Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Book Review: 'The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology' by Barry Commoner (Foreword by Michael Egan)

The insane argument over the environment seems to stem from the thought this is somehow a new fad and not established science. The timely reissue of Barry Commoner's The Closing Circle (1971) puts the lie to that nonsense. Reading it today is stunning. Commoner carefully proves his cases in meticulous scientific fashion. He researches for facts, working around obstacles. His analyses are prescient. His worries have borne fruit. Very little has changed in the intervening 50 years. Mostly, he was right and it has gotten far worse.

For Commoner, the circle of life is a network where everything is useful (if not essential) to something else. Compare this to Man's way, he says, where machine A makes object B endlessly, and when object B's usefulness is at end, he throws it away. The endless circle becomes a (manmade) linear event. That conflicts with the global model. It is simply wrong.

The results are quite obvious. Already by the early 70s, feedlots produced more waste than all US municipalities combined. And failed to deal with it. And in countless ways, technology was busy adding complexity to life. And this was long before Facebook and Google, consuming more electricity than many countries, producing a surveillance society for all.

His arguments go as far as economics and philosophy. Capitalism encourages any innovation to be implemented, whether it is beneficial or not. If it can be invented and manufactured, it will be. This approach negates the value of social goods in favor of capital goods. Social goods like clean water, places to dump waste chemicals, raw metals in the ground and cheap fuels to transport products anywhere, are never accounted for in their production. They are assumed to be free for any entrepreneur to consume for himself. But for capitalists to destroy social goods for their personal profit again takes Man out of the ecology network, placing him above it all. Commoner calls it suicidal.

Complexity is a point he keeps coming back to. Man has abandoned the natural for the complex. Simple cotton has been replaced by petroleum-based manmade fibres, for example, that don't require textile skills. They require giant factories, lots of water and electricity, and shipping between factories globally. Real food has been supplanted by manufactured processed foods. Commoner cites an early example: the non-returnable soda or beer bottle. This one change caused the manufacture of glass to skyrocket. So with non-rubber tires, plastic cloth, and everything else that used to be sane. Each so-called improvement caused new industries to emerge, consuming vast quantities of natural resources to produce what was already sufficiently supplied - by natural sources. The smartphone is only just the latest in a long line of complex solutions that scour the earth for rare metals and minerals, employ slave labor, and further complicate the lives of consumers.

He says there are four basic rules of ecology:
1. Everything is connected to everything else.
2. Everything must go somewhere.
3. Nature knows best.
4. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
This how the world works, even if Man declines to participate. When the systems clash, Nature takes a beating, but Man will lose the war.

Commoner was wrong about a few things. He assumed things would steadily worsen in all cases. Every body of water would become a Lake Erie, unable to sustain life, becoming a stinking mess that would catch fire from time to time. He did not count on activists, pressuring government to stop the madness. So there have been some spectacular turnabouts. Unfortunately, the current federal administration is working to roll back all that progress and return the country to the early 1960s.

Commoner could not have been expected to foresee things like gigantic plastic depots in the center of the oceans, microplastics infiltrating every living thing, or trash compacters - $200 marvels that turn ten pounds of trash into ten pounds of trash. On the other hand, he learned smog like no one else before. The sources, the processes, the results and the unintended consequences, as well as the political inability to deal with it are all documented here. Commoner nailed it 50 years ago.

The way forward involves a compete mindset change: "To resolve the environmental crisis, we shall need to forego, at last, the luxury of tolerating poverty, racial discrimination, and war. [...] Now that the bill for the environmental debt has been presented, our options have been reduced to two: either the rational, social organization of the  use and distribution of the earth's resources, or a new barbarism." The world desperately needs a new Barry Commoner right now.

Kudos and thanks to Dover Books once again. They have made a business of reissuing important books that have mostly, if not totally, been forgotten, and put them in bookstores at accessible prices. Their tastes are impeccable.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.