Barry Commoner

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Long before the first Earth Day in 1970, many scientists realized that man was seriously degrading the environment. Yet most common folks didn’t pay attention. The problems didn’t seem like things that would threaten our health or the planet in any permanent way.

What made the sixties and seventies different was a growth in the understanding of the issues and the science behind them. While it might have ultimately been the political and social pressure that brought change, it was the building of this knowledge that had the greatest influence on affecting that change.
Like today, the written word can be powerful in bringing about that change. This awakening came to be thanks to scientific writing, reports from the popular media, as well as the books of the era.

One of the most notable voices and writers of that era, Barry Commoner died the last day of September and his passing prompts me to reflect on his impact on modern environmentalism.

Commoner wrote two bestsellers, The Closing Circle in 1971 and the Poverty of Power five years later. He is best known for his four “Laws of Ecology” that he outlined in the first chapter of The Closing Circle. 1) Everything is connected to everything else; 2) Everything must go somewhere; 3) Nature knows best; and 4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.

In my previous life as an Earth and Environmental Science teacher, I would repeat those laws in one form or another more times than I could count. I would like to think that, four decades later, a much larger portion of the public understands these principles than grasped them in 1970.
That said, our individual choices, collective decision-making and political dialog would indicate that many still don’t understand, or have chosen to ignore, Commoner’s precepts.

The first law’s premise, that “everything is connected”, means that our actions can impact things far beyond our own backyard. We have often ignored this law over the years, locally failing to see the “connections” between poorly planned development and flooding. We pay the price every time it rains hard.
Sometimes we forget that “Everything must go somewhere.” Violation of this law could often be avoided if we simply thought about others. The smoke from our burn barrels has to go “somewhere” and it’s usually the neighbor’s yard. Similarly, our non-recycled trash has to go “somewhere”. But it’s usually a landfill in somebody else’s community.
Commoner’s third law of ecology – nature knows best – testifies to the efficiency of natural cycles. Ignoring this law is a reflection of man’s arrogance that he can control these complex natural systems. Composting and recycling replicate natural cycles, yet we still dump a majority of our trash in landfills.

His fourth law, that there is no such thing as a free lunch, holds true in both economics and ecology. Particularly as it applies to power generation, the extraction of those resources from the ground and the subsequent burning of that fuel always have a cost to the environment or our health.

As Commoner contends and we too often forget, many of the solutions can be found in social change rather than scientific advances.

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