A Call for Citizen Empowerment
Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. Michael Egan. xiv + 283 pp. The MIT Press, 2007. $28.
As conventionally written, the history of American environmentalism starts in 1962 with Rachel Carson and the publication of Silent Spring. From there it moves back to the conservation movement at the turn of the 20th century and then leaps forward to the first Earth Day in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the passage of new environmental laws and the establishment of today's large environmental organizations. It is an upbeat narrative that emphasizes the quite astonishing success that environmentalism has had during these past four decades.
In Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival, Michael Egan tells a different story. The book is a history of American environmentalism from Commoner's perspective. Compared with the conventional account, it has an earlier starting date (the mid-1950s), a different cast of characters (almost all of them scientists), different environmental organizations (those that Commoner founded), a tighter focus (on the health risks of synthetic chemicals and radiation) and a more disappointing outcome (the environment is only barely less contaminated now than it was on the first Earth Day). Egan tells an absorbing tale about a remarkable man who is insightful, persistent, iconoclastic, informed and optimistic. Environmentalism today would be bolder and more robust, says Egan, if it took seriously the five books and dozens of articles that Commoner has written.
Commoner, who turned 90 in 2007, has a Ph.D. in cellular biology from Harvard and was a member of the faculty of the botany department at Washington University in St. Louis from 1947 to 1981. He has always been intensely political, insisting that the highest scientific standard demands not only careful, honest research but also attention to the social consequences of scientific work.
It is not surprising, then, that in the mid-1950s he joined the public debate about the health effects of exposure to fallout from nuclear-weapons testing. Egan devotes two chapters to this long controversy. After Commoner tried and failed to get the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) to support a resolution censuring the weapons-testing program, he switched his activist focus from organizing other scientists to educating the public. In 1958 he cofoundedthe Committee for Nuclear Information, a grassroots group in St. Louis that sought to bring information about nuclear testing to a broad audience. The group's work was critical to the passage of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Egan says. He quotes Commoner's assertion in The Closing Circle (1971) that the treaty "should be regarded . . . as the first victorious battle in the campaign to save the environment—and its human inhabitants—from the blind assaults of modern technology."
From radioactive fallout, Commoner turned his attention to other environmental health hazards—first mercury and then all toxic compounds created by or produced as waste from industrial processes. In 1966, to study these hazards and educate the public about them, he founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, a research institution he headed for the next 34 years, moving it in 1981 from Washington University to Queens College at the City University of New York. By 1970 Commoner's writings and speeches had gained him so much attention that Time magazine put him on the cover of its February 9th issue under the banner "Environment: Nixon's New Issue."
Today Commoner may be best known for his Four Laws of Ecology, which first appeared in The Closing Circle. The "laws" were not so much his invention as his coherent expression of the new ideas about nature that were animating the emerging environmental movement. The first law states that "everything is connected to everything else"; the Earth's intricate network of interacting parts is so highly balanced that disturbances in one place will have far-reaching effects. The second is that "everything must go somewhere"; there is no "away" where things can be thrown. Third, "nature knows best": It has been perfected over the eons and any human-made change is likely to be detrimental. And fourth, "there is no such thing as a free lunch"—that is, every solution to an environmental problem has a cost. If today these ecological edicts seem like common sense, that reaction is testimony to environmentalism's success; a generation ago they were startling.
Throughout his long career, which has more recently focused on genetic engineering and global warming, Commoner has developed three additional themes. One is that scientists and bureaucrats have no more authority to determine environmental policies than does the public. Scientists have an obligation to inform people about the results of their research, but scientific knowledge is provisional, so final policy decisions should be made by ordinary citizens. As Egan observes, Commoner's advocacy of such a vital public role in policy making implies a "radical overhaul" in the way democracy works in this country.
Another theme in Commoner's writing is that our environmental woes are caused not by greedy industries, weak laws or uneducated consumers, and certainly not by overpopulation. (Egan devotes a full chapter to the fight in the 1970s between Commoner and Paul Ehrlich on the overpopulation issue.) Part of the problem, argues Commoner, is that the government aims only to "manage" pollution rather than to eliminate it. But the fundamental villain is our economic system. In free-market capitalism, it is simply cheaper to degrade the environment than to protect it.
From this logic follows a third theme: that real environmental protection cannot occur in an economic structure based on private profit. Instead, protection requires a political economy that can take the health of the environment into account. Commoner approached this topic somewhat cautiously at first. Egan points out that in The Closing Circle Commoner wrote that "the socialist system may have an advantage over the private enterprise system with respect to the basic relationship between economic processes and ecological imperatives." Five years later, he ended The Poverty of Power (1976) with what Egan refers to as a "blistering critique of private enterprise and the capitalist system" and called outright for a transition to socialism.
It is unclear why Egan subtitles his book "The Remaking of American Environmentalism." Surely he is right that Commoner helped to make American environmentalism. But as Egan himself notes, after Earth Day 1970, the early hope by many that this would be a politically radical social movement began to fade. Today's environmentalists largely ignore Commoner except for his Four Laws. Earth Day is an occasion for corporations to boast about how green they are, the major environmental organizations are politically cautious, and the most popular environmental gurus preach only individual responsibility. Al Gore, for example, who has done a masterful job of calling attention to global warming, writes in An Inconvenient Truth (2006) that "each one of us is a cause of global warming"; thus our actions as consumers can solve the problem.
Commoner's legacy can be seen in the plethora of grassroots groups in poor communities focusing on environmental health risks and demanding real citizen participation in policy making. Egan has a chapter about these groups, showing that Commoner wrote about the unequal distribution of exposure to environmental toxicants long before anyone else. But the grassroots groups constitute merely a strand of environmentalism, not its remaking. And few of them call for the kind of political transformation that Commoner believes necessary.
Perhaps "the remaking of environmentalism" refers to the task facing Commoner and his followers. Would it be possible for environmentalism to embody Commoner's ideas—to become, if not a politically radical social movement, one with a strong radical wing? An answer requires understanding what Commoner is up against. But surprisingly, Egan gives little emphasis to the people, institutions or ideologies opposed to Commoner, except in the chapters about the AAAS and Paul Ehrlich.
It's even more surprising that Egan does not discuss a single problem with Commoner's themes. Ecologists now say that the Earth is never in balance. Genuine public participation in policy making is easily thwarted by private interests. And although clearly a nation's political economy is the basic cause of its environmental problems, few Americans want to embrace this kind of analysis—which after all implies a need for radical social change. Moreover, if the change is toward socialism, we lack a model showing that socialist countries do a better job of protecting the environment.
Egan's decision not to grapple with these fascinating issues is the book's major weakness. Had he explored them, he would have provided an even more interesting history of American environmentalism. And he could have given readers a clearer picture of how Commoner has navigated between utopianism and pragmatism all these years.