[Marxism] Barry Commoner, Pioneering Environmental Scientist and Activist, Dies at 95
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Oct 1 09:35:01 MDT 2012
(First posted to Marxmail in 1998.)
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
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
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.
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