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Barry Commoner (1917-2012)

by Daniel Tanura Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 at 5:43 AM

The economic theory of socialism does not demand an unlimited growth. The capitalist agrarian economy and industry wear out the two exclusive sources of wealth: the earth and workers. Capitalist accumulation and the finite earth are in contradiction.

BARRY COMMONER (1917-2012)

Pioneer of Eco-Socialism

By Daniel Tanura

[This commemorative article published on December 11, 2012 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

On September 30, 2012 Barry Commoner died at the age of 95. By calling a biologist and professor, he was interested in the global functioning of ecosystems.

At Washington University where Commoner taught, he founded the “Center for the Biology of Natural Systems.” Previously he became known at the end of the 1950s through his rejection of nuclear power, particularly surface or above-ground nuclear weapon testing. In 1971 Commoner published “The closing circle” (German translation Wachstumwahn und Umweltkrise 1973). In this bestseller, he showed that everything in nature comes from something and enters into something else. This implies a thinking in cycles that bids farewell to the utilitarian vision where the environment on one side is a reservoir of resources and on the other side a dump for wastes.

The work was strongly marked by his polemic against the couple Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the authors of the “Population Bomb” (1971 that was also a bestseller. As Malthus disciples, the Ehrlichs claimed environmental destruction was mainly due to demographic growth. Commoner countered that argument with a profound analysis of environmental pollution in the US and concluded that the technological factor (the mistakes made in choosing applied technologies) was five times more responsible for destruction of the environment than the demographic factor.

“The closing circle” also demonstrated that Commoner had a solid Marxist education. He actually read “Capital” more attentively than many authors who pretend to have mastered Marx’ thinking.

- He emphasized the antagonism between capitalist accumulation and the finiteness of nature. “Concluding that the system of free enterprise is forced to develop unbridled while its ecological base cannot endure unlimited exploitation, we recognize the one is absolutely incompatible with the other.”

- He deduced the systemic character of the capitalist crisis. “In this sense, the appearance of a crisis in the eco-system should be understood as a first sign of an imminent crisis in the economic system.”

- He made a distinction between the writings of Marx and the Soviet reality and denied that socialism by its nature is productivist. “A socialist regime could bring more advantages than a regime of free enterprise because it can produce the essential harmony between the economic process and the demands of ecology. The economic theory of socialism does not seem to demand an unlimited growth.”

- Finally Commoner paid tribute to the author of “Capital” on account of his concept of the “rational execution of the material exchange between humanity and nature” and because he understood that the capitalist agrarian economy and industry wear out the two exclusive sources of wealth: the earth and workers. He pleaded for a “thorough modification” of the economic system in general and socialism in particular.


The second bestseller from Barry Commoner appeared in 1976: “The poverty of power” (German translation Energieeinsatz und Wirtschaftskrise 1977). This work is as remarkable as the earlier work. Commoner discussed the inseparable connection between the environmental crisis, the energy crisis and the economic crisis. If he pleaded for a comprehensive understanding of the environment and its cycles in “The closing circle,” he urged a holistic approach to the energy system in “The poverty of power,” in applying the second law of thermodynamics to the whole energy system, not only to energy plants. This approach inspired many other authors.

“The poverty of power” grapples with the monopolies of the oil- and petrochemical industry. Commoner championed an (eco) socialist solution more clearly here than in “The closing circle.” “Several years ago the idea of nationalization provoked embarrassed reactions. Today the necessity presses to be considered – with circumspection – as a possible solution of the problems of the railroad companies and even of the energy system.”

His conclusion at that time has only gained relevance to the present. “A blind and senseless concatenation of events has changed the industrial and agricultural technology, altered transportation and raised the output of the productive system and the price of the increased need for capital, energy and other resources. These events have destroyed jobs and damaged the environment. They have concentrated the physical power of energy and the social force of wealth that comes from a small number of enormous firms and nurtured this force and power with unemployment and poverty. Here we have the basic problem that produces the environmental- and energy crisis and threatens to bury us under the debris of a tottering economic system.”

Reading and re-reading Barry Commoner is very worthwhile. That would be the greatest honor that we could show this engaged and conscientious scholar, this free and courageous spirit and forerunner of eco-socialism.


“Beyond Growth” Congress, Attac Germany, May 2011
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