and Social Action
Berkeley, California March 15, 1973
That there is an important connection between ecology and social
action is now self-evident. Ecology has become the subject of local
bond issues, of state and national legislation, of Presidential
pronouncements and of a United Nations Conference. Environmental
issues are at stake in a current strike against a major oil company;
less formal actions - petitions, boycotts, letter-writing campaigns
about nearly every major intrusion on the environment - are everyday
events. There seems little reason to doubt that there is some connection
between what ecology tells us about the degraded quality of life
and the social action needed to improve it.
However, what is much less evident is the kind of social action
that is needed to remedy the faults revealed by ecological insights
and how that action can be accomplished.
A vast gap separates ecology and social action. Ecology is a science,
which is presumably objective and immune, in its truth, to human
wishes. In contrast, social action is specifically intended to express
what people want: for example, peace, freedom, a decent quality
of life. As a result of this fundamental conflict, the area between
ecology and social action is a thicket of intellectual pitfalls,
moral traps, and political dangers.
The Thicket of Intellectual Pitfalls
Among the more difficult questions are these: Since, like all living
things, people are subsidiary parts of an ecosystem, should not
human action be governed by the principles of ecology? Or, do the
obviously superior intellectual powers of human beings relative
to other members of ecosystems allow them to escape the ecological
imperatives, to be governed instead by principles of morality or
politics? Finally, if it is indeed true that human society must
be governed by ecological principles - which are laws of nature
not subject to change by the most powerful political force-does
this not lead to a system of rigid controls over human behavior,
to political repression in the name of ecology?
These are difficult, troublesome issues. Nevertheless, the need
to understand them is overriding, and we must accept, I believe,
the duty to venture into this wilderness and learn how to bridge
the gap between the wisdom of ecology and the urgency of social
action. I can only hope here to suggest - in the most tentative
terms - how one can begin to grapple with these kinds of questions.
The entire area has so many different faces that a variety of approaches
are possible. My own plan is to begin with ecology and work outward
from that base toward the wilder reaches of the terrain in which
ecology and social action meet.
Ecology - the science of the interdependence of living things and
the environment which is their habitat - tells us that everything
that lives on the earth requires for its survival suitable interactions
with other living things and with the non-living environment. A
simple, basic, example is the terrestrial cycle. Plants (grass,
let us say) are eaten by terrestrial animals (such as cattle); the
latter's organic waste, deposited on the soil, is incorporated by
microorganisms into humus, a store of organic nutrients; slowly
other microorganisms convert humus to inorganic nutrients (nitrate
and phosphate for example); these, taken up by the plants, together
with carbon dioxide, are transformed, through the energetic events
of photosynthesis, into organic matter, which feeds the animals
- and so forth. Ecology reveals no known exceptions to the rule
that every living thing which survives on the earth must serve as
a fitting member of some stable ecosystem. Within each ecosystem
each living member must act in a way which is compatible with the
continued existence of that system and therefore of the organism
itself. Such closed, circular systems will break down and place
their living members at mortal risk if they are disrupted or too
These arrangements have developed during three billion years of
biological evolution. In that time, living things have tried out
innumerable possible arrangements of their elaborate internal chemistry,
selecting from them a set of compatible processes which are fantastically
smaller in number than the number of possible ones.1 As a result,
a substance normally absent from living things, such as mercury
or DDT, ought to be regarded as a kind of evolutionary reject and
likely, on these grounds alone, to be incompatible with the present
chemistry of life. This is the sense in which "Nature knows
best" - a rule which has been grossly violated, as we have
inflicted mercury and other metals and an entire alphabet of noxious,
synthetic substances on the ecosphere.
Synthetic Food and Fiber-No Bargain
This much seems clear and, in my opinion, indisputable. It is equally
clear and indisputable that man is a species of animal with specific
environmental requirements - for plant and animal organic matter
as food, for oxygen, pure water, and a suitable range of temperatures
- all of these wholly, or in large part, provided by the actions
of living things. There was a time, perhaps 15 or 20 years ago,
when it was possible to claim without very much opposition that
man's special capabilities - as exemplified by technology - could
free us of dependence on other living things for food, fiber, and
oxygen; that the future would be science-fiction come true, with
people or whole cities encased in sparkling domes on some distant
planet, free of the cares of the body or of the stewardship of a
fragile Earth. The environmental crisis has put an end to this notion,
not merely by its propagandistic force, but because the crisis has
required us to learn some basic scientific truths.
We have had to learn, for example, that an organic fiber synthesized
chemically from petroleum is no great technological bargain, for
it largely repeats (with a foolish waste of nonrenewable fossil
fuels, energy, and human effort) what an appropriate ecosystem,
based on the cotton plant for example, does with great thrift and
efficiency using only that remarkable, renewable, non-polluting
source of energy, the sun. The total dependence of human beings
on the ecosphere has also, unfortunately, been amply demonstrated
by the outcome of the negative experiment to which we have blindly
committed the globe by proceeding for so long to use the earth's
resources without any regard for the integrity of the environment.
