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Barry Commoner's Legacy

J. Mijin Cha

Yesterday brought the sad news that noted environmental advocate and scholar, Barry Commoner, had passed away. As pointed out in the many tributes to his life and achievements, Commoner was one of the founders of modern environmentalism and embraced a more complex, holistic view of environmental issues. Commoner believed in addressing multiple issues, such as racism, sexism, war -- and, most importantly, the failings of capitalism -- at the same time as environmentalism because they were, and still are, all related issues of a larger central problem.

Commoner had four informal rules of ecology:

  • Everything is connected to everything else
  • Everything must go somewhere
  • Nature knows best
  • There is no such thing as a free lunch

Decades later, these rules still hold true. The first idea addresses the idea that environmentalism is just one piece of a larger picture. For instance, gender rights are not thought of as a traditional environmental issue. Yet, empowering women is one of the best ways to improve natural resource management and curb overpopulation, which are very traditional environmental issues. Commoner saw the links between societal ills and how addressing them holistically would result in more success.

The second rule that everything must go somewhere is being seen daily as the world will generate 2.7 trillion tons of garbage this year. The vast majority of waste goes to landfills and is not composted or recycled, even though food and paper make up 63 percent of waste. There is limited space to hold all our trash and at some point, in the not so distant future, we will have a real garbage crisis.

The last two rules are part of what inspires the alternative metric work at Demos and other organizations. Nature does know best, which is why the services it provides must be valued in a way that accurately reflects its importance. Instead of just focusing on profits and traditional conceptions of capital, we need to move beyond incomplete metrics, like GDP, and move to a more complete analysis of what costs are being incurred and what benefits are arising that we are not counting.

For instance, valuing ecosystems and counting natural capital show the costs and benefits associated with destroying and preserving ecosystems. Instead of passing off the costs of production to society while reaping the profits of production, we need to move to a system where businesses know there is no free lunch and begin to pay for the costs that they impose on society.

With Commoner’s passing, we not only lose a great advocate but a true visionary. His ideas and vision will continue to be relevant for decades to come.