The Closing Circle

Nature, Man & Technology

by: Barry Commoner (1971)

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1   The Environmental Crisis

The environment has just been rediscovered by the people who live in it. In the United States the event was celebrated in April 1970, during Earth Week. It was a sudden, noisy awakening. School children cleaned up rubbish; college students organized huge demonstrations; determined citizens recaptured the streets from the automobile, at least for a day. Everyone seemed to be aroused to the environmental danger and eager to do something about it.

They were offered lots of advise. Almost every writer, almost every speaker, on the college campuses, in the streets and on television and radio broadcasts, was ready to fix the blame and pronounce a cure for the environmental crisis.

Some regarded the environmental issue as politically innocuous:

Ecology has become the political substitute for the word "motherhood."  ---Jesse Unruh,  Democratic Leader of the State of California Assembly.

But the FBI took it more seriously:

On April 22, 1970, representative of the FBI observed about two hundred persons on the Playing Fields shortly after 1:30 p.m. They were joined  a few minutes later by a contingent of George Washington University students who arrived chanting "Save Our Earth." ... A sign was noted which read "God is Not Dead; He is Polluted on Earth." ... Shortly after 8:00 p.m. Senator Edmond Muskie (D), Maine, arrived and gave a short anti-pollution speech. Senator Muskie was followed by journalist I. F. Stone, who spoke for twenty minutes on the themes of  anti-pollution, anti-military, and anti-administration.---FBI report entered into Congressional Record by Senator Muskie on April 14, 1971.

Some blamed pollution on the rising population:

The pollution problem is a consequence of population. It did not much matter how a lonely American frontiersman disposed of his waste. ... But as population became denser, the natural chemical and biological recycling processes became overloaded. ... Freedom to breed will brig ruin to all.---Garret Hardin, biologist.

The causal chain of the deterioration [of the environment] is easily followed to its source. Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide---all can be traced easily to too many people. ---Paul R. Ehrlich, biologist

Some blamed affluence:

The affluent society has become an effluent society. The 6 percent of the world's population in the United States produces 70 percent or more of the world's solid wastes.---Walter S. Howard, biologist

And praised poverty:

Blessed be the starving blacks of Mississippi with their outdoor privies, for they are ecologically sound, and they shall inherit a nation.---Wayne H. Davis, biologist

But not without rebuttal from the poor:

You must not embark on programs to curb economic growth without placing a priority on maintaining income, so that the poorest people won.t simply be further depressed in their condition but will have a share, and be able to live decently.---George Wiley, chemist and chairman, National Welfare Rights Organization

And encouragement from industry:

It is not industry per se, but the demands of the public. And the public's are increasing at a geometric rate, because of the increasing standard of living and the increasing growth of population. ... If we can convince the national and local leaders in the environmental crusade of this basic logic, that population causes pollution, then we can help them focus their attention on the major aspect of the problem. ---Sherman R. Knapp, chairman of the board, Northeast Utilities

Some blamed man's innate aggressiveness:

The first problem, then is people. ... The second problem, a most fundamental one, lies within us---our basic aggressions. ... As Anthony Storr has said: "The sombre fact is that we are the cruelest and most ruthless species that has ever walked the earth."--- William Roth, director, Pacific Life Assurance Company

While others blamed what man had learned:

People are afraid of their humanity because systematically they have been taught to become inhuman. ... They have no understanding of what is to love nature. And so our airs are being polluted, our rivers are being poisoned, and our land is being cut up. ---Arturo Sandoval, student, Environmental Action

A minister blamed profits:

Environmental rape is a fact of our national life only because it is more profitable than responsible stewardship of earth's limited resources. --- Channing E. Phillips, Congregationalisst minister

While a historian blamed religion:

Christianity bears a huge burden of guilt. ... We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man. ---Lynn White, historian

A politician blamed technology:

A runaway technology, whose only law is profit, has for years poisoned our air, ravaged our soil, stripped our forests bare, and corrupted our water resources. ---Vance Hartke, senator from Indiana

While the environmentalist blamed politicians:

There is a peculiar paralysis in our political branches of government, which are primarily responsible for legislating and executing the policies environmentalists are urging. ... Industries who profit by the rape of our environment see to it that legislators friendly to their attitudes are elected, and that bureaucrats of similar attitude are appointed. ---Roderick A. Cameron, of the Environmental Defense Fund

Some blamed capitalism:

Yes, it's official---the conspiracy against pollution. And we have a simple program---arrest Agnew and smash capitalism. We make only one exception to our pollution stand---everyone should light up a joint and get stand. ... We say to Agnew country that Earth Day is for the sons and daughters of  the American Revolution who are going to tear this capitalism down and set us free. ---Rennie Davis, a member of the "Chicago Seven"

While capitalist counterattacked:

The point I am trying to make is that we are solving most of our problems ... that conditions getting better not worse ... that american industry is spending over three billion dollars a year to clean up the environment and additional billions to develop products that will keep it clean ... and that the real danger is not from the free-enterprise Establishment that has made ours the most prosperous, most powerful and most charitable nation on earth. No, the danger today resides in the Disaster Lobby---those crepe-hangers who, for personal gain or out of sheer ignorance, are undermining the American system and threatening the lives and fortunes of the american people. Some people have let the gloom-mongers scare them beyond rational response with talk about atomic annihilation. ... Since World War II over one billion human beings who worried about A- bombs and H-bombs died of other causes. They worried for nothing.---Thomas R. Shepard, Jr., publisher, Look Magazine