Given that man, like any other living thing, must conform to the
ecological imperative, there is a great temptation to reduce the
relation between ecology and social action to a deceptively simple
form: Good social action is simply good ecology. Prescriptions for
social action then readily follow: If people are crowded into cities
beyond the capability of a restricted space to supply them with
food, and good air, and biologically to assimilate their wastes
- let them return to the land, where they once lived in harmony
with the natural cycles. If, because of an imbalance between fertility
and the food supply, the land they live on is not sufficient to
sustain the human population at its present size, let the inevitable
laws of ecology operate - with an assist from philanthropic foundations
and pharmaceutical companies - reducing the population to an ecologically
This kind of solution has the double allure of simplicity and of
an apparent grounding in the firm terrain of science rather than
the shifty sands of politics. However, on further examination the
approach turns out to be neither simple, nor soundly based on ecology.
This becomes evident if we take a closer look at the ecological
principles themselves. Let us examine, for example, the operational
meaning of the idea that man, as a terrestrial animal, ought to
fit into the appropriate natural ecosystem. However, let us not
merely accept that this statement is true, but seek to discover
why it is true, and what bearing that might have on social action.
Men's Place in the Terrestrial Cycle
To return to the earlier example, let us place human beings in
their appropriate place in the terrestrial cycle, to simplify matters
a bit, as a predator on the cattle. Now organic matter moves from
plant to cattle to man, and the latter's organic waste enters the
soil microbial system, so that - as before - the cycle retains a
closed, integrated form. All is well, ecologically.
In this system, viewed simply in terms of the basic elemental cycles
- e.g., carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous-the human being serves,
fundamentally, as a means of converting cattle organic matter into
soil organic matter. This is a process which the cattle can do quite
well without human help, but which retains its original ecological
soundness, even if the human transit intervenes.
Clearly, if people move off the land into the city, then the cattle
- or, more realistically, food in general - must be shipped into
the city, where it is converted by the population into sewage, which
is delivered, under present arrangements, in one form or another
not to the soil but to surface waters. The latter process - modern
sewage treatment - is, of course, one of the classical ecological
failures of current technology. It manages at once to disrupt the
soil cycle (since nutrients derived from the soil are no longer
returned to it) and to stress the aquatic cycle (which now has imposed
on it organic matter, or the inorganic nutrients derived from it
by treatment, at a rate be-yond the ecosystem's natural assimilatory
All People Need Not Return to the Land
Given these rather primitive but nevertheless meaningful ecological
data, we can ask: What constraints does ecology properly place on
the relevant social decisions, such as the distribution of population
between land and city? Clearly, in order to restore ecological integrity,
it is not essential that people be returned to the land; what is
required is only their waste. The present fault, then, is not the
movement of the people to the city, but a specific feature of the
present technology for supporting that arrangement: disposal of
waste to surface waters rather than the soil. This ecological defect
could be readily rectified, for example, by the construction of
pipelines to return sewage, intact, to the land, a technological
innovation which would simultaneously restore the integrity of the
soil cycle and remove the stress on the aquatic ecosystem. The ecological
imperative does not require that people live on the land.
Of course even such ecologically sound technological processes
do require the expenditure of energy (to transport both food and
sewage) beyond that involved in the original land-based cycle -
a point which is often raised by advocates of the "return to
nature" as evidence that no human intervention is really free
of serious ecological damage. Even the mere consumption of non-renewable
fuel (apart from the effects of mining and burning it) violates
the ecological concept of balanced inputs and outputs, let alone
the simple common sense of avoiding self-destructive acts. We must
ask then: In what ways is the expenditure of energy by human beings
(beyond the 2,500 or so calories per day which is each person's
essential biological allotment) incompatible with ecological integrity?
The answer is plain enough. Such energy expenditures are ecologically
unsound if one or more of the following conditions exist:
(a) The fuel is non-renewable (e.g., oil, gas, coal or uranium);
or (b) the products of combustion are not natural constituents of
the ecosystem into which they are intruded (e.g., radioactive wastes
from nuclear reactors or S02 and mercury from the combustion of
fossil fuels); or, (c) if combustion products which are normal in
the environment are produced at rates not readily accommodated by
the natural system (e.g., C02 produced at a rate which upsets the
earth's thermal equilibrium through the greenhouse effect, or the
comparable effect on surface waters of heat released to a power
plant's cooling stream).
