Updated 6 December, 2003
A personal appreciation of Professor Garrett Hardin
Tribute to Garrett Hardin
by Jack Parsons
It was in the late 1960s - when I was a member of the School of Social Sciences at Brunel University, near London - that I first became aware of, and started to read, Garrett's challenging contributions. I didn't begin to get to know him personally until the middle 1970s, after my move to the Sir David Owen Population Centre at Cardiff University in order to specialise on human population problems. This step forward in our acquaintance was triggered by the actions of our mutual friend, the US industrialist, Herbert N. Woodward, whose radical book, Capitalism Can Survive in a No-Growth Economy, appeared in 1976. 'Woody', as he liked to be called by his friends, had written to Garrett about my paper1 to the 1974 World population Conference at Bucharest, and it was a misunder-standing arising out of this which enabled me to say truthfully in a letter to GH (July 1977) - 'it is a pleasure to have an excuse to write to you.'
He replied warmly - as he always did later - and I was very surprised, and pleased, to learn that he already had a copy of my then new book, my second (Population Fallacies)2 and that, on the strength of this, had placed an order for the first one, (Population Versus Liberty)3. He later commended both of these and some of my other work in several of his own books4 and his good opinion and general encouragement were a considerable morale-booster to me as a late starter in the world of serious research and writing.
We met for the first time on his next UK visit, with Jane, when they hired a car, and (as part of a more extensive tour) drove out to Wales and stayed in our Cardiff home for a couple of days. We found that we had a great deal in common and an extra link stemmed from the fact that, among her other talents, my wife Barbara is a painter and Garrett & Jane - both very interested in and knowledgeable about art - were very taken by her work.
After this first get-together we sent each other inscribed copies of our various later works (a process from which, for some years, I profited distinctly more than he did) and corresponded fairly regularly. We met a couple of times in London, and on another occasion, by arrangement at Reading railway station from where I took him to Reading University to meet two other friends of mine, professors of sociology, Stanislav Andreski and WMS Russell - both of whom greatly admired his work. I stayed with the Hardins for a few days in Santa Barbara during my first visit to the USA in 1987 and we subsequently met a number of times in Washington, DC - often at Dr John Tanton's Immigration Writer's Group, and in London. I regarded it as a distinct honour to be invited to be one of the 12 guest contributors to the Festschrift issue of Population & Environment5 in honour of his 75th birthday.
Apart from its personal dimensions, poignant though these are to many of us, Garrett's death is a huge loss to the world's intellectual resources, to its all-too-limited total capacity to ascertain, to think and write clearly and unflinchingly about the key facts of human existence, and to suggest effective - if sometimes painful - ways out of our many and pressing dilemmas.
In the absence of a sufficiently rich intellectual capital, such as he generated and dispensed, ad lib, and a readiness on the part of the rest of us to try to appreciate its value and act appropriately, humanity seems to be in for an extremely bumpy ride - possibly one leading to a cliff with a very large drop, as we used to believe about the lemmings. Although I am myself a rather down-to-earth rationalist with small regard for mysticism I still liked to think of Garrett as our Buddha of Ecology, squatting near - even on - the Omphalos, benignly dispensing his ecological, ethical, and social wisdom to all who had ears to hear with. On one occasion I triggered one of his warm, slow, grins when I joshed him with this thought.
A most important aspect of his greatness lies in the sheer childlike simplicity of some of his more penetrating perceptions and portrayals, as in the case of the small child in the HC Andersen tale, The Emperor's New Clothes.6 Who but Garrett would ever have responded to the mindless chorus of complaints from the unthinking about the world's 'shortages' of food, fresh water, health-care, housing, education, jobs, etc, ad nauseam, with the quiet but firm rejoinder that what we really suffer from is 'longages' of need or demand?
How many other thinkers were likely to come up with the profound difference between a 'crisis' - potentially soluble - and a 'crunch', likely to prove insoluble (as in the case of Maurice King's much later concept of 'demographic entrapment'7 in Sub-Saharan Africa), or have the courage to tackle the ethical dilemma of foreign aid by means of the lifeboat ethic, or even contemplate the 'toughlove' solution.
