Barry Commoner and the Great Acceleration

Long before today’s scientists accepted the idea, socialist-ecologist Barry Commoner argued that there had been a qualitative change in humanity’s relationship with nature in the years following World War II … and explained why it happened and what it means for our future.

by Ian Angus

“We know that something went wrong in the country after
World War II, for most of our serious pollution problems either
began in the postwar years or have greatly worsened since then.”
Barry Commoner, 1971 [1]

“[The] first stage of the Anthropocene ended abruptly
around 1945,  when the most rapid and pervasive shift
in the human-environment relationship began.”
Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, John R. McNeill, 2007 [2]

In the past fifteen years, scientists have re-examined their understanding of humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature, and have drawn radical conclusions. It is now widely accepted that in the past 200 years human activity has pushed the Earth into an unprecedented and potentially dangerous state, and that almost all of the change occurred in the second half of the twentieth century. Reflecting these conclusions, global scientific organizations are now considering proposals to identify the time since 1800 as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, and the years since World War II are being called the Great Acceleration.

Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner

Unmentioned in the many scientific papers and talks about these topics is the fact that their conclusions – particularly about the Great Acceleration – were anticipated nearly five decades ago by one of the founders of modern ecology, a committed socialist who the New York Times called one the “most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s political cause.”[3]

Barry Commoner wrote before many aspects of the Great Acceleration were visible, so his account was not as complete as those being published today – and yet his analysis of its social, economic and political causes is markedly superior. To fully understand today’s global environmental crisis, it is essential to build both on contemporary scientists’ description of the Great Acceleration and on Commoner’s explanation of the changes in capitalism that caused it.

Just as Marx and Engels studied the scientific, technological and other discoveries of their time, and used their new knowledge to extend, deepen or change their political conclusions, socialists today need to understand the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration in order to develop a socialist response to the environmental crisis. Whether or not one accepts the label ecosocialism for that program and movement, there is no question that Commoner’s work and the latest scientific studies show that environmental action must be at the top of the agenda for socialists in the 21st century.

“The most rapid and pervasive shift
in the human-environment relationship”

Geologists and other scientists have long referred to the 12,000 years since glaciers last retreated from most of the earth as the Holocene (entirely new) epoch. All of humanity’s history since we invented agriculture has taken place in this relatively warm and climatically stable period. During the Holocene, human societies have frequently changed or damaged ecosystems, but our impact has been limited in space and time: we eventually moved on and the earth recovered.[4]

The international scientific organizations responsible for the Geological Time Scale are currently considering a proposal by Nobel Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to formally define the time since about 1800 as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene meaning new human epoch.[5] Crutzen’s argument, made in a number of papers since 2000, is that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution human beings have been making permanent changes that affect the entire world – most notably by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and so changing the earth’s climate.

Naming a new epoch might not seem radical, but it’s a very big deal for geologists. Other recognized epochs are separated by mass extinctions, asteroid strikes, retreating glaciers, and similar phenomena. Declaring that a new epoch has begun, and that it is defined by the activity of our species, amounts to a declaration that human activity is comparable to such planet-shaping events.

As Naomi Oreskes puts it, “humans have become geological agents, changing the most basic physical processes of the earth.”[6] The reverse is equally true: as John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York point out, “The end of the Holocene due to anthropogenically induced global warming means that suddenly geological-scale change has entered human history itself.”[7]

In 2007, Crutzen joined climate scientist Will Steffen and environmental historian John R. McNeil, to extend the description of the Anthropocene by identifying and describing two distinct stages in its history. The Anthropocene, they said, should be subdivided into the Industrial Era, from 1800 to 1945, and the Great Acceleration, from 1945 to the present.[8]

Click to enlarge

Figure 1: Click to enlarge

The first stage was marked by expanded use of fossil fuels, which increased the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. By 1945, those gases had reached levels higher than any previously reached in the Holocene – “the first indisputable evidence that human activities were affecting the environment at the global scale.”

The environmental changes wrought in the first stage were substantial, but they pale in comparison to the years since World War II, “when the most rapid and pervasive shift in the human-environment relationship began.” The change is so dramatic that some scientists have suggested dating the beginning of the Anthropocene at 1950, not 1800.[9]

The graphs in Figure 1, prepared for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), dramatically illustrate the “rapid and pervasive shift” in the second half of the twentieth century.

