by Chris Williams
October 9, 2012
IN THE same sad week that saw the deaths of several globally renowned revolutionary voices, another intellectual giant of the left passed away at the age of 95: ecologist, activist and scientist Barry Commoner.
A life-long champion of the need for scientific engagement with the public at large, Commoner constantly sought to bring to light the iniquities of industrial capitalism, beginning with his campaign against above-ground nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s, and continuing with his opposition to nuclear power–that is, the transition to more polluting and toxic but highly profitable synthetic compounds in place of natural ones.
As the New York Times noted in its obituary, Commoner “came armed with a combination of scientific expertise and leftist zeal.”
Unlike many scientists who believe that all they have to do is show the scientific validity of data to political leaders in order for them to act, Commoner viewed things exactly the other way around. For there to be a functioning democracy, he believed, it was the job of scientists to engage with the grassroots and inform the public about science so it would become part of society’s decision-making apparatus.
Furthermore–and this is something many environmentalists would do well to understand better–he saw the ecological crisis as one of production rather than blaming consumers for our supposed “choices,” which are, in fact, dictated by tables of corporate profitability rather than consumer demand. Commoner was fond of quoting Henry Ford’s adage on the basis for the move to larger and larger cars and ultimately the advent of SUVs: “Mini-cars make mini-profits.”
As he stated in the 1992 introduction to one of his five books, Making Peace with the Planet, “If the environment is polluted and the economy is sick, the virus that causes both will be found in the system of production. And that is where their cure can be found as well.”
Commoner favored forgiving all Third World debt as a way to combat poverty, and he had a very public disagreement with the populationist arguments made popular in Paul Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian bestseller The Population Bomb, which argued for drastic measures to combat human population as the ultimate cause of the ecological crisis.
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COMMONER DID not believe that a just society could be founded on ecological principles alone, but had to take into account issues of social justice, such as racism, sexism, war and economic inequality. Quoting Frederick Engels during a speech in 1973, Commoner sought to understand and answer ecological problems in their social context, as he elaborated on his “Nature Knows Best” dictum as needing some modification: “A new one, more cumbersome, but less subject to misinterpretation, might be: ‘Nature knows best what to do; and people ought to decide how best to do it.'”
He went on:
Thus, somewhat laboriously, we have arrived at a fundamental statement about the relation between man and nature, which was long ago expressed much more elegantly and incisively by Friedrich Engels in the form “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.”
Freedom of human choice–social action–becomes possible insofar as the requirements of natural law are recognized. We can fly through the air, provided that we give proper attention to the principles of aerodynamics. We can move people from the land to the city, provided that the relationship between the two is governed by the principles of ecology. In sum, the principles of ecology provide a necessary but not sufficient condition for the determination of effective social action.
Thus, once a given ecological requirement can be specified (e.g., that organic matter derived from the soil ecosystem must be returned to it), it is likely that alternative social means for meeting that requirement can be devised. This, I believe, is the most meaningful interpretation of Engels’s phrase. It means that we can have the freedom to solve an ecological problem in alternative ways–if we understand its cause.
In 1980, Commoner ran for president as a founding member of the independent Citizens Party, which campaigned as a left-wing alternative to the Democrats on a platform that was pro-environment, for greater corporate accountability and regulation, opposed to nuclear power and supportive of a massive reduction in military spending, while pulling out of the Middle East and effecting a transition to renewable energy.
As for the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act–laws that today remain the most effective environmental regulations in the U.S.–Commoner regarded them as “palliatives,” not real solutions. As he told an audience at the time: “Behind every one of our crises, the environment, the economy, the drift toward war, is the fundamental fault in the systems…The country is now being run by the managers of a few big corporations and not in the national interest but in the interest of maximizing profits.”
Accordingly, if the problem was systemic, the only long-term answer would be to have “social governance of the systems of production,” because factory closings occurred due to “the production systems [being] run only to maximize profits. Workers and communities should decide what happens to plants, and those should be run in their interests.”
He was particularly scathing against Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser to Jimmy Carter as well as many Democrats since. As Commoner said, ”He should stop competing with Kissinger for the right to be a notorious footnote in history.”
