Barry Commoner: America’s Controversial Environmentalist

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Ecologist Barry Commoner argues that the environmental control strategy doesn't work—instead, prevention is the only way to help.
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The first full modern flowering of American environmentalism occurred early in 1970, becoming an "official" social issue by rating cover space on Time. Unfortunately, the environmental reality is still "half-and-half."

The first Earth Day was like a big party; the 20 years since, like the day after. We’ve still got headaches, as Barry Commoner, an elder of America’s environmental movement, reminds us. He is still strong. Still urgent. 

On February 2, 1970, Time magazine chose to devote its cover story to “Environment: Nixon’s New Issue.” Ecologist Barry Commoner, hailed as the Paul Revere of “the emerging science of survival,” stared out at the reader against a background half lush, half despoiled. Inside, the eight-page feature detailed our growing ecological problems, recommended a few possible solutions, and then, almost as an aside, it mentioned an upcoming “nationwide teach-in.”

The trouble with rereading that article, 20 years after the original Earth Day, is that, all in all, it doesn’t sound dated. Despite the momentum generated on that birth date of the national environmental movement, despite the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts, despite the establishment and promising start of the Environmental Protection Agency, and despite all the carefully scheduled deadlines for reducing pollution, the nest has not gotten cleaner. The old pollution problems weren’t eliminated–and new ones have been added.

Barry Commoner has changed, though. He no longer rides horseback, Revere-like, swinging a lantern and crying a warning. Instead, he now looks back over the environmental road we’ve all traveled in the past two decades. Searching out the instances in which we’ve been successful, he compares them to our failures and points out a way to redirect our course so that when Earth Day III comes around (2010; not that far away), we may not have to start over–for yet a third time.

You may disagree with Commoner’s controversial analysis, but you can’t knock his credentials. Since he first tackled the strontium 90 dangers of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1953, he has been meeting environmental issues head-on, full-time, and scientifically, as director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College in New York. CBNS has tackled the economics of nuclear power, the feasibility of organic farming, the ecology of urban rats, the contamination of mother’s milk by pesticides, and more. The group’s current emphasis is on waste disposal: recycling versus incineration. A project of theirs on Long Island, for example, recycled 84% of household trash, a rate that could eliminate the need for incinerators (“dioxin factories,” Commoner calls them) and the cost would be 35% that of incineration.

Assistant Editor Pat Stone interviewed Dr. Commoner in the small CBNS library. In a courteous but no-nonsense conversation, Commoner spoke with the vision of one who can see both the trees and the forest.

Dr. Commoner, in your recent writings, from Greenpeace magazine to the New Yorker, you repeatedly claim that the environmental movement has failed. Why?

First, it’s not simply the environmental movement that has failed. The government programs also have failed. The approach strategy taken by the EPA and all of the state environmental regulatory groups has been wrong. It hasn’t worked. As a result, there’s been very little improvement in the environment, and certain things have gotten worse.

This isn’t just a hand-waving conclusion on my part. It’s based on actual numbers. Look at the changes in emissions and pollutants. In 1970, the Clean Air Act Amendments called for a 90% reduction in urban levels of carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and ozone, setting a 1977 deadline for achieving this goal. In 1977, with compliance not even in sight, the deadline was moved to 1982. When that was missed, the deadline was delayed once more to December 31, 1987. Now, with nearly 100 million people breathing substandard air in urban areas that are still in non-compliance, the deadline may be extended up to 25 years more!

The average improvement in air pollution levels, except for lead, has been only about 14%, but even that small improvement stopped in 1982.

Generally, almost all of the pollution levels have either been just slightly improved, or gotten worse.

In a very few instances, we have succeeded. These allow us to examine the specific reasons for environmental success or failure. The answer is simple: If you don’t put something into the environment, it’s not there. Air emissions of lead have declined by 86% because much less lead is now added to gasoline and therefore that much less lead is contaminating the environment. The environmental levels of DDT and PCB have dropped sharply because their production and use have been banned. Mercury is much less prevalent in the environment because it is no longer used in manufacturing chlorine. Strontium 90 has decayed to low levels because the United States and the Soviet Union have had the simple wisdom to stop the atmospheric bomb tests that produce it.

So the moral is…

The moral is, controls don’t work. When a pollutant is attacked at its point of origin, it can be eliminated. Once produced, it’s too late.

