[Marxism] Barry Commoner, Pioneering Environmental Scientist and Activist, Dies at 95

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 1 09:35:01 MDT 2012

(First posted to Marxmail in 1998.)


Barry Commoner

Last night I heard Barry Commoner speak on "The Economic Origins of the 
Environmental Crisis" at NYC's Brecht Forum. Although I suspect that 
much of the talk was a rehash of "The Closing Circle," it was useful to 
be reminded of his arguments, since nothing has changed basically since 
the book was written more than 25 years ago.

For Commoner, WWII represents some kind of watershed. Before the war, 
there was no environmental crisis. Afterwards, there was. The 
explanation is that new technologies were introduced into the means of 
production that caused an imbalance between nature and society. The new 
technologies were introduced because they heightened the profit margin. 
Corporate greed, therefore, is the main explanation for the 
environmental crisis.

He produced a number of examples, first and foremost among which was the 
automobile. He said that before WWII, smog was largely unknown but that 
in the 1950s it became a problem almost everywhere, the most notable 
example being Los Angeles. Smog is the result of the interaction between 
Nitrogen Oxide and waste gasoline products in sunlight. It produced 
ozone, which is hazardous to our health. The explanation for the 
increase in nitrogen oxide is that Detroit began making higher 
compression automobiles, which were necessary to power the larger 
automobiles that became common after WWII. The extra heat that these 
engines create cause nitrogen and oxygen in the atmosphere to react with 
each other.

And why did Detroit decide to start making larger cars? Commoner cites 
John Delorean's "On a Clear Day You Can See Detroit" for the answer. 
Delorean says that when he was at General Motors, top management learned 
that while it only cost $300 more to make a larger car, that they could 
produce an additional $2000 in profit. So the thirst for profit had the 
unintended effect of producing smog.

When a grass-roots movement emerged to fight against pollution in the 
1970s, the corporations decided not to change their technology for the 
most part, but to utilize control devices. Such devices have failed to 
produce clean air or water, even though they do actually eliminate from 
80% to 90% of the pollutants. In the case of automobiles, smog continues 
to be a problem. Why haven't pollution control devices worked to clean 
up the air?

The answer is that increased economic activity outweighs any 
improvements to the environment that such devices can produce. Since the 
1950s, the huge increase in automobile ownership has meant that air 
pollution has continued no matter the degree to which antipollution 
devices have been introduced. The other important factor is that 
commercial transportation has become heavily dependent on trucks, rather 
than the more ecological railroads. The only genuine gains that have 
taken place is when the technology itself has been modified. For 
example, when the government banned lead in gasoline, the amount of lead 
pollution practically disappeared. The same is true of DDT. In general, 
however, corporate greed has acted to prevent further improvements.

The case of soap versus detergents illustrates the problem. Soap does 
not cause water pollution, since it is based on a natural substance, 
animal or vegetable fats. The problem for corporations, however, is that 
agricultural products are subject to the ups and downs of any growing 
cycle, such as those involved with rainfall, temperature, disease, etc. 
With detergents, which are based on synthetics, no such problems exist. 
Hence, the bottom lines of companies such as Proctor and Gamble are 
easier to safeguard with detergent production.

In his concluding remarks, Commoner raised the possibility that such 
problems can be eliminated if society gained *control* of the 
corporations, even though ownership remained in private hands. He 
thought that social ownership was no guarantee of ecologically sound 
production. He said that the former Soviet Union illustrates that 
perfectly. After Krushchev saw the corn in wheat in the Midwest during 
his first trip to the United States, he decided that the USSR would have 
to produce crops in the same manner, that is, with pesticides, 
herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

He thought that the dimensions of the crisis would very possibly force 
the powers-that-be in the USA to wake up and bring the corporations 
under control. A positive sign, in his opinion, was Clinton taking 
action against Microsoft. Why couldn't the same thing happen with 
polluters such as Exxon or Kodak?

The problem is that US corporations are in an "intramural" fight over 
software standards and the government is coming to the aid of one 
faction against the other. Large corporations are wary of Bill Gates's 
growing power and want to be protected. On the other hand, the 
corporations as a whole have decided that radical changes in the means 
of production to overcome the environmental crisis must be resisted. 
This is the significance of the Clinton-Gore team being worse on 
environmental questions overall than the Bush administration that 
preceded it. The agenda of the American capitalist class since 
"globalization" began has been to fight for the bottom-line of their 
corporations against competition world-wide. In this context, it is 
utopian to think that Proctor and Gamble will switch back to soap 
because detergents are fouling the water.

Commoner reminded me a bit of Michael Moore in his new movie "The Big 
One," who kept asking corporate spokesmen why they had to be so greedy. 
"Look, you guys made 30 billion dollars in profit over the past five 
years, so why are you closing down your American factories and moving to 
Mexico? Why don't you do the right thing and keep Americans employed?" 
The answer inevitably was that they had to remain competitive. They, of 
course, are right. If an American corporation can not produce a more 
favorable quarterly earnings report than their competition, then the 
value of their stock will go down. It is not a question of greed, it is 
a question of the underlying behavior of a system based on profit. The 
profit motive has to be eliminated completely if we are to survive. That 
is a big pill to swallow for people like Moore or Commoner. But swallow 
it we must.

More information about the Marxism mailing list