Ecologically Sound Technology: Some Samples
Notice that these requirements do not automatically preclude all
expenditures of non-biological energy. For example, given the appropriate
technology, solar energy incident upon the earth could be converted
to electric power directly. In ecological terms, this would represent
only a redistribution of incident energy on the earth's surface,
a process which occurs naturally in the form of wind, clouds, and
precipitation. That such tech-nological systems are practical is
shown by Zener's recent pro-posal to build devices, to be floated
in tropical oceans, for the generation of electric power from the
marine thermal gradient (which is, of course, a local expression
of the absorption of thermal energy from the sun). Zerner (1973)2
concludes that, at a price which would be competitive with the cost
of nuclear power, such a system could generate about 60 billion
kilowatts, or about 30 times the energy consumed by the U.S. in
1970 with a total ecological impact represented by a 1°C change
in the surface temperature of tropical oceans.
Other examples of ecologically sound technologies - sufficiently
new and innovative to excite the most starry-eyed engineer - come
readily to mind. For example, Zener proposes to use power from marine
thermal-gradient generators to electrolyze water, yielding oxygen
and hydrogen. Hydrogen is, of course, an eco-logically perfect fuel,
yielding only water on combustion, and adaptable to various applications
where electric power is not suitable. Given this base, one could
restore natural fibers, rubber, wood, and oil to their proper place
in the economy, as the most energetically thrifty and pollution-free
means of producing such goods, even retaining power (hydrogen)-driven
agricultural machinery for the purpose. All this could rid us of
much of the petrochemical industry and its works: photochemical
smog, and the other automobile pollutants; synthetic detergents,
plastics and fibers; the synthetic additives and non-foods that
we are now forced to eat because they are made economically feasible
by the very size of this huge productive system. Other technologies
can be made compatible with the ecological imperative by the simple
expedient of reducing their size; a good example is a small electric
generator designed to operate in the free flow of a moderately swift
river (no dam, no silting) which generates enough power to supply
the needs of a farmhouse.
Here are some other examples of ecologically sound technology:
a rigorously "organic," but nevertheless tended, garden;
a windmill; a home, moderately equipped with electric appliances,
but powered by electricity generated by solar energy; a newspaper,
made from wood pulp (by a method which does not release toxic materials
into the environment) imprinted with biodegradable ink, so that
once read it can be composted. In each case, the technologically
mediated process is part of a natural one: the organic garden and
the newspaper rearrange, but do not disrupt, the movement of materials
through the terrestrial ecosystem; the windmill and the solar-powered
home rearrange, to a degree, the normal transfer of solar energy
from one place on the earth's surface to another.
I do not intend to propose here an ecologically sound but technologically
advanced Utopia. Clearly, some unavoidable human interventions will
carry environmental costs that must be balanced against the attendant
benefits. Nor do I propose that we can abrogate the self-evident
rule that the capacity of the global ecosystem is ultimately finite,
and will not sustain an ever-growing population of any species.
Man Can Choose How to Obey "Ecological Imperative"
Rather, what emerges from these considerations is a modest but
nevertheless decisive conclusion: that human, socially-motivated
interventions - technologies - which are reasonably useful relative
to our present technological accomplishments and yet conform to
the requirements of ecology, are possible. Ecological sanity does
not necessarily require that we return to the pre-technological
state. The same result can be accomplished by a technological design
sufficiently informed by ecology. So long as the need to obey the
laws of ecology is honored, human society can retain the freedom
to choose how these requirements are met. We can choose whether
we wish to meet the ecological imperative by returning people or
sewage from the city to the land, by vending all non-biological
energy production, or by converting to solar energy.
To clarify matters, it occurs to me at this point that it might
be helpful if I were to offer an amendment to the slogan "Nature
Knows Best." 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." In this statement,
the "bow" is technology, properly governed, of course,
by the principles of ecology, not to speak of chemistry and physics.
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 in so far 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
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.
Ecosystems Are Circular, Not Linear
But causation, in ecology, is not a self-explained concept, and
the sense in which I use it here needs some discussion. In an intact,
natural ecosystem, the concept of causation is fundamentally meaningless.
This is due to the circularity of ecosystems. Causality is a property
of a linear system, in which event A determines (is the cause of)
B, B determines C, and so on. Suppose, however, we carry the progressions
linearly to event N, and then arrange matters so the N determines
A. Now, of course, it makes little sense to speak of A as "the
cause" of B, since B, acting through the cyclical progression
of events, is itself an equally effective "cause" of A.
This is, of course, the situation in a natural, intact ecosystem.
However, in a disrupted ecosystem the natural cycle is converted
from a circular system to a linear one, restoring some sense to
the concept of cause: the "cause" of the resulting change
in the ecosystem can be thought of as the locus in the cycle at
which the normal event is disrupted. This might be regarded as the
one real virtue of a man-made ecological disruption - at least it
considerably simplifies the problem of causality.