The strategy has been to say, “OK, we’ve got these cars and power plants and so on that produce pollutants. We’re not going to change them; we’re just going to tack on control devices”: scrubbers, catalytic converters, things like that. Such controls are ultimately self-defeating. To begin with, the effect of a control device is never complete. An exhaust-control system on a car does not trap all the carbon monoxide produced, but, at best, only about 90% of it. Besides, the effectiveness of the catalyst rapidly declines with use. And as long as control devices are not absolutely perfect–and none are–continued increase in the pollution-generating activity (traffic, for example) will gradually overwhelm the devices’ effect on environmental quality. Finally, in a number of cases, there’s no way to use a control. You can’t put a filter on agricultural pollution; there’s no pipe out of which runoff nitrate fertilizer comes, because it comes out of every inch of the riverbank.

Environmental illness is simply an incurable disease. There is no cure. It can only be prevented.

In other words, don’t try to deal with the symptoms but with the cause. Our big mistake is that we’ve been putting on Band-Aids instead of going to the origin of the problem.

What’s that?

The origin, and this is my main message, is in the technology of production. Most of these technologies were introduced after World War II and without any consideration of their environmental impact: the new, large, high-powered, smog-generating cars; the shift from fuel-efficient railroads to gas-guzzling trucks and cars; the substitution of many nonbiodegradable and hazardous petrochemical products for biodegradable and less-toxic natural products; the substitution of chemical fertilizers for crop rotation and manure, and of toxic synthetic pesticides for ladybugs and birds.

Are there alternatives that are viable today; ways to make the products we use without generating pollution?

Yes, existing technologies, currently on the shelf, can be immediately applied for the transition we need. Let’s take agriculture. The way to prevent pollution from fertilizers and pesticides is to stop using them. It’s known as organic farming. Fifteen years ago, our center did a big study of 14 midwestern organic farms and 14 very comparable conventional farms. We followed them for five years and showed that the organic farms produced about 8 1/2% less output, but they made exactly the same amount of money per acre because they didn’t buy chemicals. There are now hundreds of such studies, including one by the National Academy of Sciences.

Can smogless cars be built? They can. Indeed, they have been. Every pre-World War II car was driven by a low-compression engine; that’s why the country was free of smog then. In fact, nitrogen oxide production, the primary cause of smog, can be prevented without giving up the American car’s precious overpowered engine (although doing so is a good idea). The so-called stratified charge engine can do just that. It isolates the spark from the rest of the cylinder so that the high temperature is localized and the engine doesn’t run as hot. It’s the high temperature that causes nitrogen oxide to form and trigger the smog reaction.

That engine was on a Honda Civic when the car was first introduced. According to a 1974 National Science Foundation study, prototypes were then already operating in Detroit. But unlike adding a catalytic converter to the exhaust system of the existing engine, producing stratified charge engines would have required extensive retooling in manufacturing plants, so the automobile industry didn’t build them.

There may be better ways of building cars now. In urban areas, electric cars are perfectly feasible.

Of course, that begs the question of where the electricity comes from.

There are ways of making electricity that are compatible with the environment. In the first place, even using fossil fuels, we’d be a lot better off using natural gas to make electricity than using oil or coal. Then we could replace the natural gas with solar methane made from manure or from algae growing along the coasts. In doing this, we’d have a solar fuel that has zero effect on carbon dioxide production and the greenhouse problem.

We could also use photovoltaic cells. They would become economically competitive with utility electricity if one very simple thing were done: If the federal government were to order half a billion dollars’ worth of cells for its own use, the industry would expand. The price would drop by about 90% and then become competitive in most parts of the country.

One proposed fuel solution is ethanol made from corn. But I’ve always suspected that would take more fossil fuel energy to produce than you would get from the finished fuel.

It can; it’s always possible to do a good thing stupidly. But we don’t have to do it that way. In the first place, most of the energy is used for distilling the ethanol, and we can do that with solar stills. It is also important to change the crop system appropriately. CBNS did a big study for the Department of Energy on that. People say that making ethanol out of corn will cut down on the available food supply, and it could. But consider: Our current crops are designed biochemically to feed animals, so they have a carbohydrate-to-protein ratio of 6:1. Ethanol’s made from only the carbohydrate portion, so that leaves the residue incomplete as a feed.

What’s the answer? Change the crop. Replace the present corn-and-soybean crop with corn and sugar beets. This increases carbohydrate content while retaining the same protein content as before. The residue from ethanol production will then have just the right carbohydrate-to-protein ratio to feed animals. We figured that farmers’ profits would double after 10 to 15 years from selling the two products instead of just one.

What about–to bring up the buzzword made famous two decades ago in The Graduate–plastics? 

The petrochemical industry is a unique problem: Not only its wastes but its very products degrade the environment. Every pound of plastic that’s ever been synthesized is either still with us or has been burned. If it’s still with us, it gets in the way. Birds get strangled by it, turtles eat it, and so on. And if it’s burned, it pollutes the environment.

