Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Garrett Hardin, Tragedy of the Commons


Garrett James Hardin was born in Dallas in 21 April 1915. At age four he contracted polio which left him with one leg 5cm shorter than another and eventually confined him to a wheelchair. Hardin studied zoology at the University of Chicago and was awarded a PhD in microbiology at Stanford University in 1941. He moved to the University of California in 1946, he served there as Professor of Human Ecology from 1963 until his retirement in 1978, although he continued to write, teach and lecture for another two decades.

Hardin is best known for his 1968 paper, The Tragedy of the Commons, published in Science which called for regulation of population in order to preserve the future of the human race. His later pronouncements on abortion and immigration led to condemnation from the left and right of the political spectrum. In 1994 Hardin was one of the 52 scientific signatories to a letter to support the authors of ‘The Bell Curve’, a book on intelligence whose chapter on race and intelligence had caused much controversy.

A long-time believer in euthanasia, Hardin stuck by his beliefs and committed suicide along with his wife in September 2003 having been diagnosed with heart disease and Lou Gehrig's disease respectively. However despite his views on population he was succeeded by five children.


Hardin based the central parable of ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ on a 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd entitled “Two Lectures on the Checks to Population”. The commons in question is a pasture open to all. If there is a small number of herders and cattle on the pasture there is no problem. But from one herder’s point of view, every cow he adds to his herd makes him richer whereas the resulting negative impact on the commons is borne by all the herders. If the herder decides to do the right thing for the sake of the common good while others increase their herds, he gets all the disadvantages and none of the benefits. Therefore it is in the interest of all the herders increase the number of cows until the common is devastated and everyone loses.

Hardin uses the classical definition of ‘tragedy’ as “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things” as opposed to “unhappiness” per se, but his point is the same – a laissez faire approach to the management of a finite or exhaustible resource will end in its destruction. He illustrates this with a number of examples such as global fish stocks – every nation will want to maximise their catch, but without regulation, stocks will eventually collapse. But the overall purpose of the paper is to demonstrate that an exponentially increasing population cannot survive on a finite planet.
“A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.”

In the paper, Hardin notes that freedom to procreate is widely seen as a basic human right, including in the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. But, he argues, we often restrict one right in order to preserve others, for example our laws against theft, he argues, make us more free, not less free.

Hardin makes it clear in The Tragedy of the Commons that he believed that there were no technological solutions to sustainability – he saw it as purely a moral issue. His solution to the population is "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon".
"The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality."

Many of the criticisms of Tragedy of the Commons revolve around its historical accuracy, with many arguing that in real life users of common land would co-operate to ensure its well being. Others saw the paper as a call for privatisation of public space and resources. In my opinion, both of these criticisms are wide of the mark. The commons story is a simple parable to illustrate what would happen in the absence of regulation – it would be very insulting to the actual users of common land to suggest that they couldn’t see the problems arising from the lack of regulation and put the necessary arrangements in place. Hardin certainly wasn’t the first to flag up the dangers of over-exploiting common resources, with Aristotle having said "what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,"

Where Hardin gets really controversial is in a 1974 essay on what he calls “lifeboat ethics”. He argues that if 50 people are in a lifeboat that can only hold 60 and 100 are in the water, they can only let 10 more people in the lifeboat or everyone drowns. He uses this analogy to argue that immigration from poor to rich countries should stop and that food aid is prolonging the population problem. Again Hardin is dismissive of liberal guilt.
"I feel guilty about my good luck," say some. The reply to this is simple: Get out and yield your place to others.

Personally I believe this logic is flawed. Hardin is assuming that all countries are self sufficient in food and other essentials, ignoring international trade in commodities, and that people are starving because there isn’t enough food in the world. Neither of these conditions was true in 1974 and neither is true now. The concentration of human beings geographically is not a problem now or in the future. More worryingly, his argument offers an opportunity for others rationalise their xenophobia. “Too many people” often becomes “too many of them” in arguments about population.

Garrett is less famous as the author of Garrett Hardin's Three Laws of Human Ecology:
First Law: We can never do merely one thing (ie everything is connected).
Second Law: There's no “away” to throw to.
Third Law: I = PAT

In the latter Law (often known as “i-pat”), P is population, A is affluence per capita (ie consumption), and T is the damage done by the technologies used to supply that consumption. Hardin rightly attributes this law to ecologists Robert Ehrlich and John Holdren who also argue that population is the key issue in sustainability.

Garrett Hardin must the most controversial guru in this series. Uncompromising and never afraid of controversy, he tackled problems many of us feel uncomfortable with head on and took pride in saying the unsayable - seemingly revelling in politically incorrectness. "There's nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person," he told The New York Times. "God, he can cause a lot of trouble." But this apparent urge to offend liberals seems to have led him to create artificial scenarios such as the ‘lifeboat ethics’ analogy which are, in my opinion, dangerous as they can turn a rational and sensible debate about population into an irrational and largely irrelevant argument about immigration and, by extension, race. Overall, Hardin must be included as a green guru for the sheer debate that The Tragedy of the Commons produced. But he himself has made discussing population a taboo subject in many circles, holding back progress on the issue that he held so dear.

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At June 20, 2011 at 6:52 PM , Blogger padaajoshi said...

You know, it's ironic that many people who thought there were too many people in the world, such as Hardin and Martin Luther King, also had so many children. King had four, legitimately. The illigitimate count could well be higher. It's an irony that Hardin had five.


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