, serene fellow with a jaunty sense of humor that he was.
I believe, however, that the various tragedies and tough choices that Garrett so starkly revealed existed before him. He did not create the difficult dilemmas Homo sapiens confronts, he merely exposed them to us with terrible and sometimes painful clarity. As The Buddha said two millennia ago: "I teach only two things: the cause of human sorrow, and the way to become free of it." Garrett, in fact, placed this quote at the start of his powerful 1993 book Living Within Limits. Thomas Robert Malthus performed the same unpleasant but necessary role of taking wishful thinking to task two centuries ago in his Essay on Population, and for this he too was despised by the likes of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Charles Dickens, and many, many more from the left, right, and center.
On the other hand, no less a scientific pioneer than evolutionist Charles Darwin acknowledged his intellectual debt to Malthus, and I believe that had he lived in the following century, Darwin would also have acknowledged Garrett's contributions to human ecology and understanding of the human predicament. Darwin's own grandson, indeed, pointed out the self-defeating logic of voluntary birth control, that those who used it would inexorably cede their presence in forthcoming generations to those who did not. Again, the commons at work.
One of Garrett's preeminent talents as a scientist and writer was his ability, after the requisite degree of analysis, to distill his logic into succinct phrases. One of my favorites is his term "conspicuous benevolence," which he used to describe why it is that so many elites in our country - lawyers, company presidents, reporters and editors, university professors, etc. - wax so enthusiastic in their support of high immigration levels and indeed often shun or disparage those who don't. Their own professions are largely immune from any job competition posed by newcomers from other cultures who speak and write English as a second language, at best, so they pay no personal price from flooding of the labor market. Thus, they have the luxury of being able to display their "benevolence" in a conspicuous manner, consciously or unconsciously seeking to impress their peers. These ostensibly noble and selfless sentiments are perhaps really just another form of conspicuous consumption, intended to elicit approval or even envy, much like an expensive wristwatch, a host's fine wines at a cocktail party, or ownership of avant-garde art.
"Ecolate," "Longage," "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," "And then what?" and "We can never do merely one thing" are other examples of Garrett's contributions to human ecology and the English language.
I did eventually meet Garrett Hardin in the 1990's, first on his home turf at the lovely University of California-Santa Barbara campus, and later a couple of times in Los Angeles. The occasion of the first encounter was a meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), at which there was a session discussing his work. I believe he was president of the Pacific Division of the AAAS when he gave his landmark "Commons" speech in 1968 that was later published in AAAS's journal Science. Of course I had known that Garrett was handicapped, but seeing him in person for the first time, then in his late seventies, I could truly appreciate how feeble he was physically, using his arm braces/crutches to get around, getting help opening the door, and so forth. The contrast between his physical lameness and his intellectual potency was striking. But it was neat to see how admiring and deferential the scholars in the session were.
Some time later I met Garrett at a Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) function in LA and at a Carrying Capacity Network (CCN) conference there as well, and had a chance to chat with him and buy a copy of his recently published Living Within Limits with an inscription to me. It's one of my prized book possessions. At the CAPS event, I learned from Garrett himself that the editors of Science had informed him that "The Tragedy of the Commons" had been reprinted more times than any other piece in the history of that august journal.
In later phases of my own career - working in the political trenches of Washington, D.C. with CCN, followed by collaboration with NumbersUSA founder Roy Beck on several studies related to population growth and sprawl and on why environmental groups had abandoned U.S. population stabilization - I felt the great personal satisfaction of having Garrett Hardin laud the work we were doing. It was that same sense of affirmation I'd felt whenever the late Fran Uhler at Patuxent complimented my natural history discoveries and observations two decades earlier - the timeless sense of approval sought by an apprentice from a master.
In 1998, a nasty struggle occurred within the Sierra Club over whether to adopt a comprehensive population policy that called not just for reductions in domestic fertility rates, but immigration rates as well, to achieve population stabilization in the U.S. Even though he took no part in this malicious debate, Garrett Hardin was routinely vilified and slandered by so-called "social justice" activists and their comrades who had commandeered certain portions of the Club apparatus and cowed the rest into submission through their readiness to label anyone who did not support their demand for open borders as a racist, xenophobe, hate-monger, eugenics supporter, etc., etc.
These ecologically-challenged, epithet-flinging subversives called themselves environmentalists, but one had the distinct impression that they had another agenda altogether: conserving the natural environment and ensuring ecological sustainability were not high on their priority list. (Ironically, the main outcome of their campaign, which railed against greed and bloated American consumption as the dominant environmental scourges, would be to ensure that, through mass immigration without end, ever more people could indulge in greed and bloated American consumption.) In the thick of the fray myself, I was glad to see that the venerable, dignified Garrett Hardin did not stoop to respond to this calumny. If he had though, I'm sure it would've been without the bile or malice his philosophical adversaries spewed. I wish I could be so charitable and tranquil in the face of such unremitting hostility and dishonesty. But I get riled and combative instead.
Garrett certainly didn't shy away from taboos and awkward topics, and I don't think we should either. Not only his life, but the way he and his wife Jane died are worthy of note... and I would submit, admiration and empathy. When I learned recently that Garrett and Jane had ended their own lives together, at first I was stunned, because of the social stigma attached to suicide, even today, in our post-Kevorkian ("Dr. Death," now serving time for murder in Michigan) and post-Oregon assisted-suicide law world.
Suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia all remain contentious, emotionally sensitive issues, ones literally of life and death. The Christian view is that because God grants us the precious gift of life, it is supremely immoral to take away what God has given us and only God has the right to rescind. I was taught in Catholic school years ago that suicide is a mortal sin. However, if one does not accept this fundamental premise, and believes instead that every person is the master of his or her own destiny, then this proscription vanishes.
As humanists, Garrett and Jane certainly believed that we ourselves hold our lives and our fates in our own hands. The more I read the Santa Barbara News-Press account by Scott Steepleton - especially the statements of their children and grandchildren - the more convinced I was that Garrett and Jane had faced death as unflinchingly as they had embraced life. Their last act together was not desperate or cowardly, but brave and calculated.
At least in the United States, because of our tradition of free speech, we have some assurance that ideas like Garrett's, however unpopular, can be aired and debated, if not accepted. However, even our sibling country and neighbor to the north, Canada, does not enshrine freedom of speech and in fact is willing to censor ideas for the sake of public order, social engineering, and misguided utopianism. This will eventually cost it dearly (and this pains me, as one who lived in Canada for four years and admires it in many ways). When I worked at CCN, I'm sure that an envelope containing CCN literature I once sent to a member of our Board of Advisors in Canada, which never reached him, was stopped by Canadian authorities at the border as "hate speech." Similarly, Roy Beck has seen his own highly-regarded "Immigration by the Numbers" video - introduced by none other than Earth Day founder and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in one version - on a list of materials banned in Canada. It's only a matter of time before Garrett's Hardin's books are banned or burned by Canadian authorities, if they haven't been already.
Colorado Governor Dick Lamm once called Garrett Hardin "one of the prophets of our time." It's not Garrett's fault that like many if not most prophets throughout history, he has been ignored by the vast majority of his countrymen.
Again, let us be thankful for Garrett's immense contributions to our understanding of the plight of our species. And like him, let us not feel demoralized even as we lament the inability or unwillingness of our fellows to heed his prescient warnings, and even as we brace ourselves. Brace ourselves for what? For the tragedies that will inevitably engulf the earth, our country, our descendents, and perhaps ourselves as a result of our collective failure to accept the imperative of "living within limits."