The final of the "Five Limits" is pollution. As resources are extracted and manufactured into consumer products, pollution reaches the limits of the Earth's capacity to absorb and purify them. Human industrial activity has changed the Earth's climate.
"At War With The Planet"
Excerpt from Barry Commoner "Making Peace With The Planet"
(Pantheon Books, 1990) pp. 3-18
People live in two worlds. Like all living things, we inhabit this natural world, created over the Earth's 5-billion-year history by physical, chemical, and biological processes. The other world is our own creation: homes, cars, farms, factories, laboratories, food, clothing, books, paintings, music, poetry. We accept responsibility for events in our own world, but not for what occurs in the natural one. Its storms, droughts, and floods are "acts of God," free of human control and exempt from our responsibility.
Now, on a planetary scale, this division has been breached. With the appearance of a continent-sized hole in the Earth's protective ozone layer and the threat of global warming, even droughts, floods, and heat waves may become unwitting acts of man. Like the Creation, the portending global events are cosmic: they change the relationship between the planet Earth and its star, the sun. The sun's powerful influence on the Earth is exerted by two forces: gravity and solar radiation. Gravity a nearly steady force that fixes the planet's path around the sun. Solar radiation - largely visible and ultraviolet light - is a vast stream of energy that bathes the Earth's surface, actuating from day to night and season to season. Solar energy fuels the energy-requiring processes of life; it creates the planet's climate and governs the gradual evolution and the current behavior of its huge and varied population of living things. We have been tampering with this powerful force, unaware, like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, of the potentially disastrous consequences of our actions.
We have become accustomed to the now mundane image of the Earth as seen from the first expedition to the moon - a beautiful blue sphere decorated by swirls of fleecy clouds. It is a spectacularly natural object; at that distance, no overt signs of human activity are visible. But this image, now repeatedly thrust before us in photographs, posters, and advertisements, is misleading. Even if the global warming catastrophe never materializes, and the ozone hole remains an esoteric, polar phenomenon, already human activity has profoundly altered global conditions in ways that may not register on the camera. Everywhere in the world, there is now radioactivity that was not there before, the dangerous residue of nuclear explosions and the nuclear power industry; noxious fumes of smog blanket every major city; carcinogenic synthetic pesticides have been detected in mother's milk all over the world; great forests have been cut down, destroying ecological niches and their resident species.
As it reaches the Earth's surface, solar radiation is absorbed and sooner or later converted to heat. The amount of solar radiation that falls on the Earth and of the heat that escapes it depends not only on the daily turning of the Earth and the yearly change of the seasons, but also on the status of the thin gaseous envelope that surrounds the planet. One of the natural constituents of the outer layer of Earth's gaseous skin - the stratosphere - is ozone, a gas made of three oxygen atoms (ordinary oxygen is made of two atoms). Ozone absorbs much of the ultraviolet light radiated from the sun and thereby shields the Earth's surface from its destructive effects. Carbon dioxide and several other atmospheric components act like a valve: they are transparent to visible light but hold back invisible infrared radiation. The light that reaches the Earth's surface during the day is converted to heat that radiates outward in the form of infrared energy. Carbon dioxide, along with several other less prominent gases in the air, governs the Earth's temperature by holding back this outward radiation of heat energy. The greater the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, the higher the Earth's temperature. Glass has a similar effect, which causes the winter sun to warm a greenhouse; hence, the "greenhouse effect," the term commonly applied to global warming.
These global effects are not new; they have massively altered the condition of the Earth's surface over its long history. For example, because the early Earth lacked oxygen and therefore the ozone shield, it was once so heavily bathed in solar ultraviolet light as to limit living things to dark places; intense ultraviolet radiation can kill living cells and induce cancer. Similarly, analyses of ice (and the entrapped air bubbles) deposited in the Antarctic over the last 150,000 years indicate that the Earth's temperature fluctuated considerably, closely paralleled by changes in the carbon dioxide level.
