The Garrett Hardin Society

Updated 29 October, 2003

Garrett and Jane Hardin: A Personal Recollection

Tribute to Garrett Hardin

by John H. Tanton, M.D.

I'm reading Barbara Tuchman's Practicing History, her compilation of what she considers some of her more significant writings. In preparing this note on the Hardins, I empathize with the comment in her preface as to how hard it is in retrospect to find a corroborating piece of paper, or recollect some exact dates or sequences. This is in some measure true for me in preparing this personal note. Others have written on Dr. Hardin's professional and academic achievements, especially on his essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons." These tributes and several obituaries can be found on this website that several admirers of the Hardins set up earlier this year, with their help and approval: I offer here a view of the Hardins as decent human beings.

I first met Garrett (and his wife Jane - they were inseparable) at the Congress on Optimum Population and the Environment - C.O.P.E.- in 1970. The meeting was part of the first Earth Day celebrations. By chance I sat at lunch next to Bill Paddock, whose "Famine 1975" had made a great impression on this farm boy turned medical doctor. He and his wife Liz invited me to a meeting that afternoon where the pantheon of my heroes in the population movement were gathered: Bill's brother Paul; Paul Ehrlich, Willard Wirtz (a cabinet officer, Secretary. of Labor, as I recall) and Garrett. What to do about population was the topic. It was a great privilege and motivator to listen in on the conversation.

In 1971 I was appointed head of the national Sierra Club's Population Committee and learned to my delight that Dr. Hardin was a committee member. I wrote him of my satisfaction that we'd be working together - and he promptly responded by resigning! He said his role was in writing, not attending interminable and inconclusive committee meetings. Many such meetings later, I better understood and respected that position, and think it was the right one for him to make.

Our next encounter was the one about which my recollection is among the strongest, though the details are unclear. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) was having a meeting in San Francisco at which Dr. Hardin was to present one of the seminars. For some reason that I cannot recall, I was asked to chair that session, unlikely as that seems in retrospect. The paper Garrett presented was "Living in a Lifeboat" which perhaps best typified the avuncular academic in what was surely one of his favorite roles: agent provocateur. (Many of the papers mentioned in this recollection can be found on this website.) This second privilege was again a great motivator to become involved in the population question.

My interest in population developed in the late 1950s as I was finishing medical school. By 1975 I had been elected national president of Zero Population Growth, an organization inspired by Paul Ehrlich's book "The Population Bomb." Then in the late 1970s the US fertility rate fell to below replacement, and immigration emerged as the main source of domestic population growth. To Garrett's dismay, ZPG declined to address these new circumstances.

When in 1979 I helped set up the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) to tackle the immigration question, Garrett served from the beginning as an advisor. Later he consented to set aside his aversion to board meetings by joining the FAIR Board. Much of his later writing was on the demographic aspects of immigration and can be found by searching under his name in the archives of a quarterly journal of the immigration reform movement, The bookstore at this site offers for sale three of Dr. Hardin's books that the Social Contract Press reprinted: Stalking the Wild Taboo; Mandatory Motherhood: The True Meaning of the Right to Life; and Creative Altruism: Source and Survival. Also available is his The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons, published by FAIR.

Garrett's love of words came out during his FAIR board service. We decided to start a little 'think tank.' He suggested in whimsical fashion that we call it the Witan, short for Witenagemot, words we all had to look up. Check your dictionary to see why 'whimsical' is the right adjective for this appellation.

We held one of the Witan meetings in the Hardins' hometown of Santa Barbara. The featured speaker was a well-known ethicist, whom we will leave nameless. He knew a lot about philosophical ethics, but little about population, resources, immigration or the environment. Garrett's pugnacious side came to the fore when they got into the still troubling topic of Lifeboat Ethics. Garrett clearly came out on top, in our view.

In the early 1980s Bill Paddock secured for me a seat on the board of the Environmental Fund, on which both he and Garrett served. Dr. Hardin had already retired from the University of California at Santa Barbara. He and Jane moved to Washington, D.C. where he took over as Executive Director of the Fund for about two years. He brought along the remarkable card file of quotations that he had compiled over many years of reading and writing. It contained - as I recall - 30,000 4 x 6 cards on which quotes were filed first by subject, and then again by author on cards of another color. It was a prodigious work. Later we were able to raise the money to have a computer program written to enter all this material, long before such programs were available "off the shelf." Garrett and Jane dubbed it the Laurel Filer. One of our concerns is that this scholarly resource and his library not be lost as their affairs are settled. Garrett left behind a completed but as yet unaccepted and unpublished manuscript.

