Updated 18 June, 2003
Garrett Hardin Letter to International Academy for Preventive Medicine
by Garrett Hardin, June, 2001
Introduction by William B. Dickinson, IAPM
The public and politicians toss around the words "environment," "development" and "conservatism" without much thought. But ecologist Garrett Hardin argues in this communication that we need to take "a real deep look" at such words if mankind hopes "to maneuver the profound environmental problems that are now upon us into a position for their being solved."
Hardin, professor emeritus of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, points out that for most of human history the wealth of environmental factors was taken as a "given"--given by Nature, or God. "A businessman just had to pay some laborers to extract resources from Nature's stockpile," he writes. "This habit of taking environmental riches for granted was exaggerated in modern times by the rapid expansion of science and technology."
Today, Hardin says, such optimism about limitless resources is misplaced. Since every new construction (such as freeways) necessarily results in both construction and destruction, Hardin suggests combining these contradictory functions into a new verb. 'Development' (which we love to encourage) produces always some 'destruction' (which we regret)," he writes. "So whenever we are discussing a proposal to make changes, let us always couple what we desire with what we cannot escape doing, thus creating a new verb: devestroy....Simple honesty demands that we do so in order to insure that we do not lose sight of the essential ambiguity of our proposed reforms. As world population continues to grow, the word will seem ever less strange. Ultimately, unless we mend our ways, destruction will take over."
Hardin is the author of the seminal essay The Tragedy of the Commons, which has been reprinted in more than 100 anthologies. His book, Living Within Limits (Oxford), won the 1993 Award in Science from the Phi Beta Kappa Society. He wrote this essay for the Biocentric Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts programs and studies directed toward the enhancement of life for all peoples. This report was written for the Biocentric Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts programs and studies directed toward the enhancement of quality of life for all peoples. The letter may be reprinted in whole or in part, or quoted, without charge or restriction. It is available on a Web site provided by the International Academy for Preventive Medicine at Airlie, Va. (www.iapm.org)
William B. Dickinson
Letter from Garrett Hardin
Dear Fellow Citizen:
How long have we, the public, bickered about the rights and wrongs of the "environment"? Too long; certainly for the 40 years since Rachel Carsen wrote Silent Spring. It is for us to open the door to environmental sanity. To stop the bickering I think it is necessary that we take a deep look at two abstractions: semantics and conservatism. My remarks about the first may well seem radical to you. When we come to the second you may feel like hurling the epithet "recidivist" at me. But I think this linguistic pairing is necessary to maneuver the profound environmental problems that are now upon us into a position for their being solved.
Let us first admit that most people are irritated by semantics: It seems like nit-picking. Why not skip the words and get on with the work? When it comes to dealing with the "environment," finding a fruitful meaning for the word is, however, proper work. The fact is, economists have led humanity astray. Way back in B.C. times bookkeepers standardized their trade around balancing the cost of labor against the profits to be gained by it. The wealth of the environmental factors was taken as a "given"--given by Nature (or God). A businessman just had to pay some laborers to extract resources from Nature's stockpile. This habit of taking environmental riches for granted was exaggerated in modern times by the rapid expansion of science and technology.
"Don't worry about supplies," entrepreneurs said. "Our clever scientists can always find more." And for the last 500 years technologists have done their job pretty well. Optimism became an addiction. Then beginning in the 19th century doubts began dribbling out of the scientific enterprise. First it was the discovery of the thermodynamic laws, which could be stated in simple language. "You can't get something for nothing" and inescapable "friction" (in a broad sense) insured that every change of state produced some loss.
Then came 1905 and Albert Einstein. We began to tap energy that we thought was free. By 1950 some optimistic physicists, and most businessmen (who are always optimistic, because optimism pays), began talking about a world that would never be short of any resource (for, with limitless energy, you could make resources). But in a very short time the scientists called "ecologists" got into the act and asked their cruel question, "And then what?"
No one could figure out a practical way to release energy without creating dangerously radioactive garbage. Where were you to dispose of that garbage? Big as our Earth is, it can offer only limited amount of garbage space. Perhaps we could shoot our radioactive garbage into interstellar space? Should we send it on a very expensive vehicle into space? But errors might cause these to crash back to Earth, leaving the garbage with us. Or course we can dream of achieving an errorless throwaway system some day, but experience doesn't deal with dreamers. And the garbage we have to dispose of will remain dangerous for thousands of years.