An example might be useful here. In a normal forested watershed,
a well-known hydrological cycle (to focus on this single aspect
of the system as a whole) is at work. Rain and snow fall on the
forested land; this sustains the growth of vegetation, which by
the arrangement of its aerial and subterranean parts protects the
soil from erosion under the force of heavy rains. Moreover, the
biological process (transpiration) which governs the relationship
between the trees' roots and branches draws water effectively from
the soil back into the air. The remainder gradually seeps to the
valley, forming a stream which finds its way downward to the sea.
Here, in the sun's heat, much water is evaporated to form clouds
and generate winds - which together eventually return the water
to the forested land, where it can embark, once more, on the cycle.
An all-too-familiar way in which this cycle is disrupted by the
hand of man is lumbering. If the trees are removed, the soil is
less stable and exposed to the full force of rain with no water
diverted by transpiration, a heavy silt-laden flood engulfs the
valley. This change in the ecosystem presents itself to us in a
specific and intrusive way: the river floods.
Now consider two contrasting methods of analyzing this problem
- of seeking its cause and devising a cure. Looked at superficially
(charity suggests that we do not say by whom), I the problem is
seen as too large a flow of water through a river valley. In turn
this suggests an equally superficial solution: a dam is erected
upstream to hold back the springtime flow and to release it more
gradually later on. But the solution is temporary, because the dam
silts up, losing its retentive capacity, and floods, often worse
than before, recur.
Properly analyzed as to cause, the problem becomes quite different:
It is discovered that the reason why the river flow has increased
is further upstream than the flood. Because it has been denuded
of vegetation, the soil of the watershed has lost its former capacity
to retain the precipitation that it receives. The proper solution,
of course, is not a dam but reforestation of the upstream area.
Treating Symptoms Is No Solution
The lesson here seems evident: To remedy successfully a manmade
ecological problem, its effect - however evident and immediately
important - must be traced back, step by ecological step, until
the point in the natural cycle is found at which the thoughtless
hand of man intruded. This is the cause; here the cure - restoration
of the ecological link - must be made. Within these requirements
technological choices are open to us. The original vegetation can
be regrown or replaced by faster-growing trees, or even by pasture.
All this is, of course, only the familiar practice of soil conservation.
The recent history of the environmental crisis is replete with
similar examples of ecological problems which have been superficially
analyzed and "solved" in ways which merely worsen them.
The failure of modern sewage treatment has already been mentioned.
This technology has failed because it is designed to correct a symptom
of the problem (oxygen depletion) rather than its cause, which is
the diversion of organic matter that belongs in the terrestrial
ecosystem into the aquatic ecosystem. Another example is given by
the increasingly futile effort to control automobile smog by means
which side-step its fundamental cause - that modern cars have become
generators of nitrogen oxides, which trigger the smog reaction.
Present exhaust controls regulate everything but nitrogen oxides
and simultaneously increase fuel consumption; while smog levels
may fall, concentrations of nitrogen oxides-which are themselves
toxic-rise sharply. Then there is the matter of recycling bottles
by melting them down to make new ones, at considerable expenditure
of energy (and its resulting pollution), when a rather simple, more
fundamental analysis reveals that at far less cost in energy, recycling
can be accomplished by simply washing the bottles and reusing them.
Thus, the failure to seek out the real cause of an ecological problem
is likely to result in actions which worsen rather than improve
it. At the least, our experience with current ecological problems
should serve as a warning that in such complex situations there
is often a tendency to confuse symptom with cause, a failure which
is very likely to produce a superficial and necessarily faulty solution.
How do these lessons apply to the problem of social action? Here
we need to deal with a system which, like the ecosphere itself,
is a fabric of interconnected processes: the technological processes
which intrude upon the environment; their use as a means of satisfying
the needs of the population; the economic considerations which govern
the design and use of technologies; the political processes that
determine for whose benefit the natural and technological resources
are used, which in turn influences the design of technology and
the intensity of resource exploitation; the social and ethical values
that are embodied in all of the foregoing. Or, to refer again to
the earlier example: Why were all the trees cut down? To what material
end? For whose profit? Under the protection of what political power?
In the name of what social or moral values? In sum, what fault in
this system brought the logging machines onto the land and set off
the ecological events that culminated in a flood?
Overpopulation and Social Action
With this as a background let us examine some of the social actions
that have been proposed for a crucial ecological problem, overpopulation.
On its face this has all the appearances of a straightforward ecological
problem: People, like all living things, have an inherent tendency,
if provided with suitable environmental circumstances, to multiply
geometrically, Since one of their essential requirements, a supply
of food, cannot grow in amount at a comparable rate, population
is certain to outgrow its food supply - unless some countervailing
process intervenes. One can argue about details in specific instances,
but taken as a general summary of the problem, the foregoing statement
is one which no environmentalist can successfully dispute.