Again, while all informed people recognise the universal need for themselves and their fellow-citizens to be literate and numerate, how many of them - even of their thinking elites - have the remotest idea that a still more basic requirement is to be 'ecolate', the absence of which quality inevitably aims a society towards its doom? Similarly with The Tragedy of the Commons8 - said to be the most quoted and republished scientific paper ever written - Garrett once again elucidated stark ecological clarity on a basis of very simple ideas and logic.
In my opinion - laying aside for this purpose the issue of the Rev. TR Malthus' deep religious conviction - there are very close parallels between Garrett's personal character and career and those of our Darwin of Demography. Malthus, also, was a great believer in hard evidence, tirelessly researching and assembling the key facts from very diverse sources, in fearlessly analysing them, drawing out their implications, and pointing to their inescapable implications for the ethical, social, political, and economic prerequisites for our survival with an acceptable quality of life. John Maynard Keynes - himself one of the greats of the Western intellectual and moral tradition - summed up Malthus the man and his life's work as follows:
"[Malthus' Essay] can claim a place amongst those which have had great influence on the progress of thought. It is profoundly in the English tradition of humane science - in that tradition of Scotch and English thought, in which there has been an extraordinary continuity of feeling, if I may so express it, from the 18th century to the present time - the tradition which is suggested by the names of Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Paley, Bentham, Darwin, and Mill, a tradition marked by a noble lucidity, by a prosaic sanity free from sentiment or metaphysic, and by an immense disinterestedness and public spirit. ... It is in this company that Malthus belongs. (1933. Essays in Biography. p. 120)"9
I very much hope that I am not being guilty of nationalistic or indeed any other form of cultural patronage when I suggest that if we widen Keynes' 'English tradition of humane science ... etc' to a comparable 'Western tradition of humane science ...' embracing, say, Aristotle and Spinoza - even to a world tradition along similar lines including such great figures as Confucius and Ibn Khaldun - this eulogy would still apply to Garrett Hardin as though it had been penned expressly for him. In trying to put into a few words the depth of his concerns and the sheer loftiness and clarity of his thinking as they appeared to me, these are the names and the kinds of thoughts that immediately come to mind. Garrett's bedrock of ecological realism, his wide-ranging scholarship, profound sense of justice and equity, his courage, his unshakeable commitment to rationality and commonsense, his open, friendly, and pleasant nature, good humour, readiness to listen to and consider alternative views mean that Keynes' sublime accolade for Malthus fits him like the proverbial glove.
It greatly saddens me to have to report that, as far as I am aware, no UK newspaper or journal has seen fit to present a Hardin obituary. Papers such as The Guardian regularly carry obits for people all over the world, wedded to all manner of subjects - some of the them from very obscure and marginal areas of human attainment in remote corners of the world, but of this Californian beacon of clarity and concern for basic, long-term human welfare in the round - not a syllable. Despite their many problems, American citizens are better served this regard than we are in Britain.
I am really pleased that Garrett's many American friends have set up a website in honour of his life's work. I hope that it will be steadily built up to represent as fully as possible the many facets of his huge contribution to the sum total of human intellectual and literary capital, and I hope that some prestigious publisher will undertake to publish his complete works. Failing this, I would regard it as a considerable honour to be allowed to tackle this task myself (in the form of an interactive CDROM) through my own small, recently established publishing-house, Population Policy Press.
It is vitally important that those of us who continue to admire his great contributions to human clarity and sanity should try our hardest to see that they are preserved, enhanced, promoted, and as far as possible adopted into practical ecologically and ethically sound policies having the object of improving and maintaining the basic quality of life for as large a proportion of humanity as can be managed, for as far into the future as can reasonably be thought about.
This eulogy is obviously for Garrett himself but it would not be at all just not to mention Jane, a tough and original thinker, a redoubtable person in her own right, and a truly splendid companion for and tower of strength to Garrett in his endless struggles against mindless optimism, prejudice and bureaucracy. There can be little doubt that the Hardin oeuvre was the result of a stout team effort.
1. 'British Population Policy in a World Context', a paper read before the Population Tribune. Faculty of Law, University of Bucharest. 27 August. Mimeo.