In an article provocatively titled “The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?” Crutzen, Steffen, and McNeil write:

“The human enterprise suddenly accelerated after the end of the Second World War. Population doubled in just 50 years, to over 6 billion by the end of the 20th century, but the global economy increased by more than 15-fold. Petroleum consumption has grown by a factor of 3.5 since 1960, and the number of motor vehicles increased dramatically from about 40 million at the end of the War to nearly 700 million by 1996. From 1950 to 2000 the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas grew from 30 to 50% and continues to grow strongly….”

The authors leave no doubt that their answer to the question in their title is yes.

“Over the past 50 years, humans have changed the world’s ecosystems more rapidly and extensively than in any other comparable period in human history. The Earth is in its sixth great extinction event, with rates of species loss growing rapidly for both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. The atmospheric concentrations of several important greenhouse gases have increased substantially, and the Earth is warming rapidly. More nitrogen is now converted from the atmosphere into reactive forms by fertilizer production and fossil fuel combustion than by all of the natural processes in terrestrial ecosystems put together. ….

“The exponential character of the Great Acceleration is obvious from our quantification of the human imprint on the Earth System, using atmospheric CO2 concentration as the indicator. Although by the Second World War the CO2 concentration had clearly risen above the upper limit of the Holocene, its growth rate hit a take-off point around 1950. Nearly three-quarters of the anthropogenically driven rise in CO2 concentration has occurred since 1950 (from about 310 to 380 ppm), and about half of the total rise (48 ppm) has occurred in just the last 30 years.”

In the seven years since they wrote that, CO2 levels have continued to rise rapidly, passing 400 parts per million in April 2014.

What’s driving the hell-bound train?

Crutzen and Steffen write:

“Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state. In terms of key environmental parameters, the Earth System has recently moved well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over at least the last half million years. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change, are unprecedented and unsustainable.”[10]

A transformation of this scale and scope is not something that socialists can ignore, or treat as just one aspect of our program. As the Brazilian ecosocialist and atmospheric scientist Alexandre Costa writes, “The fight to avoid a catastrophic outcome to this crisis engendered by capitalism is the fight to safeguard the material conditions for survival with dignity of humankind. … Socialism is not possible on a scorched Earth.”[11]

If we don’t understand what is driving the hell-bound train, we won’t be able to stop it. Unfortunately, while the scientific papers that discuss the Great Acceleration provide a wealth of empirical data, they offer little insight into the underlying causes of the postwar explosion of environmentally destructive activity.

Historian John R. McNeill takes some steps towards an explanation in his book Something New Under the Sun, but though he describes the “strongly linked trajectories of energy, technology and economy [that] together exercised paramount influence over twentieth century environmental history” very well, in the end his explanation is circular.  Human activity grew because conditions favored growth. We’re left wondering why conditions were favorable, why the expansion began when it did, and why it has taken such destructive forms.[12]

To begin remedying that omission, we must look back to the 1960s, when a small number of left-wing scientists – none of them even mentioned in recent papers on the Anthropocene and Great Awakening – first drew attention to the postwar environmental transformation.

Rachel Carson and Murray Bookchin

As we will see, Barry Commoner developed the most complete analysis of what is now being called the Great Acceleration, but other radical ecologists were thinking on the same lines in the 1960s.

In her 1962 book Silent Spring, justifiably revered as an environmental classic, Rachel Carson mounted a powerful and effective attack on agricultural use of the insecticide DDT, which she called an “elixir of death.” Less noted at the time, and all but forgotten today, is the fact that she saw the introduction of DDT not as an isolated problem, but as part of a major shift in humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature.

“Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species – man – acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

“During the past quarter century this power has not only increased to one of disturbing magnitude but it has changed in character. The most alarming of all man’s assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. …

“Along with the possibility of the extinction of mankind by nuclear war, the central problem of our age has therefore become the contamination of man’s total environment with such substances of incredible potential for harm.”[13]

What Carson described was a global crisis of a new kind.

“For the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death. In the less than two decades of their use, the synthetic pesticides have been so thoroughly distributed throughout the animate and inanimate world that they occur virtually everywhere. …

“All this has come about because of the sudden rise and prodigious growth of an industry for the production of man-made or synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties. This industry is a child of the Second World War.”[14]

This was permitted to happen, she wrote, because we live in “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.”[15]

Also in 1962, Our Synthetic Environment, written by Murray Bookchin under the name Lewis Herber, examined the effects of chemical pollution, insecticides, radiation and other environmental problems on human health. It was published five months before Silent Spring, but it attracted little attention at the time, and has long been out of print.

Bookchin too believed that a turning point in humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature had occurred since the war.

