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#30 - Grass Roots Environmental Groups Grapple With Real Issues Of Power, Says Dr. Commoner, 21-Jun-1987

The traditional environmental movement has failed to halt the
destruction of the environment. Over the past 15 years, air pollution
has been reduced modestly but the air in most cities is still
unhealthful; acid rain is still increasing; most importantly, the earth
is warming up because of carbon dioxide pollution and the earth's
protective ozone layer is being progressively thinned, with potentially
catastrophic consequences.

In water pollution, the story is the same or worse. A recent survey of
400 sites showed little or no improvement, 1974-1981, in traditional
measures of water quality (bacteria, dissolved oxygen, nitrate,
phosphorus, and suspended sediments). In the same survey, dangerous
toxic pollutants--nitrate, arsenic, and cadmium--increased
substantially during the period. A study of the quality of America's
lakes, 1972-1982, shows 2.4% improved; 10.1% got worse; 62% remained
unchanged (with no data available on the remainder). The contamination
of groundwater is widespread and increasing. It seems clear that the
traditional environmental movement has generally failed in its goals.

These arguments are put forth by Dr. Barry Commoner in a major new
analysis published in the NEW YORKER magazine (June 15, 1987, pgs. 46-

There have been a few notable environmental successes since 1970: lead
contamination of air and water has diminished dramatically, as has the
lead measurable in humans. DDT and PCB contamination of fish and people
has likewise declined markedly. Toxic mercury in Great Lakes fish has
declined substantially. The strontium-90 content of milk has been cut
by a factor of 10.

Dr. Commoner examines these few successes against the general failure
to improve environmental quality, and he draws an important conclusion:
the failures occur when people settle for the addition of control
devices to polluting technologies. On the other hand, successes occur
when people force changes in the production processes that create
pollution: lead has been nearly banned from gasoline; PCBs have been
outlawed; the production of strontium-90 by atmospheric nuclear testing
has been forbidden; the use of mercury-intensive technologies for paper-
making has been outlawed; DDT has been banned. "In sum," says Commoner,
"there is a consistent explanation for the few instances of
environmental success: they occur only when the relevant technologies
of production are changed to eliminate the pollutant. If no such change
is made, pollution continues unabated or, at least--if a control device
is used--is only slightly reduced."

Having made this important point, Dr. Commoner goes on to describe the
nation's major environmental ills, tracing their origins to production
processes that are financially profitable by ecologically destructive:
a transportation system reliant on highways instead of rails; a power
system reliant on nuclear and combustible fuels, instead of on
renewable sources of energy; an agricultural system based on synthetic
fertilizers and chemical pesticides instead of on organic farming
techniques and integrated pest management. Commoner argues, "If one
takes a... fundamental approach to the problem of environmental quality
by recognizing that it is inherently linked to the technology of
production, one can find ways of improving both the economy and the

Dr. Commoner singles out the petrochemical industry for special
discussion: "Unlike the steel, auto and electric power industries, the
petrochemical industry --on its present scale at least--is not
essential. Nearly all its products are substitutes for perfectly
serviceable preexisting ones: plastics for paper, wood and metals;
detergents for soap; nitrogen fertilizer for soil, organic matter, and
nitrogen-fixing crops (the natural sources of nitrogen); pesticides for
the insects' natural predators. Apart from relatively few items that
cannot be produced in any other way--such as pharmaceutical drugs,
videotape, and the plastic artificial heart--petrochemical products
could be replaced by less hazardous ones. Thus the petrochemical
industry is unique: not only its wastes but its very products degrade
the environment; its hazards are largely immune to either prevention or
control; and most of its products are replaceable. The petrochemical
industry is inherently inimical to environmental quality. The only
effective way to limit its dangerous impact on the environment is to
limit the industry itself."

Having established that changes in production technology are essential
for environmental improvement, Dr. Commoner then argues at length that
production technologies only change in accord with environmental values
when they are opened up to social control, to control by legislative
bodies or other groups answerable to the public. Strictly private
decisions about production technologies have led us down the road to
environmental disaster. But strictly-private decisions about production
technologies are as American as apple pie, so challenging them is

Because traditional environmental groups do not want to grapple with
these difficult political issues, they shy away from fundamental
solutions to environmental problems. As a result of this failure, a new
grass roots environmental movement has grown up. Commoner points to
Lois Gibbs as the leader of this movement. "For such groups," says
Commoner, "the front line of the battle against chemical pollution is
not in Washington, it is in their own communities. For them, the issues
are clear-cut and are not readily compromised... the corporations are
on one side and the people of the community on the other, challenging
the corporation's exclusive power to make decisions that threaten the
community's health." As Commoner says, "The national organizations deal
with the environmental disease by negotiating about the kind of Band-
Aid to apply to it. The community groups deal with the disease by
trying to prevent it."

Commoner then argues that the grass roots fight to share decision-
making power with the polluting corporations is part of a much larger
fight for the quality of life in America: "Social guidance of
technological decisions is vital not only for environmental quality but
for nearly everything else that determines how people live: employment;
working conditions; the cost of transportation, energy, food and other
necessities of life; and economic growth. And so there is an
unbreakable link between the environmental issue and all the other
troublesome political issues."

Commoner ends by suggesting that all the major issue-oriented political
movements since world war II--for civil rights; against nuclear-weapons
testing; for women's rights; for gay and lesbian rights; against the
war in Vietnam; against nuclear power and for solar energy; and for
world peace--all these movements, added to the much older labor
movement, "constitute not only the major aspects of public policy but
its most profound expression: human rights; the quality of life;
health; jobs; peace; survival." What can unite these movements? "Here
environmentalism reaches a common ground with all the other movements,
for each of them also bears a fundamental relation to the choice of
production technologies."

The NEW YORKER magazine is probably in your town library; Dr. Commoner
heads the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS), Queens
College, Flushing, NY 11367; phone (718) 670-4182.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: new yorker magazine; barry commoner; overviews;
environmental justice; nitrate; phosphorus; water quality; bacteria;
arsenic; oxygen; cadmium; groundwater; ddt; mercury; fish; pollution;
plastics; nitrogen; soil; pesticides; insects; energy; food; health;

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