Garrett's library and writing studio were in a separate building behind the family home. It contained a swimming pool. Garrett had contracted polio at age four, which cost him much of the use of his legs. He got around with the short 'Canadian Crutches,' as they have been called. As a result he was powerfully built in his upper body, and this enabled him to swim without much help from his legs. That was his way of staying in shape.

Jane was Garrett's best friend and severest critic. She served as first reader for much of his work. Based on Jane's critique he substantially rewrote "Living Within Limits," for which he received the Phi Beta Kappa award for the Best Science Writing for 1994. Jane made it physically possible for him to do much of his work despite the polio handicap. Together they had four children.

There is the story - reported in the Washington Post - about Jane sitting in the audience next to a heckler in the 1970s at a AAAS meeting she and Garrett were attending. When she couldn't stand the heckling any longer, she poked the offender with her knitting needle and actually drew blood! That didn't quiet him down. No charges were filed.

In 1990 on the occasion of Dr. Hardin's 75th birthday, Paul Ehrlich and I, together with the American Institute for Biological Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, organized a Festschrift to fete his accomplishments. Garrett appreciated the recognition, a particularly suitable one for an academic. Some copies of the 12 papers presented are still available from The Social Contract Press Bookstore. They were collected and published as the Spring 1991 issue of Population and Environment, Vol. 12, No. 3.

Garrett told me many times that he wished he had titled his most famous essay "The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons," as he believed firmly that it was fine for society to own things in common, provided that they were managed for the common good. There were and are those of Libertarian philosophical bent who used the essay to argue that essentially all property should be privately owned.

Whenever I came across a reference to the original Commons essay I'd send it along for addition to the compilation of such uses that Garrett kept. There were literally hundreds of citations, if not thousands. He would have fared quite well in today's academe where "citation analysis" is one of the current modes of evaluation.

Garrett was au courant to the end. We had opened discussions on something neither he nor any demographer we knew had anticipated: the development of marked sub-replacement fertility in much of the developed world. Virtually every model showed the post-WWII fertility spike declining conveniently to the replacement level of about 2.1 lifetime births on average per woman. He saw clearly and wrote that any nation - and he was in favor of the nation state - that reduced its fertility to replacement levels or below, and did not control its borders would just be overrun. Those who have eyes, let them see.

I think Garrett's legacy can best be summarized not so much by the "Tragedy" essay as by his "Ecologist's Question: "And then what?'" Before we're out of Iraq, many will wish that question had been asked - and answered. I also very much liked his editorial "Nobody Ever Dies of Overpopulation, in Science, Vol. 171, No. 3971, 12 February 1971.

There is a collection of many 'Hardinisms' on this website, listed under Quotes and coming up in rotation at the top of the home page. A favorite book of Garrett's was The Practical Cogitator: The Thinker's Anthology, a compilation of essays selected and edited by Charles P. Curtis, Jr., and Ferris Greenslet, published by Houghton Mifflin & Company in 1945. He was also a fan of P.G. Wodehouse, and his characters Jeeves and Bertie.

It is hard to see one's friends and people we admire decline physically to the point where they decide to exit this vale of tears felo de se. Garrett's post polio syndrome had reduced him to using a wheel chair; he could no longer swim well. Macular degeneration cost him the reading vision in his right eye. Life in a nursing home was not an option for this man of letters. Jane had been diagnosed with ALS - amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease, one of the least desirable ways to leave this planet. It worsened. Both were long time members of the Hemlock Society, and decided to take matters into their own hands. This can give us a lot to think about, especially as our own infirmities come to the fore - and since my wife and I live in a state that counts Dr. Jack Kievorkian among its citizens.

My wife and I did not attend the memorial service, as we fortunately had stopped to see the Hardins in the spring of 2002, before they crossed over into "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns..." We sat together in the afternoon sun and chatted for several hours, over cookies and milk.

'It is never too soon to do someone a kindness, for we never know how soon it will be too late.' The Hardins' passing should cause each of us to ask whom we should contact or even call upon before it is 'too late.'

John H. Tanton, M.D.