“Since World War II … there has been a new industrial revolution, and the problems of urban life have acquired new dimensions. …. At the same time that the number of pollutants has increased, the ecological preconditions for wholesome air and plentiful water are being undermined. A major disequilibrium is arising between town and country, industry and the biotic environment, and population and regional resources.”[16]

In a 1964 essay, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought,” Bookchin, like Carson, described the situation as a crisis of a new kind: “Today human parasitism disrupts more than the atmosphere, climate, water resources, soil, flora, and fauna of a region; it upsets virtually all the basic cycles of nature and threatens to undermine the stability of the environment on a worldwide scale.”[17]

Barry Commoner

The scientist who studied the postwar environmental crisis most closely, and offered the most complete social and economic explanation, was a socialist and ecologist who taught at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Barry Commoner rose to prominence in the 1950s as a leader of the campaign against nuclear bomb tests. His scientific research into the extent and impact of radioactive fallout – a deadly threat whose very existence the U.S. military and government denied – made him very aware that humanity now had the ability to poison our world on a scale never before possible. In the 1960s, as founder of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, he brought that understanding to his study of other kinds of pollution.

In 1966, Commoner warned that humanity’s relationship with what scientists now call the Earth System was in crisis.

“As a biologist, I have reached this conclusion: we have come to a turning point in the human habitation of the earth. The environment is a complex, subtly balanced system, and it is this integrated whole which receives the impact of all the separate insults inflicted by pollutants. Never before in the history of this planet has its thin life-supporting surface been subjected to such diverse, novel, and potent agents. I believe that the cumulative effects of these pollutants, their interactions and amplification, can be fatal to the complex fabric of the biosphere. And, because man is, after all, a dependent part of this system, I believe that continued pollution of the earth, if unchecked, will eventually destroy the fitness of this planet as a place for human life.”[18]

Tables 1 & 2. Click to Enlarge

Tables 1 & 2. Click to Enlarge

Commoner’s 1971 book, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology, was his most ambitious account of the nature and causes of the environmental crisis. Like today’s scientists who have documented the Great Acceleration, he identified the years following 1945 as a turning point: “We know that something went wrong in the country after World War II, for most of our serious pollution problems either began in the postwar years or have greatly worsened since then.” [19]

Also like those scientists, Commoner compiled statistics showing dramatic increases in production after 1945. Table 1 summarizes some of his figures.

Unlike today’s Great Acceleration writers, Commoner also compiled statistics on production that declined in the same period. See Table 2.

By including both increases and decreases, Commoner was making an important point. If this were simply a growth issue (perhaps driven by population increase), then all products should have increased. In fact, production and pollution had not only increased much more rapidly than population since 1945, their character had changed.

“While production for most basic needs – food, clothing, housing – has just about kept up with the 40 to 50 per cent or so increase in population (that is, production per capita has been essentially constant), the kinds of goods produced to meet these needs have changed drastically. New production technologies have displaced old ones. Soap powder has been displaced by synthetic detergents; natural fibers (cotton and wool) have been displaced by synthetic ones; steel and lumber have been displaced by aluminum, plastics, and concrete; railroad freight has been displaced by truck freight; returnable bottles have been displaced by nonreturnable ones. On the road, the low-powered automobile engines of the 1920’s and 1930’s have been displaced by high-powered ones. On the farm, while per capita production has remained about constant, the amount of harvested acreage has decreased; in effect, fertilizer has displaced land. Older methods of insect control have been displaced by synthetic insecticides, such as DDT, and for controlling weeds the cultivator has been displaced by the herbicide spray. Range-feeding of livestock has been displaced by feedlots.”[20]

As a result, the environmental crisis wasn’t just bigger than in the past; it was qualitatively different and worse.

“The chief reason for the environmental crisis that has engulfed the United States in recent years is the sweeping transformation of productive technology since World War II. … Productive technologies with intense impacts on the environment have displaced less destructive ones. The environmental crisis is the inevitable result of this counter-ecological pattern of growth.”[21]

In particular, Commoner pointed at the spectacular expansion of the petroleum, petrochemical and related industries, which produced products and wastes that nature could not recycle, and which at the same time stimulated a huge expansion in the amount of energy used in production and transportation. Low energy manufacturing gave way to high energy processes, and natural products were replaced by synthetic ones that required petroleum as raw material and for energy.

