The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 27 October, 2003

Ecology gadfly Garrett Hardin, 1915-2003

Tribute to Garrett Hardin

By Scott Bontz, The Land Institute

Garrett Hardin, ecological pioneer and influence on The Land Institute, has died.

Hardin and his wife, Jane, who were in poor health, planned and carried out their deaths Sept. 14 at home in Santa Barbara, California. He was 88, she was 81.

Hardin was a pioneer who wrote controversially and influentially on abortion, immigration, foreign aid and other prickly issues.

He was best known for his essay Tragedy of the Commons. He argued that we must limit freedoms if we are to not ravage the Earth, and so its own ability to live, with overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution. He called for mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon, as the only alternative. The article appeared in the journal Science on Dec. 13, 1968, and has since been used in more than 100 anthologies.

In its death notice Oct. 3, Science said, "His hard-headed approach to the competition for resources won him notoriety as well as fame - as when he suggested that if rich people let poor people into their 'lifeboat,' all will sink. 'The human species viewed as a whole has been a disaster for the Earth,' he said in a 1996 interview."

Although he had what some considered harsh views, Hardin surprised people with his gentle demeanor.

"He had a rare gift, sitting with a group of students, faculty or friends, and with a gorgeous, grandfatherly smile, asking questions that made you think and hurt," said Barry Schuyler, an environmental studies professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, and longtime colleague.

Land Institute President Wes Jackson said, "Garrett Hardin was a tough but clear thinker. Often at odds with some of his positions, I was always a different man at the end of one of our conversations. He remained a strong supporter of our work to the end."

Hardin was an emeritus professor of human ecology at Santa Barbara, where he taught for three decades until his retirement in 1978. He remained active, and in 1986 the Hardins helped found Californians for Population Stabilization. He wrote 27 books and 350 articles.

Hardin was frail from polio and suffered from a heart condition. Jane Hardin had a form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

They were both members of the Hemlock Society and felt very strongly that they wanted to choose their own time to die, one of the couple's four children, Sharon Clausen, told the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Hardin was born in Dallas, grew up throughout the Midwest. After earning a doctorate in biology from Stanford University in 1942, he joined the Carnegie Institution's plant biology lab, where he tried to create food from algae. The Los Angeles Times reported that most of the lab's products were foul, both in taste and smell. But what eventually turned Hardin off was his growing belief that creating any large-scale food source would ultimately only worsen overpopulation. In 1946, he joined the small liberal-arts college that became UC Santa Barbara, and in 1960 he developed a course in human ecology to address population and environmental concerns.

The lifelong Republican pushed to make abortion on demand legal, arguing across the country for the need to free women from compulsory pregnancy. He argued to fellow conservatives that the cost of raising an unwanted child far exceeded the price for an abortion. He joined an underground network that helped Americans obtain abortions in Japan and Mexico.

In 1974, Hardin wrote about immigration as a threat to population control in an article titled "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor." This drew the ire of the left.

The News-Press reported that those who knew him said he enjoyed making a stir. One former student, Ed Maschke, said, "He certainly made you question everything, and that in my mind is the essence of true teacher."

Scott Bontz
Originally published in The Land Institute magazine, The Land Report, Fall, 2003