Ecology for the People

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Ecology for the People

by Berkeley SESPA

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 1, January 1973, p. 34 – 37

Not too long ago environmental concern was the dominant issue of the day. This was in no small part due to Paul Ehrlich and his book The Population Bomb. Ehrlich is viewed by the media and the public as a major spokesman of the environmental movement. He has been associated with a trend in environmental thought that receives a great deal of media coverage and governmental approval. This trend presumes the basic cause of environmental disruption to be population growth working in concert with diminishing returns on natural resources. This premise has served to justify such regressive environmental proposals as population control through forced sterilization of the poor; personalized recycling, which provides free labor and public relations to industry while diverting public attention from the industrial sources of massive pollution; and a new eugenics couched in the liberal rhetorics of Jensen and Hernstein.

The premise that population growth is the fundamental cause of environmental disruption is carried to its ultimate conclusion by Garrett Hardin who has recently written in Science magazine:

Every day we (i.e., Americans) are a smaller minority. We are increasing at only one per cent a year; the rest of the world increases twice as fast. By the year 2000 one person in twenty-four will be an American; in one hundred years only one in forty-six … If the world is one great commons, in which all food is shared equally, then we are lost. Those who breed faster will replace the rest … In the absence of breeding control a policy of ‘one mouth one meal’ ultimately produces one totally miserable world. In a less than perfect world, the allocations of rights based on territory must be defended if a ruinous breeding race is to be avoided. It is unlikely that civilization and dignity can survive everywhere; but better in a few places than in none. Fortunate minorities must act as the trustees of a civilization that is threatened by uniformed good intentions.1

It is not without significance that Hardin’s view was published by Science as an editorial with the implication that this inhumane philosophy flows necessarily from “objective” science as embodied by the AAAS. Philip Ableson, the editor of this “objective” journal recently censored an analysis of the political nature of science submitted by members of SESP A. Able son took this unprecedented action against the recommendation of two sets of referees.2

Hardin’s editorial displays an amazing degree of insulation from social reality. Hardin allies himself with just those forces most responsible for environmental disruption; those who. seek to perpetuate an obsolete economic system in opposition to the interests of those most affected by environmental disruption—working people, poor people, minorities, and people of the Third World. Ironically, these people are also the most disaffected from the current ecology movement. They perceive a clear contradiction between their real needs and interests and ecology as it has been presented to them. However, because the environmental effects from which they suffer are not going to disappear—in fact they will continue to worsen—environment is sure to re-emerge as a major social issue. If ecology is to avoid another period of faddism and the resultant disillusionment we must develop an ecological analysis which resolves this contradiction.

It is our feeling that this can only be done by radical social and economic analysis, even though this approach will be stigmatized within academic circles and professional societies. Indeed, it is a prime function of these institutions to obscure the implicit political nature of science behind the labels of “objectivity” and “neutrality.” Nevertheless, certain environmentalists throughout the country have the integrity to heed scientific evidence which points toward the conclusion that our economic system is basically incompatible with sound ecology. This little publicized approach indicates that heretofore suspected causes such as population, affluence and mis-technology may be more appropriately viewed as symptoms of the environmental crisis.

A group connected with Berkeley SESPA is in the process of collating this type of evidence and preparing a detailed analysis which explains environmental disruption in terms of basic economic forces and places ecological issues in an historical context. This study will clarify numerous errors of fact and analysis that dominate ecological thought today—including misconceptions and omissions shared equally by Ehrlich and his most well-known antagonist Barry Commoner. We wish to outline here some of the major flaws which characterize thought crippled by residual premises of faddish and regressive ecology which ignores the tools of radical social analysis.

Ehrlich appears to believe that the basic cause of environmental disruption is population growth, although recently he has placed major qualifications on this theory in order to maintain its veracity.3

In a review of Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle he states “Yet there is little purpose in deluding the public about the need to grapple simultaneously with overpopulation, excessive affluence and faulty technology.”4 But without critical social analysis, an area Ehrlich consistently avoids, it is difficult to know what he means by “to grapple.”5

In any case, the formula for ecological impact shared by Commoner and Ehrlich serves as a device to disguise a whole set of implicit social and economic assumptions which we would seriously challenge. The formula is I (environmental impact) = Population x Affluence (production per capita) x Mis-technology (environmental disruption per production) or I = P x A x T. 6

Though this formula certainly is a valid tautological description, we fmd it totally inappropriate to view P, A, and T as the necessary causes of I. Instead, we wish to examine P, A, and T as independent variables of social and economic forces.

Let us look first at affluence. It is dangerously misleading to label production per capita as ‘affluence’. This implies that the quality of life is associated with per capita production when, in fact, especially in the U.S., a decreasing level in the quality of life (including a declining life expectancy in the last ten years7) is associated with a high ‘affluence’; an increase in the quality of life could very well be associated with a substantial decrease in ‘affluence.’ This involves not only a large increase in the efficiency of energy and material utilization (as recently proposed8) but a transformation in life patterns which would eliminate the perceived need for a large amount of production. This transformation cannot take place on the personal level; it involves the transformation of social and economic institutions inherent in our society.

