Garrett Hardin, 88; Ecologist Sparked Debate With Controversial Theories

Times Staff Writer

Garrett Hardin, a leading ecological thinker whose contrarian stands have influenced debates on abortion, immigration, foreign aid and other prickly issues, apparently took his own life Sunday. He was 88 and was found dead, along with his 81-year-old wife, Jane, at their Santa Barbara home.

The Hardins, who had been in poor health for many years, belonged to the Hemlock Society and had made clear to their family that they intended to choose their own time of death, a niece, Rebecca Hardin, told The Times on Friday.

Hardin was an emeritus professor of human ecology at UC Santa Barbara, where he taught for three decades until his retirement in 1978.


A prolific author, he was best known for a 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that humanity must curtail some of its freedoms to stave off overpopulation and environmental disasters.

His beliefs led to a number of controversial positions, from his support of legal abortions on demand (this from a lifelong Republican) to his “tough love” approach to foreign aid.

“Whether you agree or disagree, he has drawn the lines of debate” on many critical issues, Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist and author of the influential 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” said of Hardin some years ago. “He has generated a lot of thought, and we wouldn’t be where we are without him.”

Hardin was born in Dallas, but grew up all over the Midwest because his father’s job with the Illinois Central Railroad required him to relocate every few years. He found some stability in annual summer sojourns on his grandfather’s 160-acre farm near Butler, Mo., a “lonely but wonderful” place where he gained an appreciation of open space and had time to think and read.

He contracted polio as a child, which left him with a weakened and shortened right leg. But he became an excellent swimmer and was active in his Chicago high school’s student newspaper and drama programs. He briefly entertained thoughts of becoming a professional actor but abandoned them when he realized that his disability would limit him to lesser roles.

He became a zoology major at the University of Chicago, where one of his mentors was W.C. Allee, an early ecologist who sounded alarms about overpopulation. After earning his bachelor’s in 1936, he pursued graduate work in biology at Stanford. He earned a doctorate in 1941 after completing a paper on microbial ecology.


He married Jane Swanson in 1941. They are survived by four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He also leaves a sister and two brothers.

In 1942, he was hired as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution’s plant biology lab at Stanford, where he tried to create food from algae. Most of the lab’s products were foul, both in taste and smell. But what eventually turned Hardin off was his growing belief that creating any large-scale food source, whether from algae or another substance, would ultimately only worsen overpopulation.

In 1946, he left Stanford for the small liberal arts college that became UC Santa Barbara. Through most of the 1950s, he was immersed in updating the college biology program.

Controversial Views

In 1960, he developed a course in “human ecology” to stimulate thinking about population and environmental issues. In 1963, he began to urge the legalization of abortion and lectured across the country on the need to free women from “compulsory pregnancy.”

Going a step further, he joined an underground network that helped women in the U.S. obtain abortions in Japan and Mexico. He justified his stance to fellow conservatives with the argument that the cost of raising an unwanted child far exceeded the price tag for an abortion.

He made his seminal statement in “The Tragedy of the Commons,” an essay that has appeared in more than 100 anthologies since its original publication in Science magazine in December 1968.


The essay grappled with a fundamental question: How should society manage resources, such as land, water, fish and air, that belong to everyone?

To help visualize the problem, he offered the cow pasture as his basic metaphor. The natural tendency of a herdsman would be to graze as many animals as possible in a common pasture. But if every herdsman using the pasture followed the same principle, the pasture would eventually become barren. “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all,” Hardin wrote.

The solution, he concluded, could only be “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” to limit the destruction of the commons. It was not an untried concept, he said, pointing out that society had already enacted laws -- coercion -- to prohibit people from using common lands or waters as dumping grounds for waste. Now, Hardin argued, it was time to give up the notion of the commons in breeding and acknowledge that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.”

In the case of overpopulation, Hardin said, the coercion could take the form of China’s one-child law, or regulations offering tax credits only for the first two children in a family.

“The only way we can preserve and nurture other and more precious freedoms is by relinquishing the freedom to breed, and that very soon,” Hardin wrote.

Public Debate

His article elicited strong reactions. The essay “is a disquieting work, masquerading under an innocuous title and written in witty, sensible prose,” Richard S. Lewis wrote in the journal Science and Public Affairs in 1972. “Hardin isn’t out to frighten anybody, but readers may find that their view of the future has been shaken.”


This was only the first of Hardin’s public controversies.

In 1974, he wrote about immigration as a threat to population control in an article titled “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor.” Never one to be politically correct, he offered an unpopular answer to the question of whether every person on Earth has an equal right to an equal share of the planet’s resources. He used the lifeboat as a metaphor for a rich nation, such as the U.S., outside of which, he wrote “swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth.”

The quandary, he said, was, “What should the lifeboat passengers do?”

If they follow the Christian idea of being “our brother’s keeper,” they would let everyone in, even if it means cramming 150 people into a boat built for 60. But then, he wrote, the boat is swamped and “everyone drowns. Complete justice, complete catastrophe.”

No Easy Answers

The answer, he said, was to “be constantly on guard against boarding parties,” a solution that he acknowledged was morally abhorrent to many people. But he believed the wisest course of action was to limit the boarders, control the borders. He even opposed efforts to help developing countries sustain themselves through humanitarian assistance, such as an international food bank. “A world food bank is ... a commons in disguise,” which will be exploited by some countries and do little in the end to make such countries self-limiting and self-sufficient.

Such “tough love” stands repelled many people, such as theologian Richard Neuhaus, who said Hardin’s lifeboat ethics were obscene. “A world that would choose Garrett Hardin’s options is a world in which I for one would not care to survive,” Neuhaus, who wrote “In Defense of People,” once said.

Considering the harshness of his views, Hardin often surprised people with his gentle demeanor.

“He had a rare gift, sitting with a group of students, faculty or friends, and with a gorgeous, grandfatherly smile, asking questions that made you think and hurt,” said Barry Schuyler, an environmental studies professor at UC Santa Barbara and longtime colleague.


“He would say, ‘Can you take the commons and use it to the point where it is completely ruined? The Earth is a commons and if you overpopulate it to the point where life is intolerable for everybody on it, you have a tragedy.’ He would make people see it. What a lovely man but what perfectly appalling questions he posed for us.”