Tribute to Garrett Hardin
October 11, 2003
"With a little curiosity, there's never a dull moment."
Francis Morey Uhler
"We can never do merely one thing."
Garrett James Hardin
"I teach only two things: the cause of human sorrow,
and the way to become
free of it."
In the 1970's I was an energetic young man and inquisitive undergraduate, then
graduate student exploring intellectual and nature's frontiers. During this
time, it was my great privilege to make the acquaintance of various remarkable
individuals and brilliant minds through both personal contact and the written
word. When I was really lucky, I actually got to meet the writers of those
words. They had a decisive influence on my life. Garrett Hardin was one of those
As an undergraduate, I worked a couple of years for the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service at its Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland.
Patuxent was renowned for groundbreaking research on endangered species like the
whooping crane and on the effects of chemical contaminants like DDT and mercury
on majestic raptors like the peregrine falcon, bald eagle, brown pelican and
osprey. The Wildlife Society, an organization of professional wildlife managers,
bestowed its prestigious Aldo Leopold Award on Patuxent's director Lucille
Stickel for her own research contributions and those of the center she headed.
Dr. Stickel was a contemporary of Rachel Carson's in the Fish and Wildlife
Service, and Carson drew upon Stickel's research (and many others') in writing
Among the many exceptional scientists I came to know at Patuxent, the one who
made the single greatest impression on me was field naturalist Francis Morey
Uhler, a Minnesotan by birth who'd dedicated more than half a century to
investigating the food habits and conserving the wetland habitats of North
American waterfowl. Then in his late seventies, Fran was a living encyclopedia
of knowledge about nature. His motto was, "With a little curiosity, there's
never a dull moment." Before his death, Fran donated much of his life's savings
to purchase open space along the rapidly developing Patuxent River corridor and
permanently save it for posterity and nature. This humble gentleman with an
ever-inquiring mind was an inspiration.
It was about this time that I was first exposed to Garrett Hardin's brilliant
and brave writings. While "The Tragedy of the Commons" certainly left its mark
on me, I was just as impressed, and I have to confess, sometimes troubled, by
his other works. One that impressed me considerably was his essay "The Economics
of Wilderness," published in the American Museum of Natural History's monthly
magazine Natural History, and first delivered as an address to the Sierra Club's
Western Wilderness Conference in 1969.
As a wilderness devotee, I was sick and tired of arguments being made at that
time that it was elitist, unfair, or discriminatory to deny access to beautiful
backcountry areas to those unwilling or unable to shoulder 50-lb. packs and hoof
several miles. Wilderness should be made accessible for the masses to use and
appreciate, went the ostensibly egalitarian reasoning. Thus I was struck by
Garrett's spirited defense of the wilderness ideal, in spite of the fact that
with his own disability, he would never be able to visit true wilderness in
person. Garret didn't think it was fair to allow his physical limitations to
reduce the limited supply of remaining wilderness even further. Perhaps for
Garrett it was enough to be as captivated as I was by Aldo Leopold's timeless
evocation of Alaskan and Canadian wilderness in A Sand County Almanac: "Where
nameless men by nameless rivers wander, and in strange valleys die strange
On the other side of the coin, I was troubled by Garrett's unflinching
examination of taboo ethical issues of the kind he explored in his controversial
essay "Living on a Lifeboat," because the implications of his cogent analysis
conflicted with my own devout Catholic upbringing and the sort of humanitarian
instincts that later led me to join the Peace Corps and serve three years in
hapless, overpopulated Central America. But his inquiries invariably displayed a
piercing precision, his prose was lucid, and his conclusions often profound. I
could not reproach him, and in fact lauded him, for treading forbidden
territory, intellectual and ethical regions deemed off-limits by intolerant,
politically correct elites. Garrett's books and essays were reviled by
commentators from the obnoxious left, religious right, and middle-of-the-road
center. They were denounced as unduly harsh, selfish, racist, alarmist, just
plain grim, or as an affront to human dignity. One would've thought the man an
ethically-challenged ogre rather than the gentle, serene fellow with a jaunty
sense of humor that he was.