And one keen observer blamed everyone:

We have met the enemy and he is us.---Pogo

Earth week and the accompanying outburst of publicity, preaching, and prognostication surprised most people, including those of us who had worked for years to generate public recognition of the environmental crisis. What surprised me most were the numerous, confident explanations of the cause and cure of the crisis. For having spent some years in the effort simply to detect and describe the growing list of environmental problems---radioactive fallout, air and water pollution, the deterioration of the soil---and in tracing some of their links to social and political processes, the identification of a single cause and cure seemed a rather bold step. During Earth Week, I discovered that such reticence was far beyond the times.

After the excitement of Earth Week, I tried to find some meaning in the welter of contradictory advice that it produced, It seemed to me that the confusion of Earth Week was a sign that the situation was so complex and ambiguous that people could read into it whatever conclusion, their own beliefs---about human nature, economics, and politics---suggested. Like a Rorschach ink blot, Earth Week mirrored personal conviction more than objective knowledge.

Earth Week convinced me of the urgency of a deeper public understanding of the origins of the environmental crisis and its possible cures. That is what this book is about. It is an effort to find out what the environmental crisis means.

Such understanding must begin at the source of life itself: the earth's thin skin of air, water, and soil, and the radiant solar fire that bathes it. Here, several billion years ago, life appeared and was nourished by the earths substance. As it grew, life evolved, its old forms transforming the earth's skin and new ones adapting to these changes. Living things multiplied in number, variety, and habitat until they formed a global network, becoming deftly enmeshed in the surroundings they had themselves created. This is the ecosphere, the home that life has built for itself on the planets outer surface.

Any living thing that hopes to live on the earth must fit into the ecosphere or perish. The environmental crisis is a sign that the finely sculptured fit between life and its surroundings has begun to corrode. As the links between one living thing and another, and between all of them and their surroundings, begin to break down, the dynamic interactions that sustain the whole have begun to falter and, in some places, stop.

Why, after millions of years of harmonious co-existance, have the relationships between living things and their earthly surroundings begun to collapse? Where did the fabric of the ecosphere begin to unravel? How far will the process go? How can we stop it and restore the broken links?

Understanding the ecosphere comes hard because, to the modern mind, it is a curiously foreign place. We have become accustomed to think of separate, singular events, each dependent upon a unique, singular cause. But in the ecosphere every effect is also a cause: an animal's waste becomes food for soil bacteria; what bacteria excrete nourishes plants; animals eat the plants. Such ecological cycles are hard to fit into human experience in the age of technology, where machine A always yields product B, and product B, once used, is cast away, having no further meaning for the machine, the product, or the user.

Here is the first great fault in the life of man in the ecosphere. We have broken out of the circle of life, converting its endless cycles into man-made, linear events: oil is taken from the ground, distilled into fuel, burned in an engine, converted thereby into noxious fumes, which are emitted into the air. At the end of the line is smog. Other man-made breaks in the ecosphere's cycle spew out toxic chemicals, sewage, heaps of rubbish---the testimony to our power to tear the ecological fabric that has, for millions of years, sustained the planet's life.

Suddenly we have discovered what we should have known long before: that the ecosphere sustains people and everything that they do; that anything that fails to fit into the ecosphere is a threat to its finely balanced cycles; that wastes are not only unpleasant, not only toxic, but, more meaningfully, evidence that the ecosphere is being driven towards collapse.

If we are to survive, we must understand why this collapse now threatens. Here the issues become far more complex than even the ecosphere. Our assaults on the ecosystem are so powerful, so numerous, so finely interconnected, that although the damage they do is clear, it is very difficult to discover how it was done. By which weapon? In whose hand? Are we driving the ecosphere to destruction simply by our growing numbers? By our greedy accumulation of wealth? Or are the machines which we have built to gain this wealth---the magnificent technology that now feeds us out of neat packages, that clothes us in man-made fibers, that surround us with new chemical creations---at fault?

This book is concerned with these questions. It begins with the ecosphere, the setting in which civilization has done its great---and terrible---deeds. Then it moves to a description of some of the damage we have done to the ecosphere ---to the air, the water, the soil. However, by now such horror stories of environmental destruction are familiar, even tiresome. Much less clear is what we need to learn from them, and so I have chosen less to shed tears of our past mistakes than to try to understand them. Most of this book is an effort to discover which human acts have broken the circle of life, and why.  I trace the environmental crisis from its overt manifestations in the ecosphere to the ecological stresses which they reflect, to the faults in production technology ---and in its scientific background--- that generate these stresses, and finally to the economic, social, and political forces which have driven us down this self-destructive course. All this in the hope---and expectation---that once we understand the origins of the environmental crisis, we can begin to manage the huge undertaking of surviving it.

Contents of The Closing Circle
















Other Books by Barry Commoner: 

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