Thus far the problem. We turn now to its analysis and possible
solution. Among those concerned with social action, perhaps the
best known analysis of the population problem is Garrett Hardin's
paper, "The Tragedy of the Commons." The nub of his argument
is contained in the following passage.
"The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a
pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will
try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement
may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal
wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast
well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however,
comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired
goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent
logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
"As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his
gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks,
'What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?'
"... the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible
course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And
another; and another.... But this is the conclusion reached by each
and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy.
Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his
herd without limit - in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination
toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in
a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in
a commons brings ruin to all." (Hardin, 1970.)
Based on this analysis, Hardin then goes on to conclude that "Freedom
to breed will bring ruin to all" and urges that breeding be
controlled by "mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon."
Thus, in this analysis of the population problem Hardin concludes
that it is caused by unrestrained breeding, the countervailing force
- the death rate - having been weakened, in his view, by social
progress. It follows that the solution is a reduced birth rate.
How far into the problem does this analysis penetrate; has Hardin
uncovered the cause or only a symptom?
Hardin asserts that given the freedom to do so human beings will
inevitably produce children faster than the goods needed to support
them. As it happens, this assumption is amenable to an historical,
scientific analysis. In most modern societies (with the notorious
exception of Nazi Germany,) the freedom to breed has been deeply
engrained in social mores, and strongly protected by law. Hence,
if Hardin is correct, we should find, in the history of these societies,
evidence that population growth is largely governed by a simple
relationship between death rate and birthrate, and that the latter
has been governed by biological factors rather than social ones.
Population Growth: a Function of Circular Relationships
The trends in world population are the subject of a large and complex
literature, which covers a vast array of subjects: reproductive
physiology, and its psychological background, the sociology of families
and larger groups, agricultural and industrial technology, economics,
world trade, and international politics. Demographers have delineated
a complex network of interactions among these various factors. This
shows at once that population growth is not the consequence of a
simple cause and effect relationship between birthrate and death
rate. Instead there are circular relationships, in which, as in
an ecological cycle, every step is connected to several others.
Thus, while a reduced death rate does, of course, increase the
rate of population growth, it can also have the opposite effect
- since families often respond to a reduced rate of infant mortality
by opting for fewer children. Thus, a negative feedback develops
which tends to modulate the effect of a decreased death rate on
population size. Similarly, although a rising population increased
the demands on resources, which worsens the population problem,
it also stimulates economic activity. In turn, educational levels
improve. This tends to increase the average age at marriage, culminating
in a reduced birthrate - which mitigates the pressure on resources.
None of this fits the assumption made in "The Tragedy of the
Commons." Birthrate is not at all free of social controls,
when the "freedom to breed" is assured. In particular,
there is a powerful social force which, without compulsion - or
even persuasion - leads people voluntarily to restrict the production
of children. That force, simply stated, is the quality of life:
a high standard of living, a sense of well being and of security
in the future. A simple test for the quality of life is infant mortality;
in both industrialized and developing nations, as soon as infant
mortality declines to a minimum level of about 12 to 20 per 1,000
there is a sharp decline in birthrate, which begins to approach
death rate - and the condition for a balanced population (Commoner,
1971a). Thus, human societies have developed a social means of bringing
the birthrate into balance with the death rate. It consists of the
improvement of the standard of living. Birth control is, of course,
a necessary adjunct to this process; but it can succeed - barring
compulsion - only in the presence of a rising standard of living,
which of itself generates the motivation for birth control.
It seems to me that the failing here is the same as that exhibited
by the flood-control engineer: elevation of a symptom to the status
of a cause. Like the rising waters of a flood, a growing population
is a symptom of a deeper set of causes. In both cases the problem
is not likely to be solved for long unless action is directed toward
the cause rather than the symptom.
It is particularly illuminating to note that a faulty analysis
of the deeper causes of the population problem restricts the range
of apparent social actions that might be taken to solve it. The
simplicity and poverty of Hardin's solution to the population problem
contrasts sharply with the complexity and intellectual richness
of the literature of demography. Given the multiplicity of alternative
influences on population growth, one can only wonder why it can
only be regulated by the singular method of imposing direct controls
on the birthrate. It seems to me that the reason is ecological myopia
- a failing to look beyond the most immediate simple, symptom toward
the far richer realm of its cause and alternative cures.
How Present-day Environmental Pollution Began
As a second example I should like to consider the problem of defining
the arena of social action designed to correct the problem of environmental
pollution, specifically as it has developed in an advanced country
such as the United States. To begin with, let me analyze briefly
the origins of the United States pollution problem, which I have
already discussed elsewhere (Commoner, 1971b).