Maybe humanity should just pull up stakes and take off for some other world? Our fiction writers used to help us dream of settling on Venus or Mars. But we know that Venus is 600 degrees hot, and Mars is far less suitable for human existence than is the top of Mount Everest. How about some other planet? We've accomplished very little with our tax-eating space program, but we do know that there is no other planet of our sun suitable for life.
And, as measured against the exponential growth of our species, all the solar planets are so terribly tiny. Maybe, after all, we'll have to do something to control our breeding. (But we can't just do that! Freedom comes first, doesn't it?) And, anyway, the breeding freedom we are unwilling to give up on Earth would have to be immediately sacrificed on a small spaceship. Fleeing to a suitable planet of another sun is almost too difficult to imagine. The next nearest sun is 4.3 light-years distant. At the speed of any believable vehicle it would take a minimum of 10,000 years to get there.
The deep meaning of two or more words must be clarified: "development" and "conservatism." It is one of a large family of words which center around a proper treatment of the environment, namely: ecology, improvement, progress, and conservation. The communication problem can best be illustrated by examining a particular example.
Suppose that your town is suffering from too much intercity traffic and has no freeway lanes to deal with it. Soon comes an outcry for adding more lanes to a highway, preferably freeway lanes, to get cars through your town in a hurry. Who favors the change? A lot of people: construction workers who build highways and motels; hotel keepers; and businessmen to whom more population means more money. For more than 500 years we have been teaching our young that progress equals growth, and growth is good.
It was not always so. Before modern times most thinkers thought that keeping things much the same was good. Accused of being a "conservative," a modern man is likely to ask, "Why conserve the bad? Why conserve the traffic jams? Why waste your time on unavoidable delays? Why not correct things? How can you be against progress?" Responding to such questions is the duty of environmental thinkers. It is a realization of this responsibility that leads to our doubting the standard justification of "progress."
The science of ecology is founded on this generalization: "We can never do merely one thing." Using this key we soon find that the freeway requires the destruction of many homes and business shops. For this aspect of development the general public must pay higher taxes. Of course the costs are spread out among many citizens, while the profits are concentrated on a comparatively few businessmen. We know who wins that argument, because it is one of the principles of political science that the concentration of benefits concentrates power.
Building a freeway may require the destruction of a baseball diamond that has long been used by young boys. Who wins that argument? (Need we ask?) The monstrous overpass and space-consuming entry points of a freeway often socially isolate some parts of a city. Who wins that argument? The soaking up of urban space to lay down more concrete soon raises the price of acreage and thus all homesites.
The ecologist's "We can never do merely one thing" translates into a semantic generator for the community. Since every new construction results in both construction and destruction, why don't we combine these contradictory functions into a new verb. "Development" (which we love to encourage) always produces some "destruction" (which we regret). So, whenever we are discussing a proposal to make changes, let us always couple what we desire with what we cannot escape doing, thus creating a new verb: devestroy (3 syllables). Nature couples the facts; we should match nature by bringing the relevant but contradictory linguistic elements together. Simple honesty demands that we do so in order to insure that we do not lose sight of the essential ambiguity of our proposed reforms. This should continue until we are convinced that one kind of effect is significantly greater than the other. And we must be sure that we have corrected for the bias of political power.
Tacking "free" onto any word is almost certain to bias the observation. This adjective must be used with discretion. "Progress," "growth," and "development" enjoy a similar favorable acceptance (regardless of their true effects). World population growth shows no convincing sign of coming to an end soon. As the world continues to grow, the word "devestruction" will seem ever less strange. Ultimately, unless we mend our ways, destruction will take over.
This brings us to the last of the words that needs to be discussed: conservatism. For most of man's social life on Earth, the conservative attitude has determined most decisions. People thought that things would continue to be the same because the concentration of resources never seemed to change significantly. The words "liberalism" and "progressivism" were seldom used. If the question of change was raised at all, the conservative attitude was the choice of wise men and women. Then modern science got under way, and in a few generations people were convinced that progress was the rule. The 19th century laws of thermodynamics were born into a world seemingly ruled by progress and optimism.
The 20th century has revived humanity's interest in the conservative aspects of science. We see that a truly rational world is one in which a balance of supply and demand must be presumed (and we better make sure to take account of all resources--not just the ones favored by business accountants). Ecologists and environmentalists were most active in this educational reform. For this they paid heavily in the social system. "Recidivism," their opponents screamed. "No," they said, "we are just total conservatives." Now the world is approaching the point where those who live in it can no longer bask in the blind optimism that accompanies inaccurate record-keeping. To survive in comfort we must create a new conservatism.