For example, the American health bill of $80 billion annually, fully eight per cent of the GNP, could be reduced substantially by universal access to health knowledge and practice and by shifting the emphasis from disease treatment to health maintenance. But this can only be accomplished by challenging the professional monopoly of organized medicine, and the economic power of the pharmaceutical industry and the financial institutions that constitute the American Health Empire.9,10,11,12

Likewise, the American agriculture system could be made immensely more efficient and less environmentally disruptive by switching our primary protein source from cattle to vegetarian sources. Currently in the United States seventy-eight per cent of the grain harvest is fed to cattle (in Russia, where the diet includes a comparable level of protein intake, this figure is only twenty-eight per cent).

We could discuss many more examples of alterations in life pattern which lead to an improved quality of life with a highly decreased level of production. A comprehensive study which examines the minimal energy and material usage required for a high quality of living, disregarding constraints due to our present economic structure, is sorely needed. In any case, the economic interests of the dominant corporations and the very structure of the capitalist economy stand as primary obstacles to such changes.13

The very term production per capita also implies that we all share equal blame for the disproportionate share the U.S. consumes of the world’s resources. This misconception fosters attempts at personalized solutions to the environmental crisis. A more realistic method of looking at this factor is to examine the distribution of ownership and control over production. When we do this we find that ownership and control of production is not spread homogeneously throughout the society but is concentrated in the hands of a very few.14, 15, 16 These people, through institutions of capitalism they seek to perpetuate, determine not only the rate at which resources are to be exploited (Affluence) but also the mode of this exploitation (Technology).

Let us illustrate these points with a few examples.

The structure of cities is greatly distorted by land speculation. Land speculation, which could not occur without the institution of private ownership in land, is further aggravated by property tax assessment practices and federal tax depreciation allowances, laws which exist because of the political influence of the very rich who make the bulk of the real estate investments. One of the many undesirable effects of land speculation is ‘urban sprawl’—the over extention of urban development due to speculatively induced under-utilization of land. Urban sprawl increases the need for highways, automobiles, sewage systems, telephone lines, etc. Another effect of land speculation is the urban slum, a highly profitable ecological disaster reserved for the socially immobile, the poor, minorities, and old people.17 Here we see economic causes of environmental system decay which are hardly evident from stating I= PAT.

The history of the railroads in the U.S. provides another illuminating example. The building of the railroads was funded by public money and, in addition, huge portions of the public domain were handed over into the private ownership of the rail corporations. The value of these natural resources increased as society developed, resources stolen from the people and given to the private interests controlling the railroads, representing wealth-holding far in excess of the capital developed by the railroads themselves. The hundreds of billions of dollars derived from this real-estate was not reinvested into railroad development but into new technologies which served as mechanisms in the acquisition of new and greater resources, such as petroleum.18 That is to say, the development and implementation of technology in this society is not determined by ecological considerations or even short term economic return, but by the utility of technology in facilating the accumulation of natural resources in the hands of a few. The people who dominate economics in our society understand, perhaps better than many ecologists, the primacy of natural resources in all productive activities.

As a consequence, our transportation system today relies heavily on ecologically disastrous automobile and truck transport (and on air-transport to an increasing degree) while the ecologically sound rail system has been virtually abandoned by the real-estate rich railroads.

Lastly, consider the ideological function of private property in natural resources. Once we accept the validity of private property in land, it is a short step to private property in air and water. Indeed, when a corporation pollutes the air and water it is, in essence, seizing ownership of our common resources. That this can regularly be done with impunity on a massive scale is, in large part, due to the acceptance of the ideology which defends the priviledge of private ownership of the Earth’s resources as if it were the natural right of the individual. If industry had to pay to society the full economic value of the resources it exploits including air and water, we would see a massive conversion to technologies which minimize pollution and maximize efficiency of energy and material utilization. Instead, the corporations press for uniform federal pollution standards and so pass the cost of destroying our common resources on to the consumer. This arrogance is made possible only by the ideological acceptance of private property in resources. Ecologists should not blindly accept this ideology simply because it is defended by academic apologists in the social science departments of universities. The people of the Third World understand the bankruptcy of this ideology and the economic system it is designed to defend. Their struggle against economic imperialism is a struggle to free the resources of the world from the monopoly grip of imperialism. And attempts to sever ecological thinking from these economic realities will only result in the discrediting of ecological considerations, with ramifications for us all.

It may be argued that rapid population growth in the underdeveloped countries is a direct result of economic imperialism. Whether by conscious planning, or as a natural consequence of economic