Dr. Garrett Hardin: Human Overpopulation, Survival, and Morality

In this stark interview, University of California biologist Dr. Garrett Hardin explains the concept of a Commons and why human overpopulation is depleting the planet's ability to support human life.

| May/June 1979

Those people who can't "swallow" ecology unless it's served with a sugary coating of optimism don't generally appreciate what Dr. Garrett Hardin has to say. You see, this University of California (Santa Barbara) biologist seems to have a penchant for tackling the most controversial subjects aroundsuch as human overpopulation, abortion, and evolution—and his conclusions are often intended to shock people into realizing that there are few, if any, easy answers to the question of human survival on an increasingly overcrowded and ecologically ravaged earth.  

Though Hardin's career has spanned a third of a century (and shows no signs of slowing down yet), it wasn't until December 13, 1968when his revolutionary article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," was published in Science magazinethat he achieved a position of prominence (some would say of notoriety) among American ecologists. That single essay (subtitled "The population problem has no technical solution... it requires a fundamental extension in morality") raised a number of topics that are being hotly debated to this day.  

Many other publications have followed the 1968 landmark article (Hardin has a authored or coauthored upward of a dozen books that are now in print), and there is a unifying theme that runs through all of these works: It is time for humanity to plan for the future and to abandon many of our present political and social policies ... courses of action that the ecologist compares to "a man [jumping] off the World Trade Building with a bag of hardware in the hope that he [will] figure out how to build a parachute on the way down." 

What exactly is the "tragedy of the Commons"? How does our established moralityespecially in the form of humanitarianismlead to further overpopulation and ecological disaster? Is it, in fact time for the ''rich" nations of the world to decide which poor countries will be given enough aid to survive, and which must be left to the fates dictated by their deforested and hopelessly over-crowded lands'?  

MOTHER EARTH NEWS felt that her readers deserved answers to these questions, especially if those explanations could come from Hardin himself, a man who possesses (in Paul Ehrlich's words) "one of the most analytical minds "among living biologists. So staffer Bruce Woods visited Garrett Hardin (in the scientist's southern California home. The discussion that took place during their meetingpresented here in edited form—may, at times, anger you. But it might also cause you to think about the changing demands of human responsibility in our finite world.  

PLOWBOY: Dr. Hardin, your writings—which have caused some people to refer to you as the "black sheep" of American biology—often demonstrate a clear understanding of the capabilities, and limits, of the land that feeds us all. Would I be correct in assuming that you were raised in a rural environment?

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