Despite Commoner’s strong stance on environmental issues and his prominent name recognition, he was shunned by environmental organizations that backed the Democratic Party–similar to today and despite the disappointments of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama when it comes to environmental issues.
Commoner wasn’t surprised by this. ”The environmentalists in Washington have the narrow outlook of lobbyists,” he said. “It doesn’t help them to support me because I will not be president.”
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AS A young person who grew up as part of a street gang in Brooklyn, Commoner’s interest in social issues began with his support of the Scottsboro Boys and the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. His first campaign began in the 1950s for a nuclear test-ban treaty. He decided to take action because of his studies of Strontium-90, one of the radioactive isotopes prevalent in nuclear fallout.
While the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission denied any health dangers from fallout except in the immediate vicinity of the detonations, Commoner set out to prove them wrong by launching a campaign to collect children’s baby teeth to check for radiation.
It’s important to remember that this was during the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunts and at a time when the U.S. government was so enamored with all things nuclear that it considered setting off nuclear bombs to flatten mountains in the Southwest to speed up train connections to California.
Commoner organized a committee, and the campaign’s petition eventually garnered the signatures of over 11,000 scientists. This fight, which critically sought to engage and win the public to an anti-nuclear stance, was instrumental in the international Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, enacted in 1963.
In 1970, following extensive speaking tours on campuses across the country, Commoner was seen by tens of thousands of students as the “voice of reason in a lunatic world,” according to Time magazine, which put an iconic graphic of Commoner on the cover of its February 1970 issue. This was the time period in which Richard Nixon, in his first State of the Union address, was forced to recognize the ecological devastation caused by U.S. corporations.
1970 was the year of the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans came out to teach-ins consciously modeled on anti-Vietnam War movement activities. Demonstrations across the country demanded that the government do something about corporate ecological abuse and unrestricted poisoning of the land, air and water.
Among Commoner’s writings, his “Four Laws of Ecology” are probably most widely known. He expounded on them in his 1971 book The Closing Circle, where he argued that capitalist production methods lead to waste and pollution, since they are driven by profit rather than rationally considered needs.
Commoner’s four laws are antithetical to the linearity, short-term time horizon, anarchy and growth imperative of capitalism. Instead, according to Commoner, everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Commoner was firmly of the opinion that solving environmental problems required simultaneously solving social ones:
Thus, when any environmental issue is pursued to its origins, it reveals an inescapable truth–that the root cause of the crisis is not to be found in how men interact with nature, but in how they interact with each other; that to solve the environmental crisis, we must solve the problems of poverty, racial injustice and war; that the debt to nature which is the measure of the environmental crisis cannot be paid, person by person, in recycled bottles or ecologically sound habits, but in the ancient coin of social justice; that, in sum, a peace among men must precede the peace with nature.
Commoner never waivered from his commitment to social justice. He deserves a place in the pantheon of leftists and socialists, going all the way back to Karl Marx, who saw the necessity of engaging with questions of ecological and social justice as two sides of the same anti-capitalist coin.
Leaving the last word to Commoner, in an interview in 1997 for Scientific American, he described the intertwining of the struggle for social and ecological justice into a single fight against corporate power:
What is needed now is a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology…What is new is that environmentalism intensely illuminates the need to confront the corporate domain at its most powerful and guarded point–the exclusive right to govern the systems of production.
Seen that way, the wholesale transformation of production technologies that is mandated by pollution prevention creates a new surge of economic development. But this would touch on other social concerns as well. The wave of new productive enterprises would provide opportunities to remedy the unjust distribution of environmental hazards among economic classes and racial and ethnic communities. For labor unions, it would represent a source of new jobs and opportunities to advance the cause of a healthy work environment and worker retraining.
If environmentalism is to be devoted to human welfare, there are reasons more powerful than the environmental ones. Simple morality dictates that the rich should share their productive capacity with the poor. And an even more compelling imperative is justice, for the poor half of the planet has been brought to that plight through the exploitation of its resources and its people by the imperial nations of the North.
We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way–for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it–to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists. That is what is yet to be done.
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