But you have to remember that the petrochemical industry lives on displacing other industries. It’s an industrial parasite; the way we got plastics was by pushing out glass, wood, paper, and metal from various applications. I’m sitting on a plastic-upholstered chair right now. I’m old enough to remember when I sat on chairs that were just wooden or covered with cloth.

I once looked at 100 products made from ethylene, a basic petrochemical intermediate. Only two of them, recording film and plastic heart valves, could not be produced with other materials. So in this case, there would have to be a big rollback of the industry.

Dr. Commoner, your solutions sound simple, logical, even essential; but also close to impossible. Realistically, how can they be achieved?

Start with two facts: First, it is an expressed and acknowledged national interest to clean up the environment; to really clean it up, not do what we’ve been doing. Every poll shows it. Leaders like Bush and Thatcher acknowledge it.

Second, we now know how to do it: Alter the technologies of production. That means we have to introduce the social interest in environmental quality into the decision-making process that governs production technology.

There we run into a very serious political problem. In our economic system, that decision process is totally under private control. A corporation’s legal obligation is not to the nation but to its stockholders. Its decisions are made in the private interest, and that interest is maximizing profit.

So we now have to confront the clash between our economic ideology, which is capitalism, and the new idea that social interest in environmental quality must now intrude into this private province.

Are you talking about the dreaded S word: socialism?

The scientific definition of socialism is social ownership and control of the means of production. What is important here is social control, not of every single piece of production but of the crucial ones. Clearly, society has to say, Build cars that do not produce smog. But it doesn’t have to say how to make the wheels.

Or take the profit.

Right, in fact, it’s very important to understand that private profit is essential. Otherwise, where do you get the resources to continue expanding the economic system? It’s simply a question of whether profit maximization–that is, increasing the profit at all costs–is to be regarded as the sole criterion for making fundamental changes in the means of production.

But we already make some production decisions based on environmental rather than financial values. We banned lead for social reasons, for instance.

The reason why lead was banned is sort of a joke. It wasn’t because people got up in arms and said lead is poisonous, which has been known for years. It turned out that lead poisons the catalyst in the catalytic converters used to destroy carbon monoxide. That’s why the EPA took the lead out of gasoline.

There are more positive examples. My favorite one is what happened with Alar. The EPA knows it’s carcinogenic but doesn’t do anything. The National Resource Defense Council issues a report that says the levels in apples and apple juice are too high and should be reduced. That’s another example of the control strategy, of course.

But then mothers hear all this, decide they’re supposed to feed their kids healthful food, and stop buying apple juice and apples. Sales go way down; the growers scream; and Uniroyal, the company that produces Alar, takes it off the market.

That’s what I call environmental democracy. Environmental democracy is responsible for essentially killing the nuclear power industry. The people said, We don’t want this–loudly enough that the industry had to put so many controls on it that they priced it out of the market. The big upsurge in recycling is a result of environmental democracy, of public opposition to incinerators.

Do we really need to make a sweeping political change? Can’t we just fix problems on a case-by-case basis rather than changing our economic system?

No. Look at the Soviet Union. There was a severe contradiction between the Soviet Union’s ideological foundation and its practical situation: the impossible state of the country’s economy, the apathy of the people, and so on. It was a clash between ideology and reality. Now they’ve confronted that clash with glasnost and perestroika.

Well, in the United States there’s a clash between our ideology and the environmental situation, the housing situation, and the totally inadequate medical care system. Our educational system’s in bad shape. This is the richest country in history, yet poverty here is getting worse. What’s wrong? There’s a clash between our ideology, which says that the way in which an economy develops is by private corporations deciding how to maximize their profits, and what we expect our economy to be–a marvelously productive system in which everybody prospers.

The only thing is we haven’t recognized it yet. Every time somebody raises the issue–from Catholic bishops to presidential candidates– there’s dead silence. The idea is so foreign to what passes for our national ideology that even to mention it violates a deep-seated taboo.

In truth, we need a perestroika of our own.

You’re saying pollution prevention via controlling methods of production is the key to improving the environment. Let’s look at some other proposed solutions. Many environmentalists, such as soft-energy guru Amory Lovins with the Rocky Mountain Institute, stress energy conservation as key to solving our problems.

Energy conservation is essential, but it’s not sufficient. It’s a control–not a prevention–strategy and is inimical to economic development. Suppose you go into a Third World country and tell them that, to reduce their carbon dioxide output, they should improve their energy efficiency by 50%, which is a lot. In the next 10 years or so, that country will want to double its energy output, which will wipe out the effect of the conservation. What they really need is solar energy, which eliminates carbon dioxide production completely.