Changes in the Earth's vegetation can be expected to influence the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. Thus, the massive growth of forests some 200 million to 300 million years ago took carbon dioxide out of the air, eventually converting its carbon into the deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas produced by geological transformation of the dying trees and plants. The huge deposits of fossil fuel, the product of millions of years of photosynthesis, remained untouched until coal, and later petroleum and natural gas, were mined and burned, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The amounts of these fuels burned : provide human society with energy represent the carbon captured by photosynthesis over millions of years. So, by burning them, in the last 750 years we have returned carbon dioxide to the atmosphere thousands of times faster than the rate at which it was removed by the early tropical forests. The atmosphere's carbon dioxide content has increased by 20 percent since 1850, and there is good evidence that the Earth's average temperature has increased about 1 degree Fahrenheit since then. If nothing is done to change this trend, temperatures may rise by about 2.5 to 10 degrees more in the next fifty years. This is about the same change in temperature that marked the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago - an event that drastically altered the global habitat. If the new, man-made warming occurs, there will be equally drastic changes, this time endangering a good deal of the world that people have fashioned for themselves. Polar ice will melt and the warmer oceans will expand, raising the sea level and flooding many cities; productive agricultural areas, such as the U.S. Midwest, may become deserts; the weather is likely to become more violent.
Regardless of how serious the resultant warming of the Earth turns out to be, and what, if anything, can be done to avoid its cataclysmic effects, it demonstrates a basic fact: that in the short span of its history, human society has exerted an effect on its planetary habitat that matches the size and impact of the natural processes that until now solely governed the global condition.
The ozone effect leads to the same conclusion. This problem arises not from the rapid man-made reversal of a natural process, but from the intrusion of an unnatural one on global chemistry. The chief culprits are the synthetic chemicals know as CFCs or chlorofluorocarbons. Like most of the petrochemical industry's products, CFCs do not occur in nature; they are synthesized for use in air conditioners, refrigerators, and spray cans, as solvents, and as a means of producing foam plastics. CFCs readily evaporate and are extraordinarily stable; escaping from confinement in a junked air conditioner or a discarded plastic cup, they migrate upward into the stratosphere. There they encounter ozone molecules, generated by the impact of solar radiation on ordinary oxygen molecules. A complex catalytic reaction ensues in which each CFC molecule causes the destruction of numerous ozone molecules. This chemical process has already eaten a huge hole in the protective ozone layer over Antarctica, evidence that here, too, a process recently created by human society matches in scope a natural, protective component of the Earth's global envelope. Serious damage to people, wildlife, and crops is likely if the process continues: a large increase in skin cancer; eye problems; suppression of photosynthesis. Moreover, the CFCs act like carbon dioxide toward heat radiation and, along with methane and several minor gases, contribute to global warming.
Clearly, 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 - powerful enough to deserve so grandiose a term. The technosphere has become sufficiently large and intense to alter the natural processes that govern the ecosphere. And in turn, the altered ecosphere threatens to flood our great cities, dry up our bountiful farms, contaminate our food and water, and poison our bodies - catastrophically diminishing our ability to provide for basic human needs. The human attack on the ecosphere has instigated an ecological counterattack. The two worlds are at war. The two spheres in which we live are governed by very different laws. One of the basic laws of the ecosphere can be summed up as "Everything is connected to everything else." This expresses the fact that the ecosphere is an elaborate network, in which each component part is linked to many others. Thus, in an aquatic ecosystem a fish is not only a fish, the parent of other fish. It is also the producer of organic waste that nourishes microorganisms and ultimately aquatic plants; the consumer of oxygen produced photosynthetically by the plants; the habitat of parasites; the fish hawk's prey. The fish is not only, existentially, a fish, but also an element of this network, which defines its functions. Indeed, in the evolutionary sense, a good part of the network - the microorganisms and plants, for example - preceded the fish, which could establish itself only because it fitted properly into the preexisting system.
