The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 7 October, 2003

Tribute to Garrett Hardin

by Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

Most people fall short of their professed rules of conduct. This is called "hypocrisy."

Garrett Hardin was one of the few individuals I've known who greatly exceeded his own expectations of human virtue.

Some who were acquainted with Hardin only through his writings, might well have come to suspect that this was a misanthropic curmudgeon. After all, he had once written that "conscience is self-eliminating," and that humans are an essentially self-centered species with a very limited capacity for altruism.

In person, he was a living refutation of this dark view of human nature. His many friends knew him as a generous and perpetually cheerful individual, with an infectious zest for life - for knowledge, for art, and for human companionship.

He was a devoted father to his four children, and a loving husband to Jane, his wife of sixty-two years. Visits to the Hardin home in Santa Barbara were always a delight. In fact, it was more a "homestead," a "settlement," with Garrett's set-apart studio and study, Jane's garden, and the fabled "economically irrational" redwood tree that Garrett had planted years before. In the car port was the well-worn station wagon with the "COMONS" vanity plate. Usually a second or third generation Hardin was about and in evidence.

Each time I visited Garrett, he would invite me to his study for a conversation. He was always at work on "the next" essay or book, and more often than not, there was a piece of sheet music open, testifying to his lifelong devotion to his violin.

Garrett was the lead violin in the "Salsipuedes Quartet" (Salsipuedes: "Get out if you can"). He was the lead, since, as his friends joked, "Garrett Hardin plays second fiddle to nobody." The annual recitals at the Hardin's Santa Barbara home were a festive occasions, not to be missed.

He enjoyed intelligent and informed conversation, and seemed genuinely as interested in hearing your opinions as he was in expounding his own. This philosopher's encounter with the world-renowned biologist was fated to generate many points of disagreement. Yet he would invariably treat a contending point of view with respect and fascination, never with hostility.

In 1968, with the publication of his essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," Hardin's reputation broke free of the confinement of his academic specialty and into public awareness. Displaying an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, clarity, and force of argument, the essay demonstrated how, in readily recognizable conditions, "rational" self-interested individual behavior must lead to ruin for all. "Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush," he wrote, "each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons."

The solution, he argued, was "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon" - in other words, the rule of law and regulation, which means, of course, government. The "mutual agreement" proviso serves as the legitimization of democrat government - i.e., "from the consent of the governed," as phrased by the Declaration of Independence.

To be sure, the central concept of The Tragedy of the Commons - "good for each, bad for all" and "bad for each, good for all" - is hardly unique. Political philosophers back to Aristotle have expounded it in various forms - most notably Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Rawls. The principle is validated in game theory ("the prisoners' dilemma"), in military discipline, and in labor disputes and peace negotiations. In general, the tragedy of the commons is essential to understanding the foundations of both political life and social morality.

And yet, however ancient. clear, and compelling, the principle "good for each, bad for all - bad for each, good for all" is implicitly rejected by the anarchism, egoism, and social atomism of today's radical right.

The unique value of Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons" resides in his application of this ancient insight to contemporary environmental issues such as population growth, pollution, economic policy and sustainable development. Drawn, not only from biology, but also from philosophy, literature, political science and economics, "The Tragedy of the Commons" has had significant and lasting impact upon all of these disciplines and more.

That one brief essay, which I understand was for awhile the most widely reprinted scientific paper, sufficed to establish for Garrett Hardin an enduring mark in the history of ideas. However, it was a peak moment in a distinguished and ongoing career that produced twenty-seven books and 350 articles. Of his books, my personal favorite is his Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1968, Viking), which melds a science fiction tale with a presentation of the further implications of the tragedy of the commons along with a devastating critique of conventional economic theory and practice.

Garrett's life and career exemplified the life of reason. Secure in his scientifically empirical premises, he would he would follow his argument where logic would lead, regardless of the resulting clashes with conventional beliefs and sentiments. Thus emerged his notorious defenses of "lifeboat ethics" and "tough-love" - a refusal to endorse foreign aid apart from a recipient nation's commitment to population control.

As his life was governed by an uncompromising allegiance to reason, so too was the ending of it. In poor and declining health, Garrett and Jane Hardin foresaw nothing but pointless suffering in its continuation. And so, a week after their 62nd wedding anniversary, they jointly decided that after an abundant life of accomplishment, enjoyment and love, it was time to leave it.

I was shocked to learn of the passing of Garrett Hardin, but not surprised. At age 88, and in poor health, this was not unexpected. I was doubly shocked when I learned that he had taken his own life. But on reflection, I came to understand. This was typical Garrett: his final act was no doubt well thought-out in advance - calmly, rationally, and appropriately.

Who am I to disagree with Garrett Hardin?

No more will he nourish my mind through his wise and engaging conversation and correspondence. But his published legacy remains for all who share his concern for the condition and the future of humanity and of the earth's environment.

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The Crisis Papers.