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. 46-71.)
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 environment."
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 difficult.
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, Ph.D.
Descriptor terms: new yorker; barry commoner; overviews; grass-roots movement for environmental justice; nitrate; phosphorus; water quality; bacteria; arsenic; oxygen; cadmium; groundwater; ddt; pcb; mercury; fish; pollution; plastics; nitrogen; soil; pesticides; insects; energy; food; health;