Commoner Publishes

Barry Commoner’s influential The Closing Circle outlined the magnitude of the environmental crisis facing the United States in both scientific and economic terms.

Summary of Event

The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner’s most influential book on the environment, appeared in print in October, 1971. Commoner was already widely known as a public figure and environmental authority when the book appeared; as early as the 1950’s, Commoner was among the first group of scientists to protest nuclear testing. In The Closing Circle, however, Commoner goes beyond single-issue environmentalism. The book presents what is perhaps the first and possibly the best example of a whole-systems approach to the environmental crisis. His approach is embodied in the book’s title metaphor of the closed, circular system in which all natural and technological events are ultimately interrelated. Environmental awareness
Environmental awareness
Commoner, Barry
Hardin, Garrett
Heilbroner, Robert

Commoner begins his analysis by introducing in chapter 2, “The Ecosphere,” what he considers to be the four basic laws of ecology: Everything is connected to everything else; everything must go somewhere; nature knows best; and there is no such thing as a free lunch. As Commoner notes with some embarrassment, these ideas are not necessarily the exclusive property of environmentalists but are in fact ideas that many people hold to be self-evident. In fact, Commoner, like poet and novelist Wendell Berry, found his tradition of environmentalism in American culture, although Commoner ironically found his in the literary, rather than the political, tradition. The three writers Commoner considers especially important in relation to environmental issues are Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain; he also mentions James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau. Despite this rich literary environmental heritage, Commoner concludes, the environment has still been despoiled in the corporate search for profits. Thus Commoner’s duty is to explain the environmental crisis as a scientist and to explain the ecological system chain of cause and effect in scientific, quantifiable terms.

Barry Commoner’s environmental activism began during the 1950’s when he became aware of the destructive potential of nuclear weapons testing.

(Jim West)

Approximately the first third of Commoner’s scientific analysis deals with case studies of environmental decline, appropriately arranged around the subjects of fire (nuclear pollution), air, earth, and water. The remaining two-thirds of the text is concerned with the generalizations that Commoner draws from these examples, specifically dealing with the root cause of environmental degradation, which Commoner argues is the profit motive. The case study examples are based on both well-known and little-known examples of pollution in the United States.

In chapter 3, “Nuclear Fire,” he begins with the issue that led him to become an environmental activist. In the early 1950’s it became evident to Commoner and other scientists that aboveground nuclear testing was leading to worldwide contamination of the atmosphere with radioactive debris. Commoner and his colleagues at Washington University formed the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information[Saint Louis Committee for Nuclear Information] in 1958 and began an intensive campaign that helped lead to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty. Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) In The Closing Circle, Commoner then connects the nuclear weapons industry and the dangers associated with it to the peaceful utilization of atomic energy. Nuclear weapons
Nuclear energy Both pose immediate dangers to the biosphere, Commoner argues, and represent the grossest examples of misapplied technology.

Commoner’s next three examples of pollution link the abstractions of nuclear peril with the everyday life of average Americans of the day. Chapter 5, “Illinois Earth,” presents an exhaustive analysis of groundwater pollution in the unlikely area of Decatur, Illinois. Water;pollution
Air pollution Excessive use of chemical fertilizers in the farmlands around the city caused Decatur’s water supply to become contaminated with nitrites, leading to health problems for many of the city’s residents. Chapter 4, “Los Angeles Air,” and chapter 6, “Lake Erie Water,” treat two examples of pollution that have become synonymous with environmental concerns. Los Angeles, Commoner notes, does not have smog in the sense that 1952 London had smog, which was a combination of smoke and fog. Los Angeles has instead a photochemical smog caused primarily by automobile exhaust. The automobile, as Commoner notes, is one of the most inefficient forms of transportation ever invented but is highly profitable to manufacture. Lake Erie’s decline was gradual, argues Commoner, but presents a worst-case example of environmental degradation. Once an environment like Lake Erie’s collapses, he notes, there is little or no chance of it ever recovering or being restored to its original health. The only solution Commoner can find is to prevent such collapses from occurring in other locales.

The remainder of the book is dedicated to Commoner’s analysis of the underlying causes of the environmental crisis. His scientific evidence is primarily the groundwork for the economic segment of his argument. Commoner asserts that in all cases in which there is a significant increase in pollution, some new and sophisticated technology is always at work. The surges in pollution occurred during the late 1940’s, the 1950’s, and the 1960’s, as Commoner documents. In all these cases, Commoner finds that pollution can be directly linked to the desire for increased profits in the polluting industry. Plastic bottles and disposables of all kinds mean greater profits for the manufacturer, as do gas-guzzling automobiles and other inefficient users of energy.

Traditional economists, argues Commoner, treat the costs associated with pollution as externals, or costs that cannot be included into a profit-and-loss equation. Commoner, using his closing circle analogy, maintains that in a closed system such as Earth’s environment, there is no external location. The profit made by the manufacturer of a polluting product is absorbed, figuratively and literally, by the person, plant, or animal living downstream or downwind from the source of the pollution. Pollution, in the final analysis, Commoner concludes, is a way for industry to pass the cost of manufacturing on to the public. Private profit is therefore subsidized through public loss, although in this case even the profiteer cannot remain permanently unaffected by the waste produced and distributed in a cyclical system.


