The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 26 September, 2003

Tribute to Garrett Hardin

By John Cairns, Jr., September, 2003

(Also see John Cairns' longer March, 2004 tribute).

Garrett Hardin was a bold, systems level scholar. He was the most eloquent voice distinguishing between sustainable and unsustainable practices of humankind. Hardin's brilliant essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, had a profound effect upon my career, as well as those of numerous others. But the effect on me was both inspirational and intimidating: inspirational because of his breadth of view and the beauty of his publications and intimidating because he stated ideas so well. How could anyone possibly improve upon them? It seemed to me that his reasoning was so persuasive that little more needed to be added. However, Hardin cautioned that the message must be repeated continuously by a significant number of people. How right he was!

His Living on a lifeboat, which illustrated that each "lifeboat" (nation) is effectively limited in carrying capacity, is a perfect metaphor for the relationship of the rich one-third of the world to the poor two-thirds. The poor, overcrowded countries can only survive by exporting people in large numbers to the more affluent countries. The United States, in particular, is attempting to absorb huge numbers of legal and illegal immigrants. As the U.S. population grows exponentially, mostly as a consequence of immigration, the quality of life will decline, but it will still be an attractive lifeboat until it begins to sink from overcrowding. Hardin called attention to this carrying capacity for decades, but his warnings are still unheeded by those in power, although increasing numbers of citizens are becoming aware of this deadly situation.

Arguably, Hardin's most compelling writings were on the role of ethics as the key to a sustainable world. He appears hard-hearted to those who ignore carrying capacity, but compassionate toward posterity. As the "town crier" of unpopular realities, Hardin was denounced by both liberals and conservatives when their positions did not stand up under his relentless search for long-term sound policies. His reasoning did not appeal to timid minds in denial about the most troublesome world problems: overpopulation, abortion, immigration, coercion, destruction of ecosystems, and judging a policy or act by its intention rather than its consequences.

Hardin's "Carrying Capacity" (to Paul Sears), which was the concluding statement of Carrying Capacity as an Ethic Concept, is a poetic synopsis of his views. In it, Hardin reminds everyone that just because humankind exists does not entitle it to special favors from the universe. The present emphasis on war and terrorism is as stupid as fighting in an increasingly overcrowded lifeboat.

John Cairns, Jr.
University Distinguished Professor of Environmental Biology Emeritus
Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

(Also see John Cairns' longer March, 2004 tribute).