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Interview with Barry Commoner

A leading environmentalist reviews his long, contentious past and sets new directions for the future
Barry Commoner

On May 30, 1997, Barry Commoner celebrated his 80th birthday by giving a pivotal address at a symposium in his honor at New York's Cooper Union and by celebrating with some of his most prominent colleagues. Beginning with his opposition to nuclear weapons in the 1950s, Commoner has been an outspoken, sometimes radical motivator of change on such environmental issues as energy conservation, pesticide use, waste management and control of toxic chemicals. He also founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS), which has disseminated information on topics ranging from dioxin to waste recycling and the economics of renewable resources. In 1981 Commoner moved CBNS from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., to Queens College in Flushing, N.Y., where the team he directs continues its research in conservation and ecological science.

Scientific American contributing writer Alan Hall spoke with Commoner at his birthday celebration at the Seaman's Church Institute in New York City. In this interview, Commoner discusses his vision of the past, present and future imperatives of the environmental movement.


SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Happy birthday, Dr. Commoner. You became a powerful voice for protecting the environment years before most of us ever heard the words "environmentalist" or "green." What led you to become an environmental activist?

BARRY COMMONER: My entry into the environmental arena was through the issue that so dramatically--and destructively--demonstrates the link between science and social action: nuclear weapons. The weapons were conceived and created by a small band of physicists and chemists; they remain a cataclysmic threat to the whole of human society and the natural environment.

World War II had hardly ended when--not satisfied with the wartime bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Japan--the U.S. and the Soviet Union began testing new and nastier ones, creating enormous amounts of radioactivity that spread through the air worldwide, descending as fallout. Many atomic scientists, alarmed by the consequences of their wartime work, protested. But the tests continued and were even expanded.

The tests were done in secret, marked only by Atomic Energy Commission announcements that the emitted radiation was confined to the test area and, in any case, "harmless." This convenient conclusion reflected the AEC's assumption that the radioactive debris would remain aloft in the stratosphere for years, allowing time for much of the radioactivity to decay.

SA: We now know that those assumptions were very wrong indeed. How could that have happened?

BC: The AEC had at its command an army of highly skilled scientists. Although they knew how to design and build nuclear bombs, it somehow it escaped their notice that rainfall washes suspended material out of the air, or that children drink milk and concentrate iodine in their growing thyroids. I believe that the main reason for the AEC's failure is less complex than a cover-up but equally devastating. The AEC scientists were so narrowly focused on arming the United States for nuclear war that they failed to perceive facts--even widely known ones--that were outside their limited field of vision.

SA: So how did the truth about the dangers of weapons testing finally come out?

BC: After 1954, when some of the secret reports were declassified, independent scientists were able to further analyze the fallout data that AEC scientists had developed but had failed to understand.

The new analyses confirmed that they had grossly underestimated the dangers: E.B. Lewis, a geneticist at Caltech [the California Institute of Technology], showed that iodine 131, a major fallout component, was likely to cause thyroid tumors in children; Linus Pauling, the noted chemist, added carbon 14 to the roster of fallout hazards; Norman Bauer, a chemist at Utah State University, and E.W. Pfeiffer, a University of Montana zoologist, showed that there were high local fallout concentrations near, but outside, the Nevada test site; Erville Graham, a Canadian botanist, showed that the extraordinary capacity of lichens to absorb fallout directly from the air greatly amplified the hazard to native peoples in the Arctic.

SA: But, ultimately, wasn't it public opposition that halted the tests?

BC: The AEC taught us that when science is forced to serve a powerful self-justified purpose, it becomes too narrow to serve the wider needs of society. It was the independent scientists, outside the AEC, who understood their obligation to society; it was they who met society's need for the truth.

When the Committee for Nuclear Information was organized in St. Louis in 1958, we brought scientists and civic-minded citizens together. Our task was to explain to the public--first in St. Louis and then nationally--how splitting a few pounds of atoms could turn something as mild as milk into a devastating global poison.

