Garrett Hardin Essay

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Garrett James Hardin , born in 1915, was an ecologist from Dallas, Texas. Hardin graduated from the University of Chicago in 1936 with a BSc in Zoology, and in 1941 was awarded a Ph.D. in microbiology from Stanford University. He held the position of Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1933 until he retired in 1978.

Hardin wrote prolifically about environmental issues. In books such as Nature and Man’s Fate (1959) and Exploring New Ethics for Survival (1977), he argued that unless human population growth is curbed, disease, starvation, and social disorder will result. He is best known for his landmark article, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which was published in Science in 1968.

In this essay, he used the example of an imaginary field in England where cattle herders have free and open access (the commons). He shows how each herder receives a benefit from adding one animal to graze the lands, while the cost of degradation to the field is shared by all. He thus argues that each herder has the incentive to put as many cattle on the land as possible. Hardin shows that while this may seem to be the most economically rational choice, exercising that choice ultimately leads to irreversible degradation, hence the tragedy of the commons. As he notes, “it is no use asking independent herdsmen in a commons to act responsibly, for they dare not. The considerate herdsman who refrains from overloading the commons suffers more than a selfish one who says his needs are greater.”

Hardin uses this analogy to discuss the challenges of managing human populations and their impact on environmental systems, concluding that “freedom is the recognition of necessity,” and that through the recognition of resources as commons in the first place, identifies the need for effective management.

Provoking Concepts

His ideas have provoked a separate school of thought, especially from those who do not agree with Hardin’s assumption that humans will always behave selfishly, or that privatization of resources will reduce negative human impacts on the environment. For example, E. Ostrom and F. Berkes have argued that community-based management offers a model where control of and maintenance of the “commons” can be achieved through community sanctioned and agreed to mechanisms and penalties.

While Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons has since been extensively applied within environmental and resource management programs and embedded within literature worldwide, Hardin himself focused on using his theories to advocate for the moral, ethical, social, and political dimensions of the population debate.

During the 1970s, Hardin developed his ideas on population with an analogy, describing societies as a lifeboat. Metaphorically, he argued, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded, lifeboats. He argues that the key challenge facing the world is how to reconcile the “ethics” of the lifeboat, namely, what should the passengers on the rich life boat do? His book, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos, which develops these theories, received the Phi Beta Kappa Science Award in 1993.

In 2001, he argued that we need to teach “literacy, numeracy and ecolacy” in order to survive as a species. Hardin’s last book, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia, published in 1999, argued for coercive constraints on “unqualified reproductive rights” as a means to address overpopulation.During his life he was active in community campaigning to progress his views, such as the 1960s campaign to legalize abortion, and was President of the Environmental Fund in 1980-81. Hardin died in 2003.


  1. F. Berkes, “Commons Theory for Marine Resource Management in a Complex World,” in N. Kishigami and J. Savelle, , Indigenous Use and Management of Marine Resources (National Museum of Ethnology, 2005);
  2. G. Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science (v.162, 1968);
  3. G. Hardin, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle (Viking Press, 1972);
  4. G. Hardin, The Immigration Dilemma: Avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons (Federation for Immigration Reform, 1995);
  5. G. Hardin, Creative Altruism: An Ecologist Questions Motives (The Social Contract Press, 1999);
  6. G. Hardin, The Ostrich Factor: Our Population Myopia (Oxford University Press, 1999);
  7. G. Hardin, Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos (Oxford University Press, 2000);
  8. G. Hardin and J. Baden, Managing the Commons (Ecobooks, 1977);
  9. E. Ostrom, Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990);
  10. E. Ostrom, J. Burger, C. Field, B. Norgaard, and D. Policansky, “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges,” Science (v.228, 1999).

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