Garrett Hardin Never Fled Controversy

By Elaine Woo
Los Angeles Times

Garrett Hardin, 88, a leading ecological thinker whose contrarian stands have influenced debates on abortion, immigration, foreign aid and other prickly issues, apparently took his own life last Sunday. He was found dead, along with his wife, Jane, 81, at their Santa Barbara, Calif., home.

The Hardins, who had been in poor health for many years, belonged to the Hemlock Society and had made clear to their family that they intended to choose their own time of death, a niece, Rebecca Hardin, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday.

Mr. Hardin was an emeritus professor of human ecology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he taught for three decades until his retirement in 1978.

A prolific author, he was best known for a 1968 essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," in which he argued that humanity must curtail some of its freedoms to stave off overpopulation and environmental disasters.

His beliefs led to a number of controversial positions, from his support of legal abortions on demand, to his "tough love" approach to foreign aid.

"Whether you agree or disagree, he has drawn the lines of debate (on many critical issues)," Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford University biologist and author of the influential 1968 book "The Population Bomb," said of Mr. Hardin some years ago. "He has generated a lot of thought, and we wouldn't be where we are without him."

Mr. Hardin was born in Dallas but lived throughout the Midwest as a child. He contracted polio as a child, which left him with a weakened and shortened right leg.

He graduated in 1936 from the University of Chicago, where one of his mentors was W.C. Allee, an early ecologist who sounded alarms about overpopulation. He earned a doctorate in biology from Stanford University in 1941.

In 1942, he was hired as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution's plant-biology lab, where he tried to create food from algae. Most of the lab's products were foul, both in taste and smell. But what eventually turned Mr. Hardin off was his growing belief that creating any large-scale food source would ultimately only worsen overpopulation.

In 1946, he left Stanford for the small liberal-arts college that became UC Santa Barbara. In 1960, he developed a course in "human ecology" to stimulate thinking about population and environmental issues.

In 1963, he began to urge the legalization of abortion and lectured across the country on the need to free women from "compulsory pregnancy."

Going a step further, he joined an underground network that helped women in the United States obtain abortions in Japan and Mexico. He justified his stance to fellow conservatives with the argument that the cost of raising an unwanted child far exceeded the price for an abortion.

He made his seminal statement in "The Tragedy of the Commons," an essay that has appeared in more than 100 anthologies since its original publication in Science magazine in 1968.

The essay grappled with a fundamental question: How should society manage resources — such as land, water and air — that belong to everyone?

His article elicited strong reactions. The essay "is a disquieting work, masquerading under an innocuous title and written in witty, sensible prose," Richard Lewis wrote in the journal Science and Public Affairs in 1972. "Hardin isn't out to frighten anybody, but readers may find that their view of the future has been shaken."

This was only the first of Mr. Hardin's public controversies.

In 1974, he wrote about immigration as a threat to population control in an article titled "Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor." Never one to be politically correct, he offered an unpopular answer to the question of whether every person on Earth has an equal right to an equal share of the planet's resources. He used the lifeboat as a metaphor for a rich nation, such as the United States, outside of which, he wrote "swim the poor of the world, who would like to get in, or at least to share some of the wealth."

Garrett Hardin married Jane Swanson in 1941. They are survived by four children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Jane Hardin also leaves a sister and two brothers.

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