At about that time, several of us met with Linus Pauling in St. Louis and together drafted the petition, eventually signed by thousands of scientists worldwide, that is credited with persuading President Kennedy to propose the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty--the first of continuing international actions to fully cage the nuclear beast.

SA: Do you consider the ratification of the treaty the real victory?

BC: No doubt about it. The U.S. Senate was a nest of cold-warriors and, according to common wisdom, was unlikely to ratify the treaty. But the Senate was besieged by letters, many of them from parents who abhorred the idea of raising their children with radioactive fallout embedded in their bodies. What convinced the senators was not so much their constituents' fear of radiation, but that they were informed; they knew how to spell "strontium 90" and could explain precisely why it was so dangerous. The treaty was easily ratified.

SA: The key lesson, then, in opposing nuclear weapons was the power of an informed public?

BC: Absolutely. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty victory was an early indication of the collaborative strength of science and social action. It was this conclusion that led CNI to become the Committee for Environmental Information and extend its mission to the environmental crisis as a whole.

SA: When you refer to the "environmental crisis," what exactly do you mean?

BC: The environmental crisis arises from a fundamental fault: our systems of production--in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation--essential as they are, make people sick and die. The modern assault on the environment began about 50 years ago, during and immediately after World War II.

The sharp rise in environmental pollution in the 20 years following World War II could be traced to such new technologies of production: new ways of producing electric power, transportation and food that, while they generated these valuable goods, now violently assaulted the environment as well. The changes were massive and fast: in less than two decades the total amount of automotive horsepower increased fourfold, of inorganic fertilizer nitrogen sevenfold, of synthetic organic chemicals 20-fold.

These were manmade mistakes that were therefore within our power to remedy. The mistakes were made by the auto companies when they decided to build bigger cars with high-compression engines that for the first time emitted nitrogen oxides, which in turn triggered the smog reaction; by the petrochemical industry that persuaded farmers to spread huge amounts of toxic pesticides--many of them carcinogenic--into the environment; by electric utilities that, believing propaganda that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter," built the plants that generate highly radioactive spent fuel, which is yet to be dealt with.

I am grateful that my own adult life has covered this span of time, so that I have witnessed most of the notorious environmental blunders that led to the crisis--sometimes as simply a bystander, other times as an attentive observer, and at least once--in the case of DDT--as an unwitting perpetrator.

SA: Wasn't tackling environmental problems caused by industry a very different kind of task from banning the bomb?

BC: Not at all. First, the scientists, engineers and technologists who designed and built the new technologies--not to speak of their corporate masters--gave no public notice of their environmental faults, because they were unaware of them, uninterested in them or, in some cases, deceitful. The vaunted sorcery of modern technology was hard at work, but environmentally, it was in the hands of apprentices.

Second, outsiders were needed to set things right--or at least to help the American people learn what went wrong and why. In every case, the environmental hazards were made known only by independent scientists, who were often bitterly opposed by the corporations responsible for the hazards. The result of grassroots action was that the American people were informed, became concerned, and sought ways to act.

SA: The first Earth Day is generally considered a prime testimonial to that new awareness.

BC: Earth Day 1970 was irrefutable evidence that the American people understood the environmental threat and wanted action to resolve it. The government quickly responded, and within the year, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) established, as a national purpose, "efforts that will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to administer these efforts, and beginning with the Clean Air Act, legislation was quickly enacted to establish specific remedial programs, encompassing the now massive legislative and regulatory program, which extends into states and municipalities.

Environmental concern is now firmly embedded in public life: in education, medicine and law; in journalism, literature and art. It has turned hitherto indifferent politicians into self-proclaimed environmentalists, starting with Richard Nixon, an environmental nonstarter who made the issue the centerpiece of his first State of the Union address.

SA: So can the environmental movement now claim victory?

BC: Looking back on these changes, or perhaps startled by the latest advertisement of an oil company that has turned itself green, we might be justified in proclaiming victory. Certainly, we have made things happen. But what has motivated environmentalism and, in my view, defines its purpose is the state of the environment itself.

By that measure we are far from victory. Neither the general aim stated in NEPA, nor the specific improvements mandated in the enabling legislation, have come even close to being achieved.

