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#196 - Making Peace With The Planet, 28-Aug-1990

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

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

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

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 order it.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: barry commoner; making peace with the planet;
overviews; agendas; transportation; energy; manufacturing;
petrochemical industry; agriculture; fertilizer; pesticides; plastics;
air pollution; water pollution; regulation; economics; conversion;
developing countries; ethics; social control; production;
accountability; military; waste reduction;

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