In the technosphere, the component parts - the thousands of different man-made objects - have a very different relation to their surroundings. A car, for example, imposes itself on the neighborhood rather than being defined by it; the same car is sold for use on the densely packed Los Angeles freeways or in a quiet country village. It is produced solely as a salable object - a commodity - with little regard for how well it fits into either sphere: the system of transportation or the environment. It is true, of course, that all cars must have a width that is accommodated by the traffic lanes, and must have proper brakes, lights, and horn, and so on. But as every resident of Los Angeles or New York knows, in recent years their crowded streets and highways have been afflicted with longer and longer limousines, designed to please the buyer and profit the producer, but hardly suitable to their habitat.
Defined so narrowly, it is no surprise that cars have properties that are hostile to their environment. After World War II, the American car was arbitrarily redefined as a larger, heavier object than its predecessors. That narrow decision dictated a more powerful engine; in turn, this required a higher engine compression ratio; in keeping with physical laws, the new engines ran hotter; at the elevated temperature, oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the cylinder air reacted chemically, producing nitrogen oxides; leaving the engine exhaust pipe, nitrogen oxides trigger the formation of the noxious smog that now envelops every major city. The new cars were successfully designed to carry people more comfortably at higher speed; but no attention was paid to an essential component in their habitat - the people themselves, and their requirement for clean, smog-free air.
Even a part of the technosphere as close to nature as the farm suffers from the same sort of clash with the environment. As a man-made object, the farm is designed for the sole purpose of producing crops. Guided by that purpose, after World War II agronomists urged the increasingly heavy application of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Yields rose, but not in proportion to the rate of fertilizer application; year by year, less and less of the applied fertilizer was taken up by the crop and progressively more drained through the soil into groundwater, in the form of nitrate that contaminated rivers, lakes, and water supplies. Nitrogen fertilizer is a commodity sold with the narrow purpose of raising yields and manufactured with the even narrower purpose of increasing the chemical industry's profits. When inorganic nitrogen fertilizer was introduced in the 1950s, little or no attention was paid to its ecological behavior in the soil/water system or to the harmful effects of elevated nitrate levels in drinking water.
The second law of ecology - "Everything has to go somewhere" - together with the first, expresses the fundamental importance of cycles in the ecosphere. In the aquatic ecosystem, for example, the participating chemical elements move through closed cyclical processes. As they respire, fish produce carbon dioxide, which in turn is absorbed by aquatic plants and is used, photosynthetically, to produce oxygen - which the fish respire. The fish excrete nitrogen-containing organic compounds in their waste; when the waste is metabolized by aquatic bacteria and molds, the organic nitrogen is converted to nitrate; this, in turn, is an essential nutrient for the aquatic algae; these, ingested by the fish, contribute to their organic waste, and the cycle is complete. The same sort of cycle operates in the soil: plants grow, nourished by carbon dioxide from the air and nitrate from the soil; eaten by animals, the crop sustains their metabolism; the animals excrete carbon dioxide to the air and organic compounds to the soil - where microorganisms convert them into compounds such as nitrate, which nourish the crop. In such a closed, circular system, there is no such thing as "waste"; everything that is - reduced in one part of the cycle "goes somewhere" and is used in a later step.