SA: Can you give an example?

BC: The numerical evidence on the required improvements in air quality--which called for 90 percent reduction in pollution within seven years of 1970--is a persuasive example. According to the latest EPA assessment, after 25 years the best percentage improvement in emissions of the standard air pollutants (for sulfur dioxide) since 1970 is only 30 percent. Nitrogen oxide emissions have not improved at all over that period.

Worse, in almost all cases whatever improvement did occur came to a halt after 1980; since then, except for a slow reduction in carbon monoxide emissions, the curves are flat. And EPA foresees no further improvement; their latest projections of air emissions show slight increases for all the standard pollutants from now to 2010, except for a small decrease in sulfur dioxide.

SA: What went wrong?

BC: The methods that EPA introduced after 1970 to reduce air-pollutant emissions worked for a while, but over time have become progressively less effective. The chief remedial method has been the installation of emission-control systems--devices attached to the pollutant-generating source (such as autos, power plants and incinerators) that trap and destroy the pollutants before they enter the environment.

The fault is not that the control devices have themselves become less efficient since the 1980s. Rather, a countervailing process has overcome their emission-reducing capability. That process is economic growth: year by year, there are more cars and trucks on the road and more energy generated. As long as a control device is not perfect--that is, it does not reduce emissions to zero--this increased activity counteracts the device's ability to reduce environmental pollution, and economic growth becomes the enemy of environmental quality.

It is simply economically impossible to require controls that even approach zero emissions. In turn, this economic limitation renders the control system vulnerable to the countervailing effect of increased economic activity. By adopting the control strategy, the nation's environmental program has created a built-in antagonism between environmental quality and economic growth.

SA: Is there an alternative?

BC: Tragically, this conflict--as well as the accompanying failure to meet the legislative goals of environmental improvement--could have been avoided if the enabling legislation had required EPA to abide by NEPA's stated purpose to prevent and eliminate pollution. By any interpretation, this requirement means zero emissions, which, if accomplished, would meet the mandated goals and undo the fatal embrace between the environment and the economy.

Ironically, hidden in the otherwise dismal data on air-pollution emission trends, we can find concrete evidence that the strategy of prevention can actually achieve this astounding result. In 1970 U.S. vehicular transportation emitted 180,000 tons of lead into the air; by 1994 emissions had decreased by 99 percent, to 1,600 tons. This was achieved while vehicular transportation--a major economic activity--increased by 50 percent, as measured by fuel consumption.

Environmental quality was drastically improved while economic activity grew by the simple expedient of removing lead from gasoline--which prevented it from entering the environment. This only too-rare miracle was accomplished by a well-known industrial practice: the technology of production was altered, albeit at the behest of the government.

SA: Where else can we apply the principle of pollution prevention?

BC: There are existing pollution-free alternatives to the production technologies that brought on the postwar environmental crisis. The major source of photochemical smog--petroleum-fueled vehicles--can be replaced by emission--free electric vehicles. In turn, many power plants now fueled by oil, natural gas or uranium can be replaced by zero-emission photovoltaic cells or wind generators.

What is needed now is a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology. Restoring environmental quality means substituting solar sources of energy for fossil and nuclear fuels; substituting electric motors for the internal-combustion engine; substituting organic farming for chemical agriculture; expanding the use of durable, renewable and recyclable materials--metals, glass, wood, paper--in place of the petrochemical products that have massively displaced them.

SA: But many people are concerned that these "green" technologies are not economical.

BC: The new production technologies may be more economical than the ones they replace. For example, a recent CBNS study shows that in the states adjacent to the Great Lakes the impact of trash-burning incinerators on the airborne dioxin deposited in the lakes can be reduced to zero by diverting the trash to intensive recycling programs. The net economic effect would be a $500-million reduction in disposal costs, including the cost of paying off the incinerators' existing debt.

SA: In the U.S. economy, the decisions that determine what is produced and by what means are in private hands. How can the desire to improve the quality of the environment be brought to bear on what are often corporate decisions?