I like to point out that there are really three tasks. One is dealing with local and national pollution issues. Another is combating global problems like the greenhouse effect and destruction of the ozone layer. But then there’s a Third World problem because, in the next 40 or 50 years, the Third World is going to be responsible for 90% of the growth in the world’s population and for most of its growth in production. You have to take their needs into account. They need to develop, and it’s essential that their development be based on ecologically sound technologies.

It’s very important not to try to solve one of these three problems at the expense of another. There are plenty of suggestions that would do that. For example, the nuclear power people are happy to come along and say, “We can take care of the greenhouse problem very nicely.” But of course, they would do so at the expense of a huge pollution problem. Energy conservation at the expense of Third World development is a similarly incomplete solution.

So you would disagree with environmentalists who say we need a no-growth, steady-state society.

Yes, absolutely.

That argument is based on the misconception that the earth is a closed system with finite resources. It’s just not true. Yes, mineral resources are finite; but with enough energy available they can be recycled and reused indefinitely. And the energy needed is available. The earth is an open thermodynamic system with enormous amounts of energy pouring in from the sun every day. If only 10% of the solar energy falling on the land could be captured, it would still be possible to expand our present rate of energy use perhaps a hundredfold before encountering the theoretical limit of growth.

But if we just keep on expanding, building collectors everywhere, adding more people, growing ever more food, we’re going to have to take over a lot of land and wipe out many of our ecosystems.

All that I’m saying is that economic development based on ecologically sound technologies is possible. The issue we face, then, is not how to facilitate environmental quality by limiting economic development but how to create a system of production that can grow and develop in harmony with the environment. There are ways of doing that without razing rain forests or damaging ecosystems at this time, because there is an awful lot of solar energy we’re not using.

Many environmentalists, such as Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin, blame our woes on overpopulation: The ever-growing number of people is stretching the resources of the planet.

Population is a political issue, not an ecological issue. At this moment we produce twice as much food as needed to give every person on Earth a physiologically adequate diet. The real problem is poverty. Excess population is a symptom of poverty, not the other way around. Compare England and Haiti: Neither country produces enough food for its own population’s needs, but hunger is much more prevalent in Haiti than it is in England, because Haiti cannot afford to import enough food to make up this deficit, while England can.

The truth is evident: the population problem was imposed on Third World countries during colonialism.


Look at a typical situation: The Dutch went into Indonesia. Before they got there, Indonesia had a high birthrate and a high death rate, so the country’s population was stable. The Dutch came in, introduced doctors, engineers, and so on. The death rate dropped, and the population started growing quickly.

That’s exactly what happened in Holland with the Industrial Revolution. However, as the standard of living rose, after 30 or 40 years, people there realized that more children were surviving. So they began having fewer, and the birthrate began to drop.

The demographic transition where you go from a stable population with high death and birthrates to a stable population with low death and birthrates depends on a constantly rising standard of living. The Dutch started the first phase of that transition in Indonesia but prevented the second by taking the wealth back to Holland to help them go through their own demographic transition. I call that demographic parasitism. We imposed this population burden on the Third World countries, and we owe them reparation.

What about the importance of individual action? For instance, one emphasis of MOTHER EARTH NEWS when it was founded 20 years ago was to go back to the land and live more harmoniously with nature.

I absolutely understand that there are people who will feel better living on a farm as close to nature as they can. But that is not an ecologically required position. And it won’t accomplish much in the way of environmental change. I regard that as the same sort of thing as somebody who decides to play the flute. If your happiness depends on playing the flute, fine; but don’t tell everybody else to play it.

Besides, the value of an urban symphony is not replaced by the sound of a shepherd’s pipe. The values that are represented by cities are worthwhile, and we should find ecologically sound ways of achieving them. For example, there’s no reason at all why you have to have air pollution in the city. You can get rid of every fossil fuel-burning device in it.

Perhaps the main issue here isn’t just the old “city mouse versus country mouse” conflict, but one of having a positive, individual impact. The impulse to live in the country and to garden organically may be the same one that motivates an urban commuter to bicycle to work or use string shopping bags. Do you feel such individual actions are important, or are they all just flute playing?

There’s value in them, if they orient you toward a social act. In other words, instead of just using string shopping bags yourself, work to have a law passed to ban the plastic ones. There are several hundred towns in Italy that have done this.

I urge people to find a social mechanism for dealing with the problem that’s bothering them. Otherwise, the personal act may be a way of avoiding the social act–a form of escapism.

You think trying to live a more environmentally positive lifestyle is escapist?