The general problem is to account for the sharp post-war rise -
about an order of magnitude or more in size - in pollution levels
in the United States. It can be shown that the major reason for
this rise in pollution levels is either the concurrent increase
in population size or in affluence (goods produced per capita).
Rather it is due chiefly to post-war changes in the technology of
agricultural and industrial production. In that period there has
been a striking replacement of natural materials (cotton, wool,
silk, wood) by man-made plastic materials; there has been a remarkable
increase in the amounts and varieties of other manmade synthetic
materials (e.g., detergents, pesticides, herbicides); automobile
engines have been redesigned to operate at increasingly higher compression
ratios; electric power, generated in very large power plants, has
increasingly replaced geographically - spread home heating directly
by fuel; materials, such as aluminum and certain chemicals, the
production of which is intensely power-consumptive, have increasingly
replaced more power-sparing materials. At the same time there have
been striking changes in agricultural practice, especially the increasing
tendency to feed livestock separate from pastures, reduced crop
rotation, large increases in the use of inorganic fertilizers, and
the massive introduction of synthetic pesticides and herbicides.
These changes, which are intense and coincide with the period of
rising pollution, result from the massive introduction of new technologies,
especially in the period following World War II.
These new technologies are drastically unsuited for accommodation
by natural environmental processes; they therefore lead to environmental
pollution. Manufacture of plastics in place of natural fibers means
the use of fuel-generated power (with its attendant pollution) in
place of the power of sunlight, absorbed by plants, and transmitted
by natural (and therefore non-polluting) environmental processes.
Synthetic man-made products, such as detergents, plastics and pesticides,
which are outside (and therefore incompatible with) the coordinated
system of biochemical processes that living things have evolved,
are therefore not assimilated by natural environmental cycles; consequently
they accumulate as pollutants. The increased manufacture of synthetic
organic chemicals has resulted in increased production of chlorine
- an important ingredient in many organic syntheses. In turn, the
use of mercury in electrolytic production of chlorine has also increased.
This is the source of much of the mercury pollution in United States
The development of the modern high-compression gasoline engine,
with its attendant high temperature, causes oxygen and nitrogen
in the air to combine as nitrogen oxides, a substance otherwise
rare in nature and not readily accommodated by natural environmental
processes. Nitrogen oxides are the basic cause of smog. Intensification
of power generation in large electric plants results in the production
of several major substances, which are incapable of being accommodated
by natural environmental cycles and therefore become pollutants,
especially sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and (in the case of
nuclear plants) radio-isotopes. The new agricultural techniques
have disrupted soil cycles, so that natural soil fertility is reduced,
and fertilizers - which contribute to water pollution - leach into
surface waters. The new pesticides disrupt the balance between insect
pests and their natural predators and parasites - with the resultant
appearance, increasingly, of insecticide-induced outbreaks of insect
pests and the accumulation of insecticides in wildlife and man.
Current Technology and Short-term Gain
These basic changes in industrial and agricultural production and
in transportation account for most of the exponential increase in
pollution levels in the United States since 1945. This process -
the tendency to displace technologies which are relatively benign
environmentally, with new ones that sharply increase the ratio of
pollution emitted to goods produced - much more than increased population
and per capita consumption is the "causal relationship"
that couples productive activities to the environment.
But this is only one point in the complex web of social and economic
processes that operate in the United States productive system. To
avoid the trap of dealing with a symptom rather than the cause,
we need to press further and ask: How can we account for the striking
tendency of new technologies to be far more stressful toward the
environment than the older ones which they replace? This is a very
complex issue, and I shall consider only one of the relevant factors
here. This is the evidence that the chief driving force behind this
counter-ecological trend in the development of modern productive
technologies is that production is generally motivated by the desire
for short-term gain (in the United States economic system, private
profit; in the Soviet system, meeting the production quota). As
a result, changes in the design of industrial and agricultural production
and transport are governed not by environmental compatibility, but
by the short-term gains which they promise.
Henry Ford: "Minicars Make Miniprofits"
The new counter-ecological technologies, which have displaced the
older, less-polluting ones, are also more profitable than their
competitors. Thus, the profit in making detergents is considerably
greater than that derived from the manufacture of soap; trucking
is more profitable than railroads; and to quote Henry Ford II, "Minicars
make miniprofits." Here then, is a benefit - to the entrepreneur
- from the social costs of environmental pollution.
All this is a strong reminder that ecological problems and environmental
degradation, are not free-floating phenomena, but are firmly built
into the operation of the economic system. They represent a debt
to nature, a mortgage incurred by productive operations, which -
now that it must be repaid - is going to cost someone something.
A simple rule common to ecology and economics is at work here: "There
is no such thing as a free lunch."
