Who Is Garrett Hardin? The Master Ecologist Who Warned Us About Population Growth

Garrett Hardin may be unknown by the general public, but he is highly regarded by great thinkers. Indeed, it was no other than Charlie Munger who funded Hardin’s research. While he’s most famously known as the person who introduced the idea of the Tragedy of the Commons, Hardin remains forever influential for his warning that eventually, humans must embrace a world of limits.

“If we are to correct the consequences of the world's actions, we must understand the machinery that accounts for these consequences.”

Garrett James Hardin was one of the first thinkers we would call an “ecologist” – arguably, he helped created the movement. His 1968 paper on The Tragedy of the Commons explained that if a shared resource — for example, a forest or a lake — was not centrally managed, its users would tend to destroy it over time as they acted rationally in their own interests.

That idea led Hardin to his lifelong unpopular argument against continued human population growth. And as a result, Hardin was a supporter not only of all birth control methods, but also of sterilization. He also stood firmly against most forms of immigration, comparing immigration into a society with limited resources to an overcrowded lifeboat taking on new members. His position caused him to be ostracized by many mainstream political and academic thinkers.

Hardin did not land on his position lightly. He began his career as a biologist, studying symbiosis at Stanford around the time of World War II. Eventually, Hardin migrated his studying to UC Santa Barbara and focused on the field that came to be called Human Ecology, or what we would now simply call ecology: the study of the human relationship with nature. He viewed the human species as just another biological entity, yet one with some special features that allowed it to grow nearly unchecked.

Hardin's positions, controversial as they may be, came as a result of his logical and multidisciplinary approach to his field of study. He criticized mainstream economics for treating the environment as an afterthought; people tended to behave as if the world had unlimited space and resources, and as if we could throw things away. Hardin pointed out (rightly) that there was “no away to throw to,” and he encouraged the economics and political establishments to think more deeply about the assumptions they were making.

Ultimately, Hardin believed that the world would have to control its human population growth. The globe itself was the ultimate commons, and adding billions more people would tax its limited resources. His support for many controversial measures came from a deep-seated skepticism that the human population could go on growing at its past rates forever, and he took great pains to prove his convictions.

Hardin's books and papers are treasure troves of deep thinking, of placing things into proper context and not forgetting to synthesize all models with reality. Whether you come to agree with his positions or not, as with most great thinkers, his work tends to challenge us. And for that reason, it will endure.

Garrett Hardin Quotes

“The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time.”

“Exponential growth is kept under control by misery.”

“A finite world can support only a finite population; therefore, population growth must eventually equal zero.”

“It takes five years for a willing person's mind to change. Have patience with yourself and others when treading in an area protected by a taboo.”

“It is clear that we will greatly increase human misery if we do not, during the immediate future, assume that the world available to the terrestrial human population is finite.”

“A community that renounces war as a means of settling international disputes still cannot survive without that discriminating form of altruism we call patriotism. It must defend the integrity of its borders or succumb into chaos.”

“In a competitive world of limited resources, total freedom of individual action is intolerable.”

“We summarize the situation by saying: ‘There is a shortage of food.’ Why don’t we say, ‘There is a longage of people’?”

“To survive indefinitely in good shape a nation must take as its advisers people who can see farther than investment bankers.”

“The three filters operate through these particular questions: Literacy: What are the words? Numeracy: What are the numbers? Ecolacy: And then what?”

Suggested Readings on Garrett Hardin

Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems – One of the best parts of Garrett Hardin’s wonderful book Filters Against Folly is the one in which he explores the three filters that help us interpret reality.

Garrett Hardin: The Other Side of Expertise – Be careful with experts. Their services are indispensable, but we are often poor at ascertaining when they add value, when they add noise, and when they are harmful.

The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work – In one of the more remarkable chapters of a remarkable book, Filters Against Folly, Hardin discusses the effect of scale on values.

The Tragedy of the Commons – The Tragedy of the Commons is a parable that illustrates why common resources get used more than is desirable from the standpoint of society as a whole.

Hans Rosling’s Important Truths about Population Growth and the Developing World – A post about population growth in the coming world; I was greatly influenced by Garrett Hardin while writing it.


The Garrett Hardin Society – Articles by Garrett Hardin


Filters Against Folly

Living Within Limits

The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia

Naked Emperors: Essays of a Taboo Stalker


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