Garrett Hardin and the Tragedy of the Commons

Map of population density by country, per square kilometer

Map of population density by country, per square kilometer

On April 21, 1915, American ecologist and philosopher Garrett James Hardin was born. Hardin warned of the dangers of overpopulation. His exposition of the tragedy of the commons, in a famous 1968 paper in Science, called attention to “the damage that innocent actions by individuals can inflict on the environment“. He is also known for Hardin’s First Law of Human Ecology: “We can never do merely one thing. Any intrusion into nature has numerous effects, many of which are unpredictable.”

Garrett Hardin’s major field of research was human overpopulation. He published controversial works, for instance advocating  abortion rights and on strict limits to non-western immigration. In his 1968 essay “The tragedy of the commons”, Garrett Hardin addresses human population growth, the use of the Earth’s natural resources, and the welfare state. In it, Hardin cited the 1833 work by the English economist William Forster Lloyd that deals with herders sharing a common parcel of land, which would lead to overgrazing. In Hardin’s work, the author blames the welfare state for allowing the tragedy of the commons, in which the government provides for children and supports over-breeding as a fundamental human right. Hardin concludes that this way a  Malthusian catastrophe , a prediction of a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth has outpaced agricultural production, will become inevitable.

For his controversial work Hardin  is denounced by environmental historians Joachim Radkau, Alfred Thomas Grove and Oliver Rackham “as an American with no notion at all how Commons actually work”. Hardin’s work further contradicted Elinor Ostrom’s work on co-operative structures like the management of common land. For her work, Ostrom shared the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences together with Oliver E. Williamson. Further, Garrett Hardin’s work was denounced as historically inaccurate for failing to account for the demographic transition, and for failing to distinguish between common property and open access resources.

Continuing his controversies in 1974, Hardin published the article “Living on a Lifeboat” in BioScience magazine, arguing that contributing food to help the Ethiopian famine would add to overpopulation, which he considered the root of Ethiopia’s problems. Hardin was further  supported the Pioneer Fund that funds controversial research on the topic of race and intelligence, which is accused of promoting scientific racism.

The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia was Hardin’s last published book. In it, he warns about the threat of overpopulation to the Earth’s sustainable economic future, called for coercive constraints on “unqualified reproductive rights”. He further argues that affirmative action is a form of racism.

Garrett Hardin studied zoology at the University of Chicago and earned his PhD in microbiology from Stanford University in 1941. During the mid-1940s, Hardin started working at the University of California, Santa Barbara and was appointed Professor of Human Ecology in 1963.

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