When we speak of environmental pollution as a "debt to nature,"
it is well to ask who benefits from the debt and who has to pay
When, as in the United States, an economic system operates in such
a way as to concentrate a major part of its wealth in the hands
of the relatively few, then any major effort to combat environmental
degradation is very likely to widen the gap between the rich and
Consider an example - the often proposed idea that the costs of
environmental control or improvement can be met by "passing
them along to the consumer." Suppose, as predicted, the cost
of exhaust controls adds several hundred dollars to the price of
a car. To the rich person who buys an expensive car, the added expense
is easily borne; but to the poor person the added cost may make
the difference between having a car or not having one. Similarly,
if as anticipated reduction in the use of agricultural chemicals
increases the cost of producing food, it will be the poor who would
suffer most from the added burden.
Consider another example, the difference in access to air conditioning
among different economic classes. Recent United States census figures
show that the poorest families (less than $3,000 income per year)
operate one-fourth as much air-conditioning per household as the
richest families (more than $15,000 income per year). Recall that
air-conditioning inevitably adds heat to the environment (as does
every use of energy, for whatever purpose). Thus we have a situation
in which the wealthy residents of a city, while enjoying cool surroundings,
add to the city's temperature - making the environment that much
worse for the poor people who cannot afford air-conditioners. Again
the poor are forced to pay an extra share of the environmental debt
The outcome of these considerations is this: Where, as in the United
States, there are sharp economics inequities - between entrepreneur
and worker, and between the rich and the poor - any serious effort
to combat environmental degradation is likely to intensify these
inequities, to widen the gap. There appears to be no middle ground;
if, as we must, we resolve to end the environmental crisis, we will
need to choose between two paths - one leading toward a more just
distribution of the nation's resources and wealth, and the other
toward further intensification of the present unequal and - in my
view unjust - distribution of wealth.
The Crisis: Man and Man - Not Man and Nature
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.
I should like to conclude by returning briefly to the questions
raised earlier. First, let us remind ourselves that although human
beings - like all living things - are indeed subject to the laws
of ecology, they are sharply set apart from the rest of nature by
their understanding of these laws, Like grass and cattle, we are
members of a terrestrial ecosystem; but unlike grass and cattle
we do, after all, comprehend the nature of the ecosystem to which
we belong and - belatedly, it is true - know that we must maintain
its integrity. Recognizing this necessity, we become free to choose
among alternative, ecologically equivalent ways of meeting it. Living
on the land as part of the terrestrial ecosystem, or living in a
city which is suitably integrated into it by means of a sewage pipeline
are, least to a first approximation, ecological equivalents. For
that reason, ecological considerations are not a suitable basis
for choosing between these alternatives; rather, the choice is a
matter of personal judgment, of social values, or of political wisdom.
In this way, by recognizing that we must conform to the ecological
imperative, we become free to exercise a personal or political choice
as to how that is to be done. Our capacity to understand ecology
frees us from the narrow singularities which govern the ecological
behavior of all other organisms and opens up a broad array of options.
These range from the survival of the aboriginal Bushman in an incredibly
harsh terrestrial system by means of a marvelously intimate understanding
of its eco-logical features (which he disturbs as little as possible)
to the feasible if still unrealized productive system based on devices-.
windmills, solar heaters, thermoelectric generators, sewage pipe-lines,
and compost heaps - which are human artifacts, tech-nologies, if
you like, but ecologically sound ones.
We Are Freer Than We Thought
Thus, once we recognize that human beings are not bound to single
ecological solutions, but can choose among several, social action
- which is, after all, the process of choosing among such options-becomes
a reality. It is encouraging that this view of the relation between
ecology and social action is, in political terms, liberating; that
it calls for societal arrangements which enable political choice;
that it fosters democracy.
If, in contrast, one accepts a view which elevates ecology from
its true position as an aspect of biological science to a principal
of social governance the political consequences are repressive rather
than liberating. Examples of this tendency are not hard to find.
Garrett Hardin who would have us governed by the principles of ecology
in order to avoid the "tragedy of the commons," finds
it necessary, when he turns to the requisite social action, to speak
of coercion, and to suggest in one astonishing passage that:
"How can we help a foreign country to escape over-popula-tion?
Clearly the worst thing we can do is send food.... Atomic bombs
would be kinder. For a few moments the misery would be acute, but
it would soon come to an end for most of the people, leaving a very
few survivors to suffer thereafter." (Hardin, 1969.)
Another example is the "Blueprint for Survival" (Goldsmith
et al., 1972), a detailed, step-by-step plan to transform British
society according to the principles of ecology. The plan cites a
former U. S. Attorney General, John Mitchell, on "crime in
the cities," concluding that "crime is part of the price
of affluence" and specifying a system of elaborate control
over where and how people live. Yet, curiously, the plan fails to
tell us who will be in charge of this elaborately "orchestrated"
(to use the report's word) social plan, and how democracy is expected
to survive in it.
