Off the shelf: The Closing Circle

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Barry Commoner

Readers recommend an old or forgotten text that is worth revisiting. This month Martin Empson highlights an early work of radical ecology.

Barry Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle is a nearly forgotten classic of radical ecology. Reading it nearly 50 years later the starkness of its warning about the coming ecological disaster is remarkable.

It was written at a time of intense debate about ecology. A few years earlier Paul Ehrlich had published The Population Bomb — a polemic that put the blame for environmental degradation, hunger and poverty on “over population”. Ehrlich’s book became a bestseller, but there were counter-tendencies, including the growth of a mass radical environmental movement of which Commoner was part.

Commoner roots his critique of Ehrlich’s work in a brilliantly readable discussion of ecological science. He argues that scientists tended to approach the question of environmental destruction wrongly. Rather than looking at the big picture, they tried to understand it by looking at its component parts. He argues that “the view that effective understanding of a complex system can be achieved by investigating the properties of its isolated parts” is “not an effective means of analysing the vast natural systems that are threatened by degradation”.

Instead, Commoner offers four laws of ecology, designed to make readers think about ecological crisis as part of wider systems. The first law — “everything is connected to everything else” — immediately highlights the problems of a reductionist approach. Changes in one area of a system have impacts elsewhere. The second law is “everything must go somewhere” — actions have unintended consequences. His third law, “nature knows best”, is the weakest. He thought that it would get the most “resistance” because it “contradicts a deeply held idea about the unique competence of human beings”. But the problem is actually that nature does not “know” anything but acts in an unconscious way. Commoner is making a wider point that biological systems are the result of millennia of evolution and that changes to these systems tend to have negative effects.

The final law, “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, is best explained by Commoner himself: “Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of the price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed.”

This approach was very influential. The Marxist scientists Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins wrote, “Commoner’s dicta that everything is connected to everything else and that everything goes somewhere have become part of the common sense of at least a part of the public”.

Commoner integrated this approach into a critique of the capitalist system. Indeed some of his arguments are very close to those made by Karl Marx. Commenting on agriculture, Commoner argues, “once removed from this [ecological] cycle, for example to a city…bodily wastes are not returned to the soil but to surface water, the human population is separated from the ecosystem of which it was original a part”. Marx used this precise example to develop his idea of the metabolic rift. Indeed Commoner notes Marx’s critique of capitalism as a system which must continuously accumulate wealth.

Commoner is very clear that it is the nature of capitalist production that drives environmental degradation.

In a frighteningly contemporary argument, Commoner warns that “personal acts” are not enough to bring about change. Choosing to “walk or bicycle rather than drive a car…use returnable bottles and phosphate-free detergents…produce no more than two children” must be contrasted with “social, rather than personal” approaches.

Parts of the book remind me of the earlier work of Rachel Carson. Carson died in 1964, but Commoner’s book develops her critique of the industrial destruction of the environment. Both Carson and Commoner saw their role as using scientific knowledge to encourage citizens’ movements. Indeed, some of the most interesting sections of The Closing Circle show scientists coming together with wider movements to win real social change.

The book concludes with a powerful argument for system change: “The world is being carried to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political and social forces that constitute the march of history”. Commoner concludes that we must “change the course of history”.

Long out of print, it looks like the 50th anniversary of its original publication will see a reprint of The Closing Circle. If so, a new generation of activists will learn a great deal from Barry Commoner’s powerful book.