The Closing Circle was hailed as a landmark of environmental analysis as soon as it was published in 1971. It was compared immediately to Rachel Carson’s Carson, Rachel
Silent Spring
Silent Spring (Carson) (1962), the famous work against which later books on the environment were judged. The conservative BusinessWeek stated that Commoner’s book “may become as controversial” as Silent Spring. Although many reviewers did not make it past the issue of controversy, others noted the greater depth and wider range of analysis contained in The Closing Circle that placed it in a category different from that of Silent Spring. William Shannon, writing for The New York Times, noted that the next president should definitely read The Closing Circle, even if he had only time to read one book. The reviewer for Book World summed up the persuasiveness and significance of the text perhaps most succinctly by suggesting that “The Closing Circle should be required reading for everyone in the United States with a mental age over twelve.”

Such widespread acceptance of the argument presented by Commoner led to a wide range of actions, both legislative and, more broadly, political. In the context of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Commoner’s book played an important role in creating a paradigm on which the environmental debate centered: the importance of technology and the profit motive in the creation of pollution. One of Commoner’s primary goals and primary accomplishments was to counter the conservative arguments about environmental degradation and simultaneously establish the economic significance of environmental decline. The arguments are interrelated.

Commoner first counters the controversial position of Garrett Hardin, who argues in his famous essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968) “Tragedy of the Commons, The” (Hardin)[Tragedy of the Commons] that acting in self-interest always leads to environmental stress. Although Commoner agrees that unbridled self-interest is at the root of polluting industries, he disagrees with the abstract nature of the model and its political implications. Hardin asserts that aid to overpopulated Third World nations is self-defeating because their huge populations have caused environmental damage from which there is no possibility of recovery. Commoner maintains that because the planet is a connected system of varying environments, a collapse in one area affects all others directly or indirectly. Therefore, each nation must be helped to correct its individual population and environmental problems in order to avoid an overall environmental collapse.

Closer to home, Commoner attacks economic theories and practices that teach that pollution is an external factor that cannot be calculated into an equation of profit and loss. He questions the appropriateness of both capitalist and socialist theories of production as embodied by the 1960’s United States and Soviet Union. As far as production of pollution goes, according to Commoner, neither privately nor state-owned enterprises appear to be exempt from the law of profitability. In both systems, pollution is a way to pass on costs to the environment and to society at large. Commoner is also unable to find any theoretical accounting for the role of the environment in economic theory, with the exception of one brief passage from Karl Marx’s writings that appears to have been completely ignored by Stalinist state-run enterprises. Thus Commoner suggests that a new economic theory is necessary to provide a true accounting of environmental damage caused by industrial production.

Politically, Commoner’s book had perhaps more widespread impact than any other book written on the environment. The wide range of issues addressed in the text is partly responsible for this, as is Commoner’s ability to explain complicated scientific issues in common terms. Commoner is often given credit for predicting the mid-1970’s energy crisis because of his emphasis on the energy consumption of polluting technologies. Commoner’s solution to the energy crisis was not turning down thermostats, however, but the introduction of efficient and appropriate technologies. Only a small percentage of the technologies mentioned by Commoner as the worst environmental offenders have been replaced, though the efficiency of most have been improved, albeit through legislative mandate. Commoner’s book in many ways can be seen as an impetus for requirements for energy efficiency in many areas of the U.S. economy.

Commoner’s call in the final chapters of the book for political organization resonates more clearly than any other part of the text. Because the policies of the U.S. government were in many cases the direct, or at least a contributing, cause of the introduction and reproduction of the polluting technologies, Commoner argues that only organized political action could effect any positive change. Commoner helped found and organize the progressive Citizen’s Party, an environmentally oriented political party. The party ran many candidates in the 1980 election, including Commoner as the presidential candidate. Although the national organization was dissolved after a few years, it formed the basis of many of the local and state Green parties. The Citizen’s Party constituted the model on which the German Green Party was founded, and Commoner was active in consulting on the formation of Green parties worldwide. The success of the German and European Greens eclipsed by far the success of the American party, partly because of the proportional representation given to parties in European parliamentary systems. Thus Commoner’s text and work continues to have effects worldwide, from legislation in the United States to political action in Europe and the rest of the world. Environmental awareness

Further Reading

  • Beeman, Randal S., and James H. Pritchard. A Green and Permanent Land: Ecology and Agriculture in the Twentieth Century. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2001. Explores the alternative agricultural ideas introduced in the United States in the twentieth century and how agricultural issues played a key role in the rise of the environmental movement.
  • Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 3d ed. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. A combined environmental and cultural analysis by the noted novelist and poet. Berry argues for the primary importance of ethical land use in agriculture as an environmental issue. Includes new afterword by the author.
  • Commoner, Barry. The Poverty of Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. An extension and elaboration of The Closing Circle, this book presents a more focused analysis of the inefficient use of energy in the United States. Commoner’s chapter on the importance of organic agricultural practices provides a starting point for one of Wendell Berry’s most important arguments in The Unsettling of America.
  • Ehrlich, Paul. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968. One of the first and most famous of the books emphasizing the environmental consequences of the burgeoning human population. Argues that only a stable human population, or “zero population growth,” can ensure that Earth’s environment will not be degraded further.
  • Hardin, Garrett. Filters Against Folly. New York: Viking, 1985. An overview of Hardin’s controversial theories on the environment. Hardin is best known for his essay “The Tragedy of the Commons,” and for his arguments against food aid to the Third World, believing instead in a triage approach to aid.
  • Jackson, Wes, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, eds. Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays representative of a broad spectrum of views in the alternative agriculture movement. Subjects addressed include permaculture, tree crops, and traditional and experimental organic farming techniques.
  • Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. 1949. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. One of the most influential books on environmental ethics produced in the United States, and a classic work of modern prose. A lifelong conservation worker, Leopold presents a respected view from inside the government conservation establishment.

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