The technosphere, in contrast, dominated by linear processes. Crops and the animals to which they are fed are eaten by people; their waste is flushed into the sewer system, altered in composition but not in amount at a treatment plant, and the residue is dumped into rivers or the ocean as waste - which upsets the natural aquatic ecosystem. Uranium is mined, processed into nuclear fuel which, in generating power, becomes highly radioactive waste that must be carefully guarded - ineffectually thus far - from contaminating the environment for thousands of years. The petrochemical industry converts ethylene prepared from petroleum and chlorine prepared from brine into vinyl chloride, a synthetic, carcinogenic chemical. This is manufactured into the plastic polyvinyl chloride, which is made into tile, boots, and food wrapping; sooner or later discarded, these become trash that must be disposed of. When burned in an incinerator, the polyvinyl chloride produces carbon dioxide and dioxin; both are injected, as waste, into the ecosphere where the one contributes to global warming and the other to the risk of cancer. The energy sources that now power the technosphere are mostly fossil fuels, stores that, once depleted, will never be renewed. The end result of this linear process is air pollution and the threat of global warming. Thus in the technosphere goods are converted, linearly, into waste: crops into sewage; uranium into radioactive residues; petroleum and chlorine into dioxin; fossil fuels into carbon dioxide. In the technosphere, the end of the line is always waste, an assault on the cyclical processes that sustain the ecosphere.
The third informal law of ecology is "Nature knows best." The ecosystem is consistent with itself; its numerous components are compatible with each other and with the whole. Such a harmonious structure is the outcome of a very long period of trial and error - the 5 billion years of biological evolution. The biological sector of the ecosphere - the biosphere - is composed of living things that have survived this test because of their finely tuned adaptation to the particular ecological niche that they occupy. Left to their own devices, ecosystems are conservative; the rate of evolution is very slow, and temporary changes, such as an overpopulation of rabbits, for example, are quickly readjusted by the wolves.
The same sort of conservative self-consistency governs the chemical processes that occur in living cells. For example, there are severe constraints imposed on the variety of organic (carbon-containing) compounds that are the basic components of biochemical processes. The the physicist Walter Elsasser has pointed out, the weight of one molecule of each of the proteins that could be formed from the twenty different ammo acids that comprise them would be greater than the weight of the known universe. Obviously, living things are constrained to produce only a very small number of the possible proteins. Constraints are also exercised by the enzymes, present in all living things, that catalyze the degradation of organic compounds. It is an unbroken rule that for every organic compound produced by a living thing, there is somewhere in the ecosystem an enzyme capable of breaking it down. Organic compounds incapable of enzymatic degradation are not produced by living things. This arrangement is essential to the harmony of the ecosystem. If, for example, there were no enzymes that degrade cellulose, an otherwise very stable major constituent of plant cell walls the Earth's surface would eventually become buried in it.
Similarly, certain molecular arrangements are shunned in the chemistry of life. Thus, very few chlorinated organic compounds, in which chlorine atoms are attached to carbons, occur in living things. This suggests that the vast number of chlorinated organic compounds that are possible chemically (many of them now produced by the petrochemical industry), have been rejected in the long course of evolution as biochemical components. The absence of a particular substance from nature is often a sign that it is incompatible with the chemistry of life. For example, the fact that mercury plays no biochemical role and does not normally occur in living cells - and is lethal when it does - is readily explained by the fact that it poisons a number of essential enzymes. In the same way, many man-made chlorinated organic compounds that do not occur in nature, such as DDT or dioxin, are very toxic.
In sum, the living things that comprise the biosphere, and their chemical composition, reflect constraints that severely limit their range of variation. The mermaid and the centaur are, after all, mythical animals; even the vaunted exploits of genetic engineering will never produce an elephant-sized mouse or a flying giraffe. In the same way, no natural biochemical system includes DDT, PCB, or dioxin. Unfortunately, these highly toxic substances are not mythical - a fact that sharply illuminates the difference between the ecosphere and the technosphere.
