Barry Commoner

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 environmental crisis.

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 each other.

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.