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 and forthright explication of this conflict than has been traditional in the environmental movement, and Commoner is plainly more radical in his analysis than many of that movement’s spokesmen. Commoner opens his argument with the following proposition, derived from the laws of thermodynamics: “Energy is valuable only insofar as it is used to generate work, to produce power. But in that process some of its ability to do work is necessarily lost. What inevitably diminishes is not the world’s constant stock of energy, but its ability to do what we value—work.” He goes on to measure the respective efficiencies of different fuels, in the process giving a simple explanation of the origins of such fuels and their role in the modern industrial economy.

Rapidly this analysis leads him to the political organization which has created such avoidable disasters as—to take one of his examples—the abolition of the rail and streetcar systems in California cities. The extirpation of these energy-efficient modes of transport was prompted by the desire of the automobile, oil, and rubber industries to create a mass market for their products.

Commoner rounds out his profile of the energy economy of the United States with a description of capitalism in crisis—plagued by capital shortage, by falling rates of profit, and by the unemployment attendant on the development of industries powered by machines rather than men. All these ills are threaded together, in Commoner’s analysis, by capitalism’s irrational and ultimately inequitable uses of energy.

Contemplating this dark landscape Commoner finally allows a somewhat pallid ray of hope to play over his final pages. In the most tentative terms imaginable he says this:

It may be time to view the faults of the U.S. capitalist economic system from the vantage point of a socialist alternative—to debate the relative merits of capitalism and socialism. Such a debate is now the central issue of political life in Europe, and it is perhaps time for the people of the United States to enter into it as well.

Despite such concluding remarks on the possibilities of serious political change, the real significance of Commoner’s book lies elsewhere. It represents a continuation and indeed revitalization of an old Utilitarian notion, namely that political problems can be solved by technical remedies. By far the most profound example of this sort of thinking can be found in the attention given to solar energy, a subject which has been of intense interest to environmentalists during the last few years. Commoner is well known for his advocacy of the development of solar energy as an alternative to nuclear power. Solar energy, as presented by its advocates, seems to offer truly remarkable solutions to most of the problems of society. It could eventually make available an inexpensive, reliable source of energy for everyone. It ends reliance on fossil fuels and on nuclear power, thus eliminating pollution.


Since solar power apparently can be exploited by small facilities, it offers extra technical impetus for all those, both in and outside the environmental movement, who want to foster fresh political-industrial enterprises in the localities and regions. Beyond such attributes solar energy offers the prospect of new jobs, in the construction and maintenance of solar plants. Sunlight, in this perspective, becomes the healing balm of the late twentieth century. Under its beneficent glow many of the evils of late twentieth-century capitalism will shrivel.

Such optimism is surely unjustified. As Commoner himself reports, the government has deliberately sidetracked solar energy. Instead of moving forcefully to speed its development the government has set a course of relatively small expenditure on research and development. Even these projects are not directed toward the socially beneficial aspects of solar energy, but are superintended by the aerospace industry. Most of the solar projects in the country in fact make work for aerospace companies and provide a façade behind which the government goes about its real business, that of pushing forward nuclear power and synthetic fuels.

It is of central importance to understand why solar energy is crawling forward under these constricting conditions. The reason is surely that the policies of the government merely reflect the interests of the major energy companies; that the state is not playing any form of serious independent role in the formation and financing of an energy policy.

This is the nub of the problem. The question is how to separate the aims of the democratic state from those of private industry and make the latter responsive to the former. The environmental movement has never seen the conflict in such sharp terms. Commoner is somewhat of an exception, but most environmentalists abhor the notion of socialism in any form. They argue against big government, which they perceive as a malign force. In their rhetoric they tend to commend small business and a bizarre pastoral fairyland of vigorously competing, yet socially responsible, small enterprises.

Nonetheless the result of environmental agitation has been the promotion of government bureaucracy, especially at the federal level. Thus the environmentalists have helped to create, instead of the nineteenth-century fairyland mentioned above, a bureaucracy which, by the very terms of its operations, can and indeed has been captured by the private companies it was intended to supervise. For, as it turns out, only a large corporation has the resources to finance the economists, lawyers, lobbyists, tax experts, and so forth necessary to guide it through regulatory obstructions. In short, environmental regulations and laws tend to provide merely the refinement of the system under which the corporations dominate the state.

Commoner’s book is a political statement set largely in technical terms, and it is a clear and useful expression of the argument that the crises of late capitalism can be resolved by technical solutions. But as a practical matter the politics of technology often turn out merely to reinforce the status quo, and the question remains: who is going to impose these solutions and where are the politics to promote their imposition? As in the case of solar energy, no solution contrary to corporate interests has yet been advanced. Commoner stops short of dealing with this all-important question of political reality. Although he gestures toward political change with his glancing references to socialism and to Karl Marx, such talk finally expires in the arms of a notably banal quotation from John B. Oakes, editorial page editor of The New York Times:

The new era requires new leadership, new creativity, a willingness to evaluate new ideas and new concepts and new relationships with the kind of courage and conscience that our history and our heritage have bestowed upon us….

Commoner garnishes this mouthful with the thought that “we will not know how best to answer this question until we have the collective courage to ask it; we will not have the ‘willingness to evaluate new ideas’ until we have the wisdom to evaluate old ones.”


Such language, somewhat reminiscent of smooth-edged Carterism, leads nowhere. Without doubt Commoner’s book is a step along the way toward filling the grave need for political education of the environmental movement. But it barely states the problem: which is how the state can be extricated from corporate interests and what sort of a political movement would be needed to accomplish this immense task.

This Issue

August 5, 1976