In contrast to the ecosphere, the technosphere is composed of objects and materials that reflect a rapid and relentless process of change and variation. In less than a century, transport has progressed from the horse-drawn carriage, through the Model T Ford, to the present array of annually modified cars and aircraft. In a not much longer period, writing instruments have evolved from the quill pen to the typewriter and now the word processor. Synthetic organic chemistry began innocuously enough about 150 years ago with the laboratory production of a common natural substance - urea - but soon departed from this imitative approach to produce a huge array of organic compounds never found in nature and, for that reason, often incompatible with the chemistry of life. Nylon, for example, unlike a natural polymer such as cellulose, is not biodegradable - that is, there is no enzyme in any known living organism that can break it down. As a result, when it is discarded into the ecosphere, nylon, like plastics generally, persists. Thus,
oceanographers now find in their collecting nets bits of orange, blue, and white nylon and larger pieces jammed in the digestive tracts of dead turtles - the residue of nylon marine cordage. In the technosphere, nylon is a useful new commodity; in the ecosphere, nylon, untested by evolution, is a harmful intruder.
"Nature knows best" is shorthand for the view that during the several billion years in which they have evolved, living things have created a limited but self-consistent array of substances and reactions that are essential to life. The petrochemical industry has departed from these restrictions, producing thousands of new man-made substances. Since they are based on the same fundamental patterns of carbon chemistry as the natural compounds, the new ones are often readily accepted into biochemical processes. They therefore can play an insidious, destructive role in living things. For example synthetic organic compounds may easily fit into the same reactive enzyme niches as natural molecules or may be accepted into the structure of DNA. However, they are sufficiently different from the natural compounds to then disrupt normal biochemistry, leading to mutations, cancer, and in many different ways to death. In effect, the petrochemical industry produces substances that - like the fantasies of human society invaded by look alike but dangerous aliens - cunningly enter the chemistry of life, and attack it.
Finally, it is useful to compare the ecosphere and the technosphere with respect to the consequences of failure. In the ecosphere, this is expressed by the idea that "there is no such thing as a free lunch," meaning that any distortion of an ecological cycle, or the intrusion of an incompatible component (such as a toxic chemical), leads unavoidably to harmful effects. At first glance, the technosphere appears to be extraordinarily free of mistakes - that is, a technological process or product that failed not because of some unanticipated accident but because it was unable to do what it was designed to do. Yet nearly every modern technology has grave faults, which appear not as a failure to accomplish its designed purpose but as a serious impact on the environment. Cars usually run very well, but produce smog; power plants efficiently generate electricity, but also emit dangerous pollutants; modern chemical farming is very productive but contaminates groundwater with nitrate and wildlife and people with pesticides. Even the spectacular nuclear disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl were far less serious as technical failures than they were in their ecological effects. Regarded only as a failure in the plant's function, the accident at Chernobyl amounts to a serious but local fire that destroyed the plant. But the resultant release of radioactivity threatens many thousands of people all over Europe with cancer. In sum, there are numerous failures in the modern technosphere; but their effects are visited upon the ecosphere.
A free lunch is really a debt. In the technosphere, a debt is an acknowledged but unmet cost - the mortgage on a factory building, for example. Such a debt is tolerable because the technosphere is a system of production, which - if it functions properly - generates goods the represent wealth potentially capable of repaying the debt tin the technosphere, debts are repaid from within and, at least in theory, are always capable of being paid off, or, in some cases, canceled. In contrast, when the debts represented by environmental pollution are created by the technosphere and transferred to the ecosphere, they are never canceled; damage is unavoidable. The debts represented by the radioactivity disseminated from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and by the toxic chemicals that enveloped Bhopal, have not been canceled. These debts were merely transferred to the victims, and are paid as they sicken and die.
Since they inhabit both worlds, people are caught in the clash between the ecosphere and the technosphere. What we call the "environmental crisis" - the array of critical unsolved problems ranging from local toxic dumps to the disruption of global climate - is a product of the drastic mismatch between the cyclical, conservative, and self-consistent processes of the ecosphere and the linear, innovative, but ecologically disharmonious processes of the technosphere.