Recognize it for what it is: a way of feeling good. I’m all in favor of people doing what makes them feel good. But let’s not confuse that with solving the problem. Don’t declare such acts as ecologically sound. In the first place, there’s no way of isolating yourself from all the ecological faults in the system. And in some cases, such acts interfere with solving the problem.

Take recycling as a marvelous example. A lot of environmentally minded people say, “Let’s have a law that requires 25% recycling.” Is that good? No, it’s bad. Why? Because if you pass a law for 25% recycling, you’re guaranteeing 75% incineration. If you’re doing recycling to feel good, 25% is great. If you’re doing recycling to solve the trash problem, go for the maximum possible amount. In a pilot test in East Hampton, Long Island, we achieved 84.4% recycling.

Ecological metaphors like string shopping bags or planting trees can be used to get rid of personal guilt. They don’t provide solutions, and, in some cases, they interfere with the solutions. That’s my position. Look, the problem is not in your head or my head. It’s in the corporate boardrooms. That’s where pollution begins.

So you come down pretty hard on people who try to “live more gently on the earth,” if they don’t also work on a larger, societal scale. From what I’ve read, you also come down pretty hard on many of the environmental organizations as well.

The environmental movement has split in two. The old-line groups in Washington live by the control strategy. Their bread and butter are legislation and standards. More recently, they’re negotiating with corporations as to what levels of pollution are acceptable. You have, for example, the head of the worst waste management company in the country–they’re all pretty bad–on the board of directors of the National Wildlife Federation. I don’t see that; no way you can do that and function very well.

The cutting edge of the environmental movement now is the grassroots groups. There are now 5,000 to 6,000 citizens’ groups in towns and cities all over the country. They aren’t “environmentalists” per se; they’re simply people concerned with such problems as incineration and waste dumps, who are acting on them. They have adopted the prevention strategy and are ready to go head-to-head against the corporations. Now there are federations of these groups.

In a number of cases, the old-line national organizations have lost their influence locally and have even stood in the way of what really needs to be done. Here in New York, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund worked with the sanitation department in promoting incineration, whereas the people in the community were fighting it.

How do you feel about the prospect of establishing a Green party in the U.S.?

I think I’m qualified to talk about third parties; I tried running for president on one. [Editor’s note: Commoner was the candidate of the Citizen’s party in 1980. Today, he’s the environmental advisor for Jesse Jackson’s campaigns.] The Greens have had fantastic success in Europe; 10% of the Italian Parliament is now Green. But they work in countries that have parliamentary democracies, where you get political representation in proportion to your share of the vote. There’s no way a Green party would succeed in our two-party system, because it wouldn’t capture a majority of the vote.

The environmental movement will not by itself solve the environmental problem; it can’t, because that problem involves a fundamental political issue which can only be resolved by everybody. The great virtue of the environmental movement is that it illuminates this issue more readily than many other ways of looking at it. You see, the environment is only part of the problem. The other parts are jobs, poverty, discrimination–and they’re all connected at the same point: the governance of the means of production. How can women and minorities get paid as well as white males? By gaining some governance of the source of our wealth, the system of production. So the environmentalists need to find common ground with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the peace movement.

Many environmentalists might think they should be concerned only with environmental issues and stay out of those other ones.

Do that and you won’t succeed, not because you’re interested in the environment but because you’re intruding into this carefully protected private right. The issue then becomes this generic one of social governance, and unions and other groups are interested in that too. If you attack the problem at the root, you’ll find yourself surrounded by allies, because there are people who have different problems that go to that same root.

It sounds like a tall order. Do you really think it’s possible?

This is the wrong time in history to say it can’t be done. If Eastern Europe can accept democratic reforms, if Russia can talk about free markets, why can’t we talk about social governance of the means of production? In the past, I would have said that I’m an optimist and I’d like to think it could be done. But today I say that it’s unwise and unworthy of us to claim that we can’t do it.

This is our chance; the situation is ripe. The ecologically sound technologies exist. There’s worldwide concern about the environment. This innate democratic sense that people have is just bursting out everywhere. There are incipient movements in the right direction. And most important, really, there’s the opportunity for getting the funds needed to make the ecological transition. They can only be gotten from the military budget; and with some disarmament already, and more happening fast, the military budget is up for grabs.

Do you think Earth Day will have an impact?

I think Earth Day 1990 will elevate consciousness to a new level. Of course, we did that in 1970, but because we didn’t understand the problem analytically, we allowed the wrong things to be done. I think you only get a few chances to make mistakes like that. This time we better not make a mistake.

It’s very important that, in 1990, people understand that the control strategy has failed, that prevention is the only way to go, and that prevention means confronting the corporations where they live and where we live.