Is our situation hopeless? Is pollution so widespread, human population so large, and ecological destruction so advanced that we cannot salvage planet earth? Not at all, argues Barry Commoner, the well-known biologist. We can save the earth, expand development using technologies in harmony with the ecosphere, and thus give every human the means to a good life. But we must start now to make the necessary changes. We have little time to waste.
Commoner's new book, MAKING PEACE WITH THE PLANET, sketches a global blueprint for solving the environmental crisis. He begins by describing our environmental situation: after 20 years of intensive effort, during which we spent more than $100 billion dollars, we have failed to curb environmental destruction. Ozone depletion, global warming, increasing contamination of groundwater and oceans, smogridden cities, large inventories of radioactive wastes, and widespread chemical contamination of our food, our water, and of ourselves, all indicate that the environmental movement has failed to achieve its goals and is losing more ground each passing day. Creation of the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency), passage of a dozen major pieces of federal legislation, and publication of approximately 10,000 pages of federal regulations, have not managed to reverse, or even to control, environmental destruction.
The reason for this failure, Commoner argues, is that we have tried to cure the symptoms instead of trying to prevent the disease. Once pollution is created, Commoner argues, there is little that can be done about it. Take, for example, the chemical industry. Under the federal Community Right to Know law, the chemical industry has reported that it emits 20 billion pounds of toxic chemicals annually into the environment. Based on these data, the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) has estimated that the actual yearly release of toxic chemicals into the environment is close to 400 billion pounds. Of this, only 1% is destroyed, which is the only way to prevent these substances from threatening living things. If the other 99% of chemical industry wastes were to be destroyed, the cost would be $20 billion annually. But the entire profits of the chemical industry in recent years has been only $2 billion per year, so obviously the chemical industry cannot afford to destroy its own wastes. This is why the chemical industry still releases 99% of its wastes to the environment and must continue to do so. Commoner's point: once pollution has been created, it is too expensive to control. The only way to avoid damage from pollution is to avoid creating it in the first place: pollution prevention is the only way. ("If you don't put something into the environment, it isn't there," says Commoner, with characteristic simplicity.)
Commoner next describes the underlying source of the problem: changes in technologies since World War II. He analyzes modern industrial manufacturing technology, then agriculture, then transportation, then energy systems. In each case he shows that the new production techniques do not make new products (with a few exceptions, such as TV, computers, video tape, and some pharmaceuticals). What they produce is old, familiar products using new production methods using new raw materials, resulting in greater profits for industrialists but far more pollution.
What will it take to solve these worsening problems? It will first require the environmental movement to face the fact that prevention is the only way even though pollution prevention will be politically tough to achieve because it runs directly counter to the main goal of industry, which is to maximize profit in the short term. Non-polluting technologies do not necessarily return high profits in the short term, so industrial leaders bent on maximizing short-term profits will stubbornly oppose the changeover to nonpolluting technologies. We must face the fact that environmental quality and the current economic goals of most businessmen are in direct conflict. This means that the traditional environmentalists' tactics of compromise and accommodation cannot bring about the necessary changes. Commoner argues that the rise of the grass-roots environmental movement has shown the way: grass-roots groups have shown a willingness to take the hard road politically, to refuse to compromise with local polluters. Grass-roots environmentalists want pollution avoided, prevented, stopped. They do not want their children slightly poisoned or a little poisoned. They simply do not want their children poisoned, period. This refusal to compromise explains why "...it is the grass-roots organizations that are now at the cutting edge of the public movement to end the environmental crisis," Commoner says.
What is to be done? Commoner argues that any environmental problem has three components: a polluting technology, per-person use of that technology, and the number of people involved. By examining several representative cases, he shows that the real problem is modern technology, not the size of the human population and not per-capita consumption. Commoner believes it is important to reach agreement on the nature of the problem before we can build a movement to implement solutions. Size of the human population is not the most important component of the problem; by far, the largest contributor to global destruction is the technologies that humans employ, he shows.
Commoner then demonstrates that ecologically sound alternative technologies already exist in most cases. Successful, non-chemical agricultural techniques exist; affordable ways to harness solar energy exist; low-pollution transportation systems exist; modern chemical technologies almost all represent substitutes for earlier, less-polluting technologies, so we could return to the earlier technologies and reduce our destruction of the planet. Commoner is certainly not a Luddite seeking the abandonment of all modern amenities; but he argues that we must give up some modern technologies, returning to earlier ones, if we are to end our self-destructive war against nature.
Commoner shows that even ecologically sound technologies can be misused and misapplied by individuals bent on maximizing short-term profits, so he argues that our systems for controlling technological choices must embrace social goals as well as the goals of individuals and corporations. He also warns that we must keep in mind three general goals for any technological decision: (a) to prevent local pollution and destruction; (b) to prevent potential worldwide effects (global warming or ozone depletion, for example); and (c) to accelerate ecologically sound economic development in the third world. "If these goals are approached piecemeal, there is the danger that the method used to reach one of them will interfere with the others," Commoner points out. His emphasis on third world development is central to his global blueprint for solving the environmental crisis. We cannot achieve peace with the planet unless we achieve peace among the inhabitants of the planet, he argues, and gross economic disparities between the northern and southern hemispheres are a key source of conflict.
Commoner provides ballpark estimates of the dollar costs of restructuring American industry and he shows that the transformation of our basic industrial system will be expensive but affordable, if we cut military spending. Worldwide, military spending will need to be cut about in half, he estimates. He points out that the most productive economy in the world is that of Japan, where military expenditures are 1% of gross national product (GNP) or less; in the U.S., we spend 7% of GNP on the military. Japan uses 30% of its GNP as business investment capital; the U.S. uses only 16% of GNP that way. Reducing the military budget will free up needed capital for the necessary transformation of the U.S. industrial base.
Most wars today are fought in the third world, fueled by residual cold war ideological disputes, and made possible by arms shipments from U.S. and U.S.S.R. to both sides. Some 25 million people have died in wars since World War II--the vast majority of them in third world countries. Equitable and ecologically compatible development of the third world is essential, if wars are to be reduced and avoided.
In sum, "substantial environmental improvement can only occur when the choice of production technologies is open to social intervention... [so] we must find suitable ways to implement the social governance of production," Commoner says.
We say: Read this book. Get: Barry Commoner, MAKING PEACE WITH
THE PLANET (New York: Pantheon, 1990). $19.95. Have your library
--Peter Montague, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: barry commoner; making peace with the planet; overviews; agendas; transportation; energy; manufacturing; petrochemical industry; agriculture; fertilizers; pesticides; plastics; air pollution; water pollution; regulation; economics; conversion; ldcs; ethics; social control; production; accountability; military; waste reduction;