A similar report, "The Limits to Growth" (Meadow et al.,
1972), attempts to analyze the future course of human society on
purely "ecological" grounds - carefully omitting the options
which could achieve ecological soundness by altering present economic
and political arrangements. Thus, it is not surprising that sponsors
of this report question the need for frequent elections, stating:
"A further difficulty arises from the four- to five-year cycle
of parliamentary elections in the democracies which, with the need
for election, or reelection, forces all political parties to concentrate
on short-term issues which are the subject of public concern."
Here, then, we are confronted with basic choices: Between blind
application of ecological principles to human society and the making
of the effort to understand these principles well enough so that
we can devise new ways of fulfilling them which are consistent with
human purposes; between slavish acceptance, in the name of ecology,
of a rigidly controlled society, and the freedom to choose, on the
basis of both ecology and humanism, how we would live on this earth
- between ecology and social inaction, and ecology and social action.
1 Thus, Walter Elsasser points out that if one molecule of each
of the possible protein molecules (i.e., each a polypeptide containing,
let us say, 200 units of 20 different amino acids in any serial
order) were produced, their combined mass would be greater than
that of the known universe. Obviously, living things actually produce
only an extremely small fraction of the number of possible protein
2 See page 27 for literature cited by name and date.
1971a. The humane preservation of human life. (Given as the Samuel
H. Cosgrove Lecture of the Annual Clinical Meeting of the American
College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. San Francisco, Calif.,
1971b. The closing circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
GOLDSMITH, EDWARD, ROBERT ALLEN, MICHAEL ALLABY, JOHN DAVOLL, and
1972. A blueprint for survival. The Ecologist 1(2):31-38.
1969. The immorality of being softhearted. (Reprinted from the
Stanford University Alumni Almanac. Jan., 1969.) The Relevant Scientist
I (Nov.) : 18.
1970. The tragedy of the commons. Science 162:1243-48.
MEADOWS, Donella, DENNIS L. MEADOWS, JORGEN RANDERS, and WILLIAM
1972. The limits to growth. New York: Universe Books.
1973. Solar sea power. Physics Today, Jan., pp. 48-53.
Introducing: Barry Commoner
For a man whose childhood exposure to nature was in the parks of
Brooklyn, the linking of ecology and social action may seem almost
inevitable. However, Barry Commoner's understanding of these relationships
was not achieved in one sudden intuitive jump, but rather is the
outcome of the inexorable logic which leads the individual with
an inquiring mind to gain an understanding of many things in the
effort to gain a full mastery of some one area. Indeed, Dr. Commoner's
career is striking evidence in support of the often-debated proposition
that the best education for the future generalist is through intensive
Following his youth in Brooklyn, Dr, Commoner received his A.B.
in zoology from Columbia College in 1937 and then undertook graduate
studies in biology at Harvard. Receiving his M.S. in 1938 and Ph.D.
in 1941, he specialized in cellular physiology. After service as
a research physiologist in the Naval Air Force in World War II,
he was appointed to the faculty of Washington University in St.
Louis in 1947. Here he quickly became fully involved in pioneering
studies of fundamental problems on the physiochemical basis of biological
His studies during these years included investigations of cellular
metabolism, microspectrophotometric studies of single cells, and
research on the mechanism of tobacco mosaic virus replication. These
interests are reflected in his current work on the elucidation of
the roles of free radicals in biological processes and on the chemical
basis of inheritance.
Exciting though these studies were, there are Do limits to the
understanding of biological processes, and his interests were increasingly
to extend outward from cells, viruses, and free radicals to the
entire environment. Perhaps the trigger mechanism in this process
was his mounting concern over the dangers of radioactive fallout
and the presence of strontium 90 in the atmosphere caused by nuclear
bomb tests. With a deep conviction that scientists have a moral
obligation to keep the public fully informed on such matters, he
helped found the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, later
known as the Committee for Environmental Information, and played
an active role in bringing these issues before the public.
His interests now extend to the totality of man's environment and
man's interactions with that environment. As Director of the Center
for the Biology of Natural Systems, Dr. Commoner is directing far-ranging
studies of the origins and significance of alterations in the environment,
especially as related to modern technology, and of fertilization
and the current status of the nitrogen cycle. With his abiding sense
of the moral obligation of scientists to keep the public informed
and his rare ability to present complex issues in direct and simple
terms, Dr. Commoner has been termed the "Paul Revere of ecology."
In reality, he is far more than that, for his 1971 book, The Closing
Circle, is no less than an attempt to present a general theory of
the environmental crisis. In the 1973 Albright Lecture, he builds
on this base.
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