Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was an American ecologist and philosopher who warned for the dangers of overpopulation. In this lecture, professor Joyeeta Gupta discusses the continuing relevance of Hardin and the growing need for a counter narrative.
Half a century after Hardin published ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ and about the need for ‘life-boat ethics’, much of the central tenets of his papers are still relevant and being debated and debunked. Hardin’s work deals with the population problem and the self-maximising behaviour of people in the commons. This might happen in terms of extracting resources or polluting the commons. He raises the issue of how to ‘legislate for temperance’, postulates that ‘freedom to breed is intolerable’ and calls for ‘mutual coercion mutually agreed upon’. His arguments resonate even today with many in society.
Hardin suggests that enclosing the commons can help, but argues forcefully for the need to abandon the ‘freedom to breed’. In his article ‘Living on a Lifeboat’ he argues against aid, against redistribution, and against immigration. He moreover implicitly emphasizes a hegemonic strategy for the USA stating: “We are all the descendants of thieves, and the world’s resources are inequitably distributed, but we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today”.
If we can find the arguments to counter Hardin’s powerful narrative that appeals to so many people world-wide today, it may be possible to address social and ecological problems in a just manner. Unequal access and monopolization of resources has caused huge damage to the earth’s ecosystems. The people worst affected are those who often have the least resources and have contributed little to the damage. The rights, responsibilities and risks with respect to resources and ecosystem services need to be divided more equitably. Only then will be able to address the challenges of the 21st century and achieve the sustainable development goals. This is especially relevant in the context of the Anthropocene, in which we have to learn to live within our ecological means and may have to redistribute rights.
This presentation discusses the continuing relevance of Hardin and the growing need for a counter narrative. Such a counter narrative is not easy to develop, and all of us at AISSR may have to put our heads together to develop such a narrative in order to be able to influence and shape society at multiple levels of governance. Science and knowledges alone, alas, will not have the impact we seek otherwise.
Joyeeta Gupta is professor of environment and development in the global south at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research of the University of Amsterdam and IHE Institute for Water Education in Delft. She leads the programme group on Governance and Inclusive Development. Gupta is also co-chair of UN Environment’s Global Environmental Outlook-6 (2016-2019).
AISSR members present the work of a great thinker in the field of social sciences immersing us in key features of the social science canon and ‘Great Thinkers’ and exploring contributions across disciplinary lines. Staff members, PhD students and others interested can attend the public lecture. For AISSR PhD students the lecture can be followed by a PhD seminar with a second discussion of key readings of the respective thinker. How can you use these readings in your own research project?