BC: I believe that the first step is to extend the environmental issue into the relevant social, economic and political arenas. Consider, for example, the decision to replace conventional cars and light trucks with electric vehicles, powered, ultimately, from solar sources. The relevant corporations are reluctant to make this change because, compared with conventional ones, electric vehicles would initially be more costly and more restricted in their uses. Such a shift would damage a corporation's economic interests, they argue, in comparison with firms that refrained from making the change.

This issue can be dealt with by establishing, as a national industrial policy, that all suitable vehicles are to be powered by electricity, placing all of the auto industry's firms on the same level playing field, economically.

SA: Isn't "industrial policy" one of those dirty words in Washington?

BC: There is nothing new about national policies on major social interests such as education or labor--or, for that matter, the environment. After all, despite the economic advantage to firms that employed child labor, it was in the social interest, as a national policy, to abolish it--removing that advantage for all firms. What is new is that environmentalism intensely illuminates the need to confront the corporate domain at its most powerful and guarded point--the exclusive right to govern the systems of production.

SA: How can the environmental movement challenge such a deeply rooted privilege?

BC: A useful way to approach this question is to think about it directly in economic, rather than environmental, terms. Seen that way, the wholesale transformation of production technologies that is mandated by pollution prevention creates a new surge of economic development. But this would touch on other social concerns as well. The wave of new productive enterprises would provide opportunities to remedy the unjust distribution of environmental hazards among economic classes and racial and ethnic communities. For labor unions it would represent a source of new jobs and opportunities to advance the cause of a healthy work environment and worker retraining.

Indeed, the transformation, although environmentally mandated, may be much more powerfully inspired by the vision of an economic renaissance that would be generated by the new more productive technologies. The most meaningful engine of change, powerful enough to confront corporate power, may be not so much environmental quality, as the economic development and growth associated with the effort to improve it.

SA: Aren't many environmentalists fearful of advocating economic growth for the very reasons you cited earlier--that high rates of production and consumption are the chief cause of environmental degradation?

BC: That view is based on the assumption that production is necessarily accompanied by pollution, so that these two processes rise and fall together. It reflects a prevailing myth that production technology is no more amenable to human judgment or social interests than the laws of thermodynamics, atomic structure or biological inheritance. The environmental experience has shattered this myth. The high-compression engine and the nuclear reactor were built in response to human decisions, and their linkage to smog and radioactive waste can be readily broken by building electric vehicles and photovoltaic cells instead.

There are powerful reasons why environmental advocates should favor economic development and growth, as long as they are based on ecologically benign technologies of production. The most cogent reason is that the massive transformation of our major systems of production--which is essential to environmental quality--cannot achieve this goal if it is pursued only in developed countries. The environmental crisis is a global problem, and only global action will resolve it.

SA: Aren't there serious constraints on introducing new technology in developing countries?

BC: Certainly, and if they remain unrelieved, they will greatly reduce developing countries' ability to participate in the transition to ecologically sound systems of production. Since for some time the required production facilities--for example, solar energy equipment--would need to be imported, developing countries are potentially a huge market for the new environmentally benign products. In the United States and other developed countries, this demand would hasten the development of the transition and facilitate the growth of the new production facilities.

We must remember that the human inhabitants of the earth's ecosphere are engulfed in a global epidemic of poverty, hunger and despair. The grim statistics can be summarized in a simple image. As the earth spins through space, a view from above the North Pole would encompass most of the wealth of the world--most of its food, productive machines, doctors, engineers and teachers. A view from the opposite pole would encompass most of the world's poor. The planet is split by a chasm that separates the North from the South, the rich from the poor. This global chasm must be bridged. This is the rational, logical outcome of the environmental experience.

If environmentalism is to be devoted to human welfare, there are reasons more powerful than the environmental ones. Simple morality dictates that the rich should share their productive capacity with the poor. And an even more compelling imperative is justice, for the poor half of the planet has been brought to that plight through the exploitation of its resources and its people by the imperial nations of the North.

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way--for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it--to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists. That is what is yet to be done.

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