Updated 3 October, 2003
Tribute to Garrett Hardin
By John Attarian
Garrett Hardin's most striking characteristics, which marched shoulder to shoulder, were an unflinching realism and an equally unflinching courage - they may, in fact, be two ways of saying the same thing! In an age of worsening and spreading evasion, denial, delusion and wishful thinking, Dr. Hardin fearlessly looked reality in the face and reported frankly what he saw. Our discourse is increasingly trammeled with taboos about limits, population, immigration, and much else. Knowing that taboos are the mortal enemies of the search for truth, Dr. Hardin made it his business to stalk and slay them.
He had a notoriety for being harsh and cruel; in reality, his writings showed a search for humane solutions to agonizing problems, and he explicitly endorsed sympathy for and a desire to help suffering others; and to judge from our too-brief correspondence, he was, like the similarly-maligned Malthus, a friendly and kindly man.
Truth is always harsh to those who believe feelings override facts and who prefer fantasies to reality. This ostrich mentality and its stigmatization of Hardin call to mind William Graham Sumner's blunt words in his great essay "Socialism" regarding what he called "the sentimental philosophy": "The first proposition of this sentimental philosophy is that nothing is true which is disagreeable. If, therefore, any facts of observation show that life is grim or hard, the sentimental philosophy steps over such facts with a genial platitude, a consoling commonplace, or a gratifying dogma... They say political economy is a dismal science and that its doctrines are dark and cruel. I think the hardest fact in life is that two and two cannot make five."
As a lifelong admirer of Winston Churchill I have always had the greatest admiration for prophets of realism and unpleasant truth, and Dr. Hardin was to our ecological predicament what Churchill was to Bolshevism and Hitler.
Dr. Hardin's writings reveal too an incredible depth and breadth of learning. Not for him the insect's-eye view of the hyperspecialist. Besides biology, he was well acquainted with the history of ideas, language, religion, the classics of economic thought, poetry and much more. Here was a genuine scholar indeed.
The last three years or so have been a decisive, if often agonizing, intellectual odyssey for me, as I have become vividly aware of the mortal danger mankind is in from simultaneous population growth and rapid drawdown of finite nonrenewable resources, especially petroleum and natural gas.
It is horribly clear that humanity has overshot the planet's carrying capacity, is actually reducing carrying capacity in almost every location, and is lurching blindly towards a hideous population crash; that the reigning ideology of perpetual economic growth and denial of scarcity and the reality of limits is nightmarishly wrongheaded; and that America is far gone in committing suicide through, among other things, hyperconsumption, overpopulation, immigration, and self-lacerating multiculturalism.
Garrett Hardin was one of the thinkers most prominent in turning my mind to confront our terrible predicament, and for that I am forever grateful.
I began corresponding with Dr. Hardin only recently, alas. He had written to Dr. Wayne Lutton kindly regarding a contribution of mine to The Social Contract regarding the environmental unsustainability of the secular religion of economism and perpetual growth. After reading and admiring several of Dr. Hardin's essays, especially "The Tragedy of the Commons" and "Cultural Carrying Capacity," I passed on to Creative Altruism and Living Within Limits, a magnificent exercise in realism, reason, and common sense.
Finally I took my courage in both hands and wrote to him for the first time in March 2003, telling him how much I admired his work. I opened his reply with some trepidation, for we had some substantial differences: I am a Catholic, he was an atheist; he believed in Darwinian evolution, I do not; he supported abortion and euthanasia, I do not. His letter turned out to be warm and friendly, taking our differences in good part. Clearly he didn't mind honest disagreements; what mattered to him was the truth. It was the start of an insightful and stimulating correspondence.
In June I wrote him speculating about trends in the world and in America which trouble me deeply, and asking for him comments. He replied that he was pressed for time but that he would answer as soon as he could, and in the meantime he was thinking about what I'd written. On August 14 he wrote to say that he was suspending his correspondence for a month, until September 15 or more likely September 25. It was his last letter to me.
Before the projected end of his "silent period," he made the decision to depart this life, and passed from a short silence to an eternal one. There was so much I wanted to ask him, so much stimulation, illumination and sage counsel I was hoping to glean from his future letters. Garrett Hardin was one of the bravest and most provocative and penetrating minds I have ever encountered. His passing is an irreparable loss. I miss him terribly.