I believe, however, that the various tragedies and tough choices that Garrett
so starkly revealed existed before him. He did not create the difficult dilemmas
Homo sapiens confronts, he merely exposed them to us with terrible and sometimes
painful clarity. As The Buddha said two millennia ago: "I teach only two things:
the cause of human sorrow, and the way to become free of it." Garrett, in fact,
placed this quote at the start of his powerful 1993 book Living Within Limits.
Thomas Robert Malthus performed the same unpleasant but necessary role of taking
wishful thinking to task two centuries ago in his Essay on Population, and for
this he too was despised by the likes of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Charles
Dickens, and many, many more from the left, right, and center.
On the other hand, no less a scientific pioneer than evolutionist Charles
Darwin acknowledged his intellectual debt to Malthus, and I believe that had he
lived in the following century, Darwin would also have acknowledged Garrett's
contributions to human ecology and understanding of the human predicament.
Darwin's own grandson, indeed, pointed out the self-defeating logic of voluntary
birth control, that those who used it would inexorably cede their presence in
forthcoming generations to those who did not. Again, the commons at work.
One of Garrett's preeminent talents as a scientist and writer was his
ability, after the requisite degree of analysis, to distill his logic into
succinct phrases. One of my favorites is his term "conspicuous benevolence,"
which he used to describe why it is that so many elites in our country -
lawyers, company presidents, reporters and editors, university professors, etc.
- wax so enthusiastic in their support of high immigration levels and indeed
often shun or disparage those who don't. Their own professions are largely
immune from any job competition posed by newcomers from other cultures who speak
and write English as a second language, at best, so they pay no personal price
from flooding of the labor market. Thus, they have the luxury of being able to
display their "benevolence" in a conspicuous manner, consciously or
unconsciously seeking to impress their peers. These ostensibly noble and
selfless sentiments are perhaps really just another form of conspicuous
consumption, intended to elicit approval or even envy, much like an expensive
wristwatch, a host's fine wines at a cocktail party, or ownership of avant-garde
"Ecolate," "Longage," "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon," "And then
what?" and "We can never do merely one thing" are other examples of Garrett's
contributions to human ecology and the English language.
I did eventually meet Garrett Hardin in the 1990's, first on his home turf at
the lovely University of California-Santa Barbara campus, and later a couple of
times in Los Angeles. The occasion of the first encounter was a meeting of the
Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(AAAS), at which there was a session discussing his work. I believe he was
president of the Pacific Division of the AAAS when he gave his landmark
"Commons" speech in 1968 that was later published in AAAS's journal Science. Of
course I had known that Garrett was handicapped, but seeing him in person for
the first time, then in his late seventies, I could truly appreciate how feeble
he was physically, using his arm braces/crutches to get around, getting help
opening the door, and so forth. The contrast between his physical lameness and
his intellectual potency was striking. But it was neat to see how admiring and
deferential the scholars in the session were.
Some time later I met Garrett at a Californians for Population Stabilization
(CAPS) function in LA and at a Carrying Capacity Network (CCN) conference there
as well, and had a chance to chat with him and buy a copy of his recently
published Living Within Limits with an inscription to me. It's one of my prized
book possessions. At the CAPS event, I learned from Garrett himself that the
editors of Science had informed him that "The Tragedy of the Commons" had been
reprinted more times than any other piece in the history of that august journal.
In later phases of my own career - working in the political trenches of
Washington, D.C. with CCN, followed by collaboration with NumbersUSA founder Roy
Beck on several studies related to population growth and sprawl and on why
environmental groups had abandoned U.S. population stabilization - I felt the
great personal satisfaction of having Garrett Hardin laud the work we were
doing. It was that same sense of affirmation I'd felt whenever the late Fran
Uhler at Patuxent complimented my natural history discoveries and observations
two decades earlier - the timeless sense of approval sought by an apprentice
from a master.
