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Living Within Limits

“The reliability that matters is not the simple reliability of one component of a system, but the final reliability of the total control system.” — Garrett Hardin

In the world fond of simple associations, Garrett Hardin will be remembered above all as the man who made millions familiar with a concept known as “the tragedy of the commons.” He wrote an article with that title for Science in 1968, when the first wave of environmental consciousness was swelling. That short essay became one of the most famous (and among the most cited and reprinted) pieces of ecological or, as Hardin would have preferred, “bioethical” writing.

Contrary to the usual perception, this concept was not Hardin’s invention. Such grand generalizations almost always have important precedents. Hence it is doubtful that even Aristotle, who pointed out long ago that “what is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” was the first to reach this conclusion. Hardin does, however, deserve credit for recognizing the magnitude and the inevitability of this tragedy: It’s not a deviancy or madness but rather perfectly rational behavior that leads to the long-term ruin of the commons, a word that evokes communal agricultural lands but also applies to ecosystems, rivers, oceans, organisms or mineral resources. That is, actions that benefit the individual (meaning single persons, households, villages, companies or nations) in the short term often end up hurting the collective.

Hardin’s greatest service was presenting this notion in the form of a captivating parable about an overgrazed pasture and expressing it in precise, resonant language that left no room for appealing the initial verdict. He wrote: “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.” (Today’s editors would, of course, have tried to force Hardin to change “men” to “people” or some other politically correct choice—probably to no avail.) He realized that this ruinous dynamic operates in any number of cases involving environmental pollution and the degradation of ecosystems. These instances include three of the leading concerns of our generation: extensive and drastic commercial overfishing of the oceans, continuing deforestation of the humid tropics and rising emissions of greenhouse gases, which may cause serious global warming during the latter half of this century.

For those who want to explore Hardin through just a single volume of his writings, I would recommend Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos, published in 1993. All of the great causes, targets and taboos that have been at the core of modern environmental and ecological debates and that Hardin defended, attacked and confronted during his long life are here: limits to growth, overpopulation, cowboy economics, demographic transition, nuclear energy, carrying capacity, human rights, globalization, Spaceship Earth, economic growth, altruism, birth control, energy consumption, immigration, and the irreconcilability of ecology and traditional economics. There are, not surprisingly, extended quotes from Aristotle, the Marquis de Condorcet, Thomas Malthus, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Kenneth Boulding, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin, but also, revealingly, Hardin includes bits from Galileo, Sir Arthur Eddington, William Stanley Jevons, Otto Frisch, Thomas Huxley and C. P. Snow.

The book is full of Hardin’s terse, politically incorrect one-liners, which he often used as headlines of chapter sections—In Praise of Discrimination, Compassion Breeds Taboo, A Suicidal Right (meaning the right to have children)—and arguments that can almost instantly reverse a reader’s feeling from approbation to shock. To argue for population control is one thing, but it’s quite another to write that we need to reexamine the assumption that a low rate of infant mortality serves as a valid measure of the state of a civilization. How, after all, could any advanced society not do all it could to preserve the lives of newborns? And what would Hardin’s alternative be, anyway? Would he have some state bureaucrat decide which birth defect is economical to fix and which one should spell an immediate death sentence?

Hardin was well aware of how difficult it was for most of his fellow citizens to approve of his drastic prescriptions. Still, he pushed his argument mercilessly, writing that “mortality—death—can be easily tallied, but morbidity—pain and suffering—is much harder to measure. Yet morbidity may be the more important measure of happiness.” How much of this focus on anguish comes from the experience of a man whose physical life was constrained by the polio he contracted at the age of four, which weakened his right leg and made it 5 centimeters shorter than his left one. Decades later, polio’s delayed effects weakened the muscles in his left leg enough that he was confined to a wheelchair, and the fear of losing strength in his arms led him to talk openly about looking for Dr. Kevorkian.

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Still curious? These two Hardin books come highly recommended: Filters Against Folly and Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics and Population Taboos