Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Lifeboat is Full: Population, “Lifeboat Ethics,” and Human Nature: An Interview with Garrett Hardin

Excerpted by Nicholas Stix

Population, “Lifeboat Ethics,” and Human Nature - An interview with Garrett Hardin
By Craig A. Straub
Volume 29, Number 3 (Spring 2019)

Issue theme: “Living Within Limits - The Enduring Relevance of Garrett Hardin”

Keywords: garrett hardin, lifeboat, ethics

Garrett Hardin (1915–2003), an Emeritus Professor of Human Ecology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was an educator, ecologist, and environmentalist, who devoted much of his work to a reconsideration of the ethical implications of population-related problems. Dr. Hardin is perhaps best known for his 1968 essay, “The Tragedy of the Commons.” The Social Contract Press has reprinted some of his most important books.

The Garrett Hardin Society website ( includes more information, articles, photographs, video interviews, tributes, and biographical information.

Dr. Hardin was interviewed at his home in Santa Barbara on June 21, 1997, for The Social Contract by Craig Straub. Mr. Straub is an environmental scientist who completed a Ph.D. in Human Ecology at The Union Institute, Cincinnati, Ohio. His dissertation involves an application of Professor Hardin’s methodology, outlined in his 1985 book Filters Against Folly.

The Social Contract: Did you have any childhood experiences which had a major influence on your life?

Professor Garrett Hardin: All the years that I was growing up, in the summer time and during vacations as well, we would go to the Hardin family farm, five miles from Butler, Missouri. So this was the one, fixed place. My own home, the home of my parents, kept moving all the time because my father kept moving from one place to another. The one stable place in my life was the farm in Missouri. After about my tenth birthday I spent all my summers there until I was about eighteen or nineteen. My workload was stepped up as I grew older. It had to be kept back somewhat because of my physical disabilities. But still, by the time I was eleven or twelve I was in charge of about 500 chickens, which I had to take care of — feed and water. And I had to kill a chicken every day for lunch.

This, I think, was a very important part of my education — learning to kill an animal. I regard this as an important part of everybody’s education. I think the fashionable attitude is one of the many foolish things in this world. If you want to eat meat, somebody has to kill it. I think everybody ought to have to do it, and not just once but many times. Because one of the things that I was imbued with, by this farm family, was a horror of cruelty — not of killing, but of cruelty. If you are going to kill an animal, you have to kill it instantly and as painlessly as you can. It’s a disgrace to do otherwise.

Killing is part of life, you see — one of the things that has to be done. I have always had very strong emotions about this matter, very negative emotions about so many people who claim to love animals. There were people in Kansas who had cats they didn’t want. They would drive out from Kansas City and when they got out to the farms, they would let the cats out and drive on, because that way they weren’t killing the cat. They weren’t being cruel. They thought, “It will find a good home.” I’m sure that was their attitude. Well, we were on the farm. Those cats wandered onto our farm, so what do you do? Well, the dogs would kill them. They distinguished between the visitor cats and the home cats. When they saw a visitor cat... particularly when our little fox terrier saw a strange cat, boy, he’d kill it if he possibly could. And he usually could.

I realized from the very beginning that death is a necessary part of life. I learned my first basic lessons about population and carrying capacity on the farm. All my life, I have been haunted by the realization that there simply isn’t room for all the life that can be generated, and the people who refuse to cut down on the excess population of anything are not being kind; they are being cruel. They are increasing the suffering in the world. So, I have a very low opinion of most so-called animal lovers who want to save every last animal…

[There’s a lot more. Read the whole thing here.]

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