In 1998, a nasty struggle occurred within the Sierra Club over whether to
adopt a comprehensive population policy that called not just for reductions in
domestic fertility rates, but immigration rates as well, to achieve population
stabilization in the U.S. Even though he took no part in this malicious debate,
Garrett Hardin was routinely vilified and slandered by so-called "social
justice" activists and their comrades who had commandeered certain portions of
the Club apparatus and cowed the rest into submission through their readiness to
label anyone who did not support their demand for open borders as a racist,
xenophobe, hate-monger, eugenics supporter, etc., etc.
These ecologically-challenged, epithet-flinging subversives called themselves
environmentalists, but one had the distinct impression that they had another
agenda altogether: conserving the natural environment and ensuring ecological
sustainability were not high on their priority list. (Ironically, the main
outcome of their campaign, which railed against greed and bloated American
consumption as the dominant environmental scourges, would be to ensure that,
through mass immigration without end, ever more people could indulge in greed
and bloated American consumption.) In the thick of the fray myself, I was glad
to see that the venerable, dignified Garrett Hardin did not stoop to respond to
this calumny. If he had though, I'm sure it would've been without the bile or
malice his philosophical adversaries spewed. I wish I could be so charitable and
tranquil in the face of such unremitting hostility and dishonesty. But I get
riled and combative instead.
Garrett certainly didn't shy away from taboos and awkward topics, and I don't
think we should either. Not only his life, but the way he and his wife Jane died
are worthy of note... and I would submit, admiration and empathy. When I learned
recently that Garrett and Jane had ended their own lives together, at first I
was stunned, because of the social stigma attached to suicide, even today, in
our post-Kevorkian ("Dr. Death," now serving time for murder in Michigan) and
post-Oregon assisted-suicide law world.
Suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and euthanasia all remain contentious,
emotionally sensitive issues, ones literally of life and death. The Christian
view is that because God grants us the precious gift of life, it is supremely
immoral to take away what God has given us and only God has the right to
rescind. I was taught in Catholic school years ago that suicide is a mortal sin.
However, if one does not accept this fundamental premise, and believes instead
that every person is the master of his or her own destiny, then this
As humanists, Garrett and Jane certainly believed that we ourselves hold our
lives and our fates in our own hands. The more I read the Santa Barbara
News-Press account by Scott Steepleton - especially the statements of their
children and grandchildren - the more convinced I was that Garrett and Jane had
faced death as unflinchingly as they had embraced life. Their last act together
was not desperate or cowardly, but brave and calculated.
At least in the United States, because of our tradition of free speech, we
have some assurance that ideas like Garrett's, however unpopular, can be aired
and debated, if not accepted. However, even our sibling country and neighbor to
the north, Canada, does not enshrine freedom of speech and in fact is willing to
censor ideas for the sake of public order, social engineering, and misguided
utopianism. This will eventually cost it dearly (and this pains me, as one who
lived in Canada for four years and admires it in many ways). When I worked at
CCN, I'm sure that an envelope containing CCN literature I once sent to a member
of our Board of Advisors in Canada, which never reached him, was stopped by
Canadian authorities at the border as "hate speech." Similarly, Roy Beck has
seen his own highly-regarded "Immigration by the Numbers" video - introduced by
none other than Earth Day founder and former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson in one
version - on a list of materials banned in Canada. It's only a matter of time
before Garrett's Hardin's books are banned or burned by Canadian authorities, if
they haven't been already.
Colorado Governor Dick Lamm once called Garrett Hardin "one of the prophets
of our time." It's not Garrett's fault that like many if not most prophets
throughout history, he has been ignored by the vast majority of his countrymen.
Again, let us be thankful for Garrett's immense contributions to our
understanding of the plight of our species. And like him, let us not feel
demoralized even as we lament the inability or unwillingness of our fellows to
heed his prescient warnings, and even as we brace ourselves. Brace ourselves for
what? For the tragedies that will inevitably engulf the earth, our country, our
descendents, and perhaps ourselves as a result of our collective failure to
accept the imperative of "living within limits."
* Courtesy of the Garrett Hardin Society
See original at < http://www.garretthardinsociety.org/tributes/tr_kolankiewicz_2003oct.html