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Barry Commoner, 1917-2012


Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner died in New York on September 30, at the age of 95. He never called himself an ecosocialist, but he was one of our most important precursors.

He was a founder of the modern environmental movement, an anti-war activist, and a powerful critic of capitalism. His 1971 book The Closing Circle was a pioneering analysis of the economic and social causes of environmental destruction. At a time when most writers were blaming individual behaviour or overpopulation for pollution, Commoner exposed the role of capitalism and profit.

He is particularly remembered for the “Four Laws of Ecology” he laid out in The Closing Circle: (1) Everything is connected to everything else. (2) Everything must go somewhere. (3) Nature knows best. (4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.

These articles, published by Climate & Capitalism, illustrate his views on some of the key debates in the environmental movement:

In the following excerpt from Chapter One of Too Many People?, Simon Butler and Ian Angus describe how Commoner replied to the populationist arguments advanced by Paul Ehrlich in The Population Bomb.


Barry Commoner was a biology professor, a socialist, a humanist, and one of the central leaders of the anti-nuclear-testing movement in the U.S. in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1966 he founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis,Missouri, which aimed to “adapt our science to the urgent need for understanding the natural biology of the environment and so help to preserve the community of life from extinction at the hand of man.”

Commoner strongly disagreed with The Population Bomb, and said so publicly at a Harvard University teach-in during the first-ever Earth Week in 1970:

“In my opinion, population trends in the U.S. cannot be blamed for the deteriorated condition of the environment. … Of course, if there were no people in the country there would be no pollution problem, but the fact of the matter is that there simply has not been a sufficient rise in the U.S. population to account for the enormous increase in pollution levels. … It is a serious mistake to becloud the pollution issue with the population, for the facts will not support it.”

The next day he told a meeting at Brown University that “pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom.”

And in December 1970, during a panel discussion with Paul Ehrlich at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

“Saying that none of our pollution problems can be solved without getting at population first is a copout of the worst kind.”

Commoner was impressed and inspired by the massive turnout for demonstrations, meetings, and rallies during Earth Week 1970, but he was also disturbed by what he saw as a desire for simplistic explanations and quick fixes. His response was The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology, which he described as “an effort to discover which human acts have broken the circle of life, and why.” Published in October 1971, The Closing Circle was by far the most ambitious attempt to date to describe and explain the environmental crisis in the U.S.

The Closing Circle included a strong critique of populationism, and its major conclusion directly contradicted the Ehrlichs’ views:

“Human beings have broken out of the circle of life, driven not by biological need, but by the social organization which they have devised to ‘conquer’ nature: means of gaining wealth that are governed by requirements conflicting with those which govern nature.” (Circle, 299-300)

After discussing ecology, the ecosphere, and specific examples of major ecological destruction in the U.S., Commoner narrowed in on his main concern: why, after millennia in which human beings did little permanent harm to the environment, did major pollution problems either appear for the first time or become very much worse, in the years following World War II?

Since 1946, Commoner said, population had increased 42 percent, and the U.S. standard of living had not risen much, but pollutants had increased by 200 to 2000 percent and more. Clearly “more people consuming more” couldn’t explain more than a fraction of the problem.

Commoner’s key argument was that the pollution explosion was driven not by increased population, but by changed industrial and agricultural productionby radical changes in the way things were made and grown, in the raw materials used, and in the products themselves. Those changes were adopted by industry during and after World War II because the new technologies were more profitable than the old ones.

“The crucial link between pollution and profits appears to be modern technology, which is both the main source of recent increases in productivityand therefore of profitsand of recent assaults on the environment. Driven by an inherent tendency to maximize profits, modern private enterprise has seized upon those massive technological innovations that promise to gratify this need, usually unaware that these same innovations are often also instruments of environmental destruction.” (Circle, 267-68)

That passage illustrates the most important feature of Commoner’s analysis: rather than treating population or technology or affluence as independent forces, he viewed them as driven by and interacting with wider social processes. A noteworthy example was his discussion of the dynamic factors that underlie what demographers call the “demographic transition”the process by which population growth in many countries had first accelerated and then leveled off in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

“It is sometimes supposed that this self-accelerating interaction between the increase in wealth and technological competence and population growth is bound to set off an explosive “population bomb” unless deliberate steps are taken to control birth rate. In fact, there is strong evidence that the process itself sets up a counterforce that slows population growth considerably.” (Circle, 118)

The new wealth generated by the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the 18th century caused the death rate to fall and population to rise. But as living standards increased further, the birth rate fell and population growth slowed. Child labor was abolished so children were no longer economic assets. Improved pensions and social services meant that parents didn’t need to depend on their children’s support in their old age.

“The natural result was a reduced birth rate, which occurred even without the benefit of modern methods of contraception. Thus, although population growth is an inherent feature of the progressive development of productive activities, it tends to be limited by the same force that stimulates itthe accumulation of social wealth and resources.”(Circle, 119)

But there was nothing inevitable about this process. Population growth in many third world countries remained high because the death rate had fallen but the birth rate hadn’t followed suit: the demographic transition had been “grossly affected by certain new developments.”(Circle, 119)

The wealth produced in the colonies was sent to Europe, which made possible the increased living standards that led to lower birth rates but prevented the colonies from going through the same processCommoner called this “a kind of demographic parasitism.”

Then, after World War II, industry used modern technology to “replace natural products with synthetic ones,” a trend that “exacerbated ecological stresses in the advanced countries and has hindered the efforts of developing nations to meet the needs of their growing populations.”(Circle, 246)

In short, poverty was the cause of rapid population growth in the twentieth century, not an effectand poverty itself was the result of centuries of colonialist plunder.

Pressuring poor countries into reducing their birth rates without the improved living standards that enable lower death rates and infant mortality, Commoner wrote, is a “gigantic and questionable experiment.”

“If one’s moral convictions and political views regard [that] course as dictatorial and corrosive of human values, then one can adopt the view that population growth in the developing nations of the world ought to be brought into balance by the same means that have already succeeded elsewhereimprovement of living conditions, urgent efforts to reduce mortality, social security measures, and the resultant effects on desired family size, together with personal, voluntary contraceptive practice. It is this view with which I wish to associate myself.” (Circle, 242)

The measures Commoner advocated amounted to total restructuring or replacement of the production systems and institutions that had caused the crisis“something like one half of the postwar productive enterprises would need to be replaced by ecologically sounder ones”combined with an intensive program to restore damaged ecosystems. He had no illusions that this could be done quickly or cheaply: “Perhaps the simplest way to summarize all this is that most of the nation’s resources for capital investment would need to be engaged in the task of ecological reconstruction for at least a generation.” (Circle, 285)

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