The Sunny Side of the Street

The Poverty of Power: Energy and the Economic Crisis

by Barry Commoner
Knopf, 314 pp., $10.00

Over the last years we have seen the growth of two important, middle-class political movements in the United States: one is centered on feminism, the other on the environment. The environmental movement springs from a long history. Its modern form has its origins in the industrial revolution, with the ideas of the Utilitarians. They argued for improved sanitation and environmental controls as essential accoutrements for industrial expansion. It was evidently necessary to ensure some level of physical well-being among factory workers, the better to increase productivity.

In the early part of this century in the United States environmental concerns were encapsulated in the slogan of conservation: the concept of ecological balance was distilled into a strategy of sequestering areas of natural beauty, mainly for the benefit of the middle classes. The argument of the Utilitarians continued to prosper through such political spokesmen as Theodore Roosevelt, whose policies, expressed in terms of conservation and efficiency, nevertheless encouraged corporate use of Western land and industry at the expense of the small holders. In the 1930s the Utilitarian theme emerged once more in a campaign against water pollution. In this instance the antipolluters were led by Midwestern Republicans against Democrats from areas such as the Ohio Valley.

In the early 1960s the environmental movement began to emerge in its current guise. Again the struggle was over water pollution, whether the federal government would be able to succeed in enforcing national standards against the interests of the states which were more amenable to local industrial pressures. As time went on it became clear that even if a rigid system of standards was to prevail and to be vigorously enforced the basic problem of pollution would remain—albeit somewhat masked by purifying paraphernalia. Indeed the establishment of environmental standards seems essentially to have created an industry whose function was to adorn rather than cure the sickness, like a crutch for a person with gangrene.

Since it was apparent that pollution was caused in large part by the burning of fossil fuels the environmentalists gradually shifted their emphasis from regulatory vigilance to basic questions of energy policy. Such a turn, in train over the last five years, has brought the environmentalists up against fundamental economic and political issues: abatement of pollution by fossil fuels means the transformation of the fuel base of the economy of the United States. This implies nothing more or less than a second industrial revolution.

So for the last few years the environmental movement in one way or another has been caught up in this political and economic struggle. The struggle is all the more intense and complicated since the energy industry is itself going through a gigantic transformation. It is shifting from unreliable sources of overseas oil to safer parts of the world and, more important, it is returning to the United States and developing other sources—coal, nuclear, solar, geothermal, and various synthetic forms of energy.

It should be said straightaway that Professor Barry Commoner’s book presents a more brusque…

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