Once our attention focuses on changes in production technology, it’s easy to see why the Great Acceleration began when it did. As Commoner pointed out, the decades before the war saw revolutionary advances in basic science, especially physics and chemistry. Much of the new science was adopted for military purposes during the war, and then rapidly moved into industrial and agricultural production after it. “The period of World War II is, therefore, a great divide between the scientific revolution that preceded it and the technological revolution that followed it.”[22]

We can add that the massive destruction of productive capacity during the Great Depression and the War created opportunities after 1945 for war profiteers to invest their ill-gotten gains in rebuilding industry using new technology. The process was hastened by the flood of cheap oil from Saudi Arabia after 1948, which made switching to from coal and natural materials to petroleum and synthetics particularly attractive to investors.

The root problem, Commoner argued, was an economic system that puts profit ahead of the health of people and planet. “Private business has chosen to invest its capital preferentially in a series of new productive enterprises that are closely related to the intensification of environmental pollution.” Corporations do this not because they have a perverse affection for pollution, but because “production based on the new technology has been more profitable than production based on the old technology it has replaced.”[23]

“The crucial link between pollution and profits appears to be modern technology, which is both the main source of recent increases in productivity – and therefore of profits – and of recent assaults on the environment. Driven by an inherent tendency to maximize profits, modern private enterprise has seized upon those massive technological innovations that promise to gratify this need.”[24]

He devoted a chapter of The Closing Circle to documenting connections between high rates of profit and practices that are particularly stressful towards the environment, concluding that “an economic system which is fundamentally based on private transactions rather than social ones is no longer appropriate and increasingly ineffective in managing this vital social good [the ecosphere].”[25]

Twenty years after The Closing Circle, Commoner wrote a sequel,  Making Peace With the Planet, which brought his account of the “counter-ecological pattern of growth” up to date, and examined why two decades of environmental action had failed. He remained optimistic, but warned that “the ecosphere is under attack that is intolerable in its present impact and likely to end in global catastrophe” if environmentalists continue “dealing only with symptoms and applying palliatives instead of attacking the problem at its root.” He also anticipated a key part of Crutzen’s Anthropocene argument:

“We need to understand the interaction between our two worlds: the natural ecosphere, the thin global skin of air, water, and soil and the plants and animals that live in it, and the man-made technosphere …. The technosphere has become sufficiently large and intense to alter the natural processes that govern the ecosphere.”[26]

I don’t want to suggest that Commoner’s account was above criticism or complete. For example, to calculate the comparative environmental impact of technology, population and consumer affluence he used the I=PAT formula (Impact equals Population times Affluence times Technology) which simply doesn’t work for such calculations.[27] More seriously, he had little to say about the trends in global capitalism that enabled the long economic boom from 1945 to 1973, which was both a product and a cause of the technological revolution he describes. We still lack a full historical, economic and ecological account of the Great Acceleration.

But when such an account is written, it will necessarily begin from Commoner’s three core arguments: that there was a qualitative change in the dominant productive technologies after World War II; that as a result, pollution and environmental destruction not only increased but changed in character; and that the transformation occurred because using the new technologies increased corporate wealth and profits.

And if it is done well, the account will agree with the conclusion he stated in 1976: “There’s something wrong, and I think the answer is that we have to now begin to think about replacing the capitalist organization of the economic system by a system which is governed by human need, by social need, and of course, with a small s, that’s socialism.”[28]

Socialists and scientists

Crutzen’s proposal to name the epoch after the anthropos – humans – can be interpreted to mean that the global environmental crisis is caused by all humans, rather than by the 1% of humans who actually make and enforce the decisions that are transforming the biosphere. That in turn can lead to neo-Malthusian conclusions – that the only way to protect nature is to reduce the number of people.

It’s important to remember, as Swedish ecologists Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg point out, that “the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general.”

“The succession of energy technologies following steam – electricity, the internal combustion engine, the petroleum complex: cars, tankers, aviation – have all been introduced through investment decisions, sometimes with crucial input from certain governments but rarely through democratic deliberation. The privilege of instigating new rounds appears to have stayed with the class ruling commodity production.”

They suggest that climate change be labelled sociogenic, not anthropogenic, “to indicate that the driving forces derive from a specific social structure, rather than a species-wide trait.”[29] I sympathize with the desire for more politically accurate labels, but Marxists are a small minority in society at large and in the scientific organizations that make such decisions, so our preferences in such matters are very unlikely to prevail.

What ecosocialists can do – what we must do – is use every opportunity for dialogue with environmental scientists. As Dipesh Chakrabarty says, despite their limited social analysis and leanings toward populationism,  the scientists who are publicizing the nature and extent of the crisis should not be viewed as opponents: “they are not necessarily anticapitalist scholars, and yet they clearly are not for business-as-usual capitalism either.”[30] Scientists who understand the threats posed by the Great Acceleration can be important allies in a movement to slow capitalism’s drive to disaster.

Most of these scientists show no awareness of Barry Commoner’s work, a  neglect that reflects the disappearance of any critique of capitalism in mainstream environmentalism in the late twentieth century. Commoner was just too radical for the pale green NGOs that dominated green politics. Although he continued to make important contributions as a scientist and activist, all his books are now out of print, and, as noted above, he isn’t mentioned in any article on the Anthropocene or the Great Acceleration that I’ve found, despite the obvious relevance of his work.

An important part of establishing dialogue and common activity with scientists should be making Commoner’s main works widely available again, and re-establishing his reputation as one of the most insightful theorists on the social causes of environmental destruction. As a shining example of how scientists can contribute to building movements for environmental and social justice, he can continue to make invaluable contributions to that cause in the 21st Century. Everyone who is concerned about the environmental crisis can learn a great deal from the pioneering ecologist who wrote:

“The earth is polluted neither because man is some kind of especially dirty animal nor because there are too many of us. The fault lies with human society – with the ways in which society has elected to win, distribute, and use the wealth that has been extracted by human labor from the planet’s resources. Once the social origins of the crisis become clear, we can begin to design appropriate social actions to resolve it.”[31]


 [This article is based on research I’m doing for the book on ecosocialism that I’m trying to write. It is a work in progress, so comments, suggestions and corrections are more than welcome. — Ian] 


Appendix: Reading Barry Commoner

This article only skims the surface of Barry Commoner’s views on the relationship between society, economy and environment. He considered it a social and political responsibility to make science accessible to a broad readership, and all of his books are models of clear writing that is both scientifically accurate and committed to social justice.

Closing CircleHis most important book is The Closing Circle (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), written in response to simplistic and one-sided explanations of environmental problems. “Earth Week convinced me of the urgency of a deeper public understanding of the origins of the environmental crisis and its possible cures. That is what this book is about. It is an effort to find out what the environmental crisis means.”

His earlier book, Science and Society (Viking, 1966), linked his deep involvement in the campaign against nuclear weapon testing, with his growing concern about other forms of pollution. “Science can reveal the depth of this crisis, but only social action can resolve it.”

The Poverty of Power (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976) focused on the 1973-74 oil crisis and the 1973-75 recession, arguing from an explicitly Marxist perspective, and advocating socialist solutions.

The Politics of Energy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1979) is a critique of the Carter administration’s energy policy. It condemned Carter’s support for nuclear energy and argued for a rapid transition to solar power. Those arguments were central to his 1980 campaign for president as candidate of the Citizen’s Party.

Twenty years after The Closing Circle, Commoner updated his analysis in Making Peace With the Planet (Pantheon 1990). He remained convinced that an educated public could end to the “ongoing and ultimately suicidal war with the planet” by imposing social control over decisions about what to produce and how to produce it.

Every socialist with an interest in environmental issues (and that ought to be every socialist) can benefit from reading Barry Commoner, especially The Closing Circle and Making Peace With the Planet. Unfortunately his books are out of print, but they can be found in libraries, and used copies are readily available online at reasonable prices.



[1] Barry Commoner. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man & Technology. Alfred E. Knopf, 1971. 140

[2] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen and John R. McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” Ambio, Dec., 2007. 614-621

[3] Daniel Lewis. “Barry Commoner, 1917-2012: Scientist, Candidate and Planet Earth’s Lifeguard.” New York Times, October 1, 2012

[4] A possible exception is the disappearance of very large mammals in Europe, the Americas and Australia: some scientists believe humans hunted them to extinction.

[5] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The ‘Anthropocene’”. Global Change Newsletter 41, May 2000. 17-18. Paul Crutzen. “Geology of Mankind.” Nature. January 2002. 23

[6] Naomi Oreskes. “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change: How do We Know We’re Not Wrong?” in Joseph Dimento ad Pamela Doughman, eds, Climate Change: What it Means for Us, Our Children, Our Grandchildren.  MIT Press, 2007. 93

[7] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. Monthly Review Press, 2010. 35.

[8] Steffen et al. “The Anthropocene.” 614-621

[9] See, for example, Anthony D. Barnosky. “Palaeontological evidence for defining the Anthropocene.” In Europe, the Great Acceleration is sometimes called the ‘1950s Syndrome,’ a term first used by Swiss environmentalist Christian Pfister in the 1990s.

[10] Paul J. Crutzen and Will Steffen. “How Long Have We Been In The Anthropocene Era? An Editorial Comment.” Climatic Change, 61 (2003) 253.

[11] Alexandre Costa. “Socialism is not possible on a ruined planet.” Climate & Capitalism, April 17, 2014.

[12] J. R. McNeill. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. W.W. Norton, 2000. 325, 356.

[13] Rachel Carson. Silent Spring. Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 5-6, 8.

[14] Carson. Silent Spring. 15, 16

[15] Carson. Silent Spring. 13

[16] Lewis Herber (Murray Bookchin). Our Synthetic Environment. Alfred E. Knopf, 1962. 53

[17] Murray Bookchin. “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.” 1964.

[18] Barry Commoner. Science and Survival. Viking Press, 1966. 122

[19] Commoner. Closing Circle. 140

[20] Commoner. Closing Circle. 144

[21] Commoner. Closing Circle, 177

[22] Commoner, Closing Circle,. 129

[23] Commoner. Closing Circle. 258-9

[24] Commoner. Closing Circle. 267-8

[25] Commoner. Closing Circle. 287

[26] Barry Commoner. Making Peace With the Planet. Pantheon, 1990. 7.

[27] For a discussion of the problems with IPAT, see Ian Angus and Simon Butler. Too Many People? Population, Immigration and the Environmental Crisis. Haymarket Books, 2011. 46-50.

[28] “Oil, energy and capitalism: An unpublished talk by Barry Commoner.”

[29] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg. “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative.” The Anthropocene Review. Vol. 1, 2014.

[30] Dipesh Chakrabarty “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry, Vol 35 No 2 (Winter 2009) 212.

[31] Commoner. Closing Circle. 178

Posted in Anthropocene, Ecosocialism, Featured, Marxist Ecology


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Phil Ward
1 year 9 months ago
I think Commoner’s emphasis on the damage caused by new technologies is very interesting and would benefit from more detailed study. It is the complete opposite of the arguments given by the Lovins’s at the Rocky Mountain Institute, who argue in their book “Natural Capitalism” that the “T” in the I=PAT equation can be made so small (1/100th of the current value, if I remember rightly) that “affluence” (especially) and population become irrelevant. The one example I remember is a company that replaces individual carpet tiles in offices, rather than whole carpets, which doesn’t strike me as world-changing. The Lovins’s have an extreme (capitalist) technocratic position. But I do think that table 1 above, that Ian takes from “The Closing Circle”, needs to be treated with caution. Just as an example, the growth in non-returnable soda bottles – by a factor of 530 – could be misleading if there were almost no non-returnable glass soda bottles in 1946, which I suspect was the case. Some measure of the scale of the problems is also necessary for the statistics quoted to be useful. One aspect of “T” that is interesting is the large increase in demand for rare metals and semi-metals,… Read more »
1 year 9 months ago

In this review of a book about Paul Ehrlich, published today, I’ve mentioned Commoner’s polemic with Ehrlich.

Jack Silverman
1 year 10 months ago

If you want a balanced view, just include the non-socialists or those who maybe were not “officially” so designated. Rene Dubos believed in a balance between man and nature. The other one I can think of is a great scientist in Western history, Wilhelm Reich. I have a book that points out Reich was warning of “desertification,” the threat of which is supposedly identical to the idea of “global warming.” This came out of experiments the man did, in the American southwest, which almost everyone considered crazy. I have the book from the library: “Where’s the truth,” which is the last journals of the man.

Phil Ward
1 year 10 months ago
When he was at his most creative, during the Weimar period in Germany, Reich WAS a socialist. He applied his experience as a psychoanalyst to the question of the sexual liberation of young people (in particular) and he saw this as part of the struggle for the total liberation of humanity as a whole. It’s pretty clear that after getting asylum in the USA Reich underwent some kind of “revelation” and developed a whole series of quack ideas, manifest in the invention of the orgone box. Even on the Amazon page of the book mentioned above, you can see gems like “My Planck number is slightly higher than the one that is generally known because I was forced to extend the minute by 4 seconds”. Reich might be counted as one of the pioneers of pseudo-scientific hippy-talk, which is the bane of “alternative” circles in the west (and not only the west). He even pioneered the now very fashionable practice of dressing up his “findings” in misapplied verbiage derived from sub-atomic physics, something New Scientist accurately describes as “quantum fruitloopery”. Politically, Reich moved from the understanding that sexual liberation was contingent on social liberation to the exact opposite. This might… Read more »