MAY 1990 - VOLUME 11 - NUMBER 5
B O O K R E V I E W
Making Peace With the Planet
Despite 20 years of painful treatment and vast expenditures the United States' curative environmental efforts have failed. A completely different approach is in order. In his latest book, Making Peace With the Planet, Barry Commoner makes this case. What has failed, according to Commoner, is the attempt, starting with Earth Day 1970, to significantly reduce if not eliminate land, air and water pollution.
Commoner's book is an extremely accessible and hard-hitting analysis of the environmental crisis. He weaves together specific issues, such as the economic impact of large-scale conversion to organic agriculture, with a broader commentary on the political economy of environmental policy-making. In doing so, Making Peace With the Planet provides a sweeping picture of the environmental crisis, including: a description of the conflict between the ecosphere, or the environment, and the technosphere, which includes the goods and systems produced by human activity; the failure of existing environmental regulations and the costs of that failure; the reasons behind this dismal record; and the role of citizen activism in dealing with the problem. Perhaps most importantly, the book outlines Commoner's concrete alternative proposals that would, if implemented, truly stop the technosphere's assault on the ecosphere.
The premise of the book is that the environmental movement and the legislation it inspired in the United States have not achieved their goal. Commoner provides ample evidence to support this argument. Acknowledging that some progress was made initially in reducing certain toxic emissions, he shows that "the annual reduction in the emissions of four of the standard air pollutants--particulates, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and volatile organic compounds--came to a halt in 1982. Since then, there has been no statistically significant change in annual emissions, suggesting that the effort to reduce them has reached its limit."
Commoner uses the Environmental Protection Agency's own scale to demonstrate the failure of the effort to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. Despite the 1977 deadline for achieving a 90 percent reduction in carbon monoxide, between 1975 and 1985 carbon monoxide emissions only fell by 19 percent. Commoner concludes that although "the Congress has mandated massive environmental improvement [and] the EPA has devised elaborate, detailed means of achieving this goal, v in nearly every case, the effort has failed to even approximate the goals."
Within this discouraging picture, however, Commoner cites three success stories that support the central thesis of his book. Policies on lead, DDT and radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing all demonstrate the effectiveness of halting the introduction of such poisons into the environment rather than trying to monitor an acceptable emission level. "In sum there is a common explanation for each of the few sharp reductions in emissions: in each case, environmental degradation was prevented by simply stopping production or use of the pollutant. This suggests an addition to the informal environmental laws: If you don't put something into the environment, it isn't there." In other words, "in the task of restoring environmental quality, prevention works; control does not."
This maxim is espoused repeatedly by Commoner to emphasize that environmental problems can be corrected. Making Peace With the Planet acknowledges, however, the difficulty of changing the public perception of environmental degradation. Complementing the prevention argument is the challenge of changing the systems of production "that have generated the nation's enormous wealth [but which] are also responsible for the present, excessive levels of environmental pollution." The environmental movement has failed to grasp this fundamental reality. "A great deal of attention has been paid to designing control devices--and enforcing their use--that can only moderately reduce hazardous emissions. [These minimal reductions] are eventually overwhelmed by growth in production. Much less attention has been given to the more difficult but far more rewarding task of changing the basic technologies that produce the pollutants."
Commoner describes how the technosphere can be redesigned in a manner that does not threaten the continued viability of the ecosphere. He provides examples of currently available, environmentally sound technologies which are not inimical to continued economic growth. Electricity generation and agriculture are two case studies used to support this argument.
Commoner notes that electricity generation is based primarily on the burning of fossil fuels, which produces a host of noxious emissions, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The book offers a two-step process by which electric power generation's negative environmental impact would be reduced and ultimately eliminated through a transition to solar energy. The initial phase requires a decentralized system using small cogenerator plants which would utilize the heat which is wasted by most big plants and would run on cleaner burning natural gas. This system is much more efficient and therefore economical. As Commoner writes, "With the cogenerator operating at a much higher level of both economic and thermodynamic efficiency than a conventional power plant, fuel consumption is reduced, decreasing both environmental impact and the cost of energy--a net gain for both the economy and the environment."
Because solar electricity is most cost-effective at the point of use, Commoner argues that the decentralized nature of the cogenerator system makes it an ideal prelude to the widespread use of solar energy. Such a transition makes economic sense in the long run. Fossil fuels are a nonrenewable resource; as they become less accessible, the cost of extraction increases to the point where the energy needed to retrieve them is greater than the yield. "As a result, as long as we continue to rely on nonrenewable fuels, especially oil and natural gas, a progressively larger fraction of the economic system's output must be invested in producing energy." Yet the technology already exists, in the form of the photovoltaic cell, for example, to sever the reliance on fossil fuels.
Commoner also describes how agriculture's post-World War II addictive reliance on chemical pesticides makes it one of the chief sources of water pollution. Replacing this system with large-scale organic farming would be an economically feasible means of eliminating this chemical dependence. A five year comparison study of 14 large, organic farms and an equal number of conventional farms, for example, revealed that although output was 8.5 percent less on the organic farms, "the resultant loss in income was exactly balanced by not buying agricultural chemicals."
Commoner's prescriptions for change possess a certain intrinsic logic that imputes to them an air of inevitability. This is somewhat deceiving because it gives the impression that rationality will overcome the structural impediments to such a scenario: mainly the capitalist system's emphasis on private control of production decisions and profit-seeking.
But, Commoner notes, the concentration of decision-making power in a few hands prevents rational policies which would benefit the majority of the population from being enacted. The widespread use of cost-benefit analysis, which entails a financial formula be applied to the cost of saving lives and reducing disease, is one of the more odious manifestations of elite decision-making. Commoner explains how the cost-benefit approach is used by business and, in the case of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the government to justify the continued poisoning of the ecosphere. In addition, cost-benefit analysis victimizes poor people. "Thinly veiled by a facade of seemingly straightforward numerical computation, there is a profound moral or political judgment: that poor people who lack the resources to evade [toxic emissions] should be subjected to a more severe environmental burden than rich people." Commoner cuts through the rhetorical constructs used by industry to obfuscate the real issues and in so doing exposes their moral bankruptcy. As he puts it, "This narrow segment of society makes the decisions that obligate the rest of us to participate in the ecological war. And it is the corporate generals who reap the short-term- and short-sighted-economic benefits."
Commoner acknowledges the difficulty involved with questioning this system. "The view that the nation's welfare depends on 'private enterprise' is so deeply embedded in American political life that even to raise the question of possible public intervention is often an open invitation to ridicule."
Yet raise the question is precisely what Commoner does in Making Peace. He postulates that "Solving the environmental question-- as distinct from somewhat diminishing its effect--is fundamentally a political problem because it calls for the establishment of a new, social form of governance over decisions that are now exclusively in private, corporate hands." He effectively argues that recognizing this fundamental reality is essential to achieving an environmentally sustainable society.
Commoner is sober in his outlook, but he communicates a guardedly optimistic view based on certain precedents, most recently the revolutions in Eastern Europe. How applicable they are remains open to interpretation. One thing is certain, however. Making Peace With the Planet is an accessible synthesis, grand in its scope and accurate and persuasive in its detail. Commoner critiques existing structures and problems but, very significantly, offers a substantive alternative vision. His ideas for changing the systems of production are compelling. Unfortunately, the political will and leadership to move this agenda are lacking.