Since the environmental crisis has been generated by the war between the two worlds that human society occupies, it can be properly understood only in terms of their interplay. Of course, as in a conventional war, the issues can be simplified by taking sides: ignoring the interests of one combatant or the other. But this is done only at the cost of understanding. If the ecosphere is ignored, it is possible to define the environmental crisis solely in terms of the factors that govern the technosphere: production, prices, and profits, and the economic processes that mediate their interaction. Then, for example, one can concoct a scheme, as recently proposed by President Bush, in which factories are allotted the right to emit pollutants up to some acceptable level and, in a parody of the "free market," to buy and sell these rights. But unlike the conventional marketplace, which deals in goods - things that serve a useful purpose - this scheme creates a marketplace in "bads" - things that are not only useless but often deadly. Apart from the issue of morality, it should be noted that such a scheme cannot operate unless the right to produce pollutants is exercised - hardly an inducement to eliminating them.
If the technosphere is ignored, the environmental crisis can be defined in purely ecological terms. Human beings are then seen as a peculiar species, unique among living things, that is doomed to destroy its own habitat. Thus simplified the issue attracts simplistic solutions: reduce the number of people; limit their share of nature's resources; protect all other species from the human marauder by endowing them with "rights."
This approach raises a profound, unavoidable moral question: Is the ecosphere to be protected from destruction for its own sake, or to enhance the welfare of the human beings who depend on it? This leads to a further question regarding the term "welfare." Some environmental advocates believe that human welfare would be improved if people were less dependent on the artifacts of the technosphere and lived in closer harmony with their regional ecosystem - baking bread instead of buying it; walking or pedaling a bike instead of driving a car; living in small towns instead of cities. The thrust of this approach is to deny the value to society of, let us say, a woman who uses time saved by buying bread instead of baking it in order to work as a curator in an urban museum. Nor does it allow for the possibility that time - and labor-saving technologies can be compatible with the integrity of the environment. It assumes that the technosphere, no matter how designed, is necessarily an environmentally unacceptable means of giving people access to resources that are not part of their ecological niche. But as we shall see, this assumption is wrong; although nearly every aspect of the current technosphere is counterecological, technologies exist that - although little used thus far - are compatible with the ecosphere.
The view that people are to be regarded solely as components of the ecosystem can lead to extreme and often inhumane proposals. Consider the global warming issue, for example. The humanist approach dictates a vigorous effort to halt the process because it is a massive threat to human society: flooded cities, drought-ridden agriculture, and prolonged heat waves. However, judged only in ecological terms, global warming can be regarded merely as a change in the structure of the global ecosystem similar to the warming that accompanied the last post glacial period; albeit more rapid. Viewed in this way, there is no more reason to oppose global warming than to be unhappy about the last ice age and the rise in global temperature that ended it. At its farthest reach, this nonhumanist position becomes antihumanist, as exemplified in an article in the publication of a group called Earth First!, which favored the spread of AIDS as a means of reducing the human population without threatening other animal species. Of course, at the other extreme is the potentially suicidal view that the enormous value of modern production technology to human society justifies whatever damage to the ecosphere it entails.
The ambiguity created by the dual habitat in which we live has led to a very wide range of responses. The extreme interpretations of the relationship between the two spheres that human society occupies - and a sometimes bewildering array of intermediate positions - is compelling evidence that we have not yet understood how the two systems have come into conflict and, as a result, are unable as yet to resolve that conflict.
This book is an effort to analyze the war between the ecosphere and the technosphere, written with the conviction that understanding it - as distinct from reacting to it - is the only path to peace. It is less a lament over the war's numerous casualties than an inquiry into how future casualties can be prevented. It is not so much a battle cry for one side or the other, as a design for negotiating an end to this suicidal war - for making peace with the planet.
* Highly Recommended *
"If You Love This Planet: A Plan To Heal The Earth" Helen Caldicott, M.D. W.W. Norton & Company 1992
"Making Peace With The Planet" Barry Commoner Pantheon Books 1990
"Earth Odyssey: Around the world in search of our environmental future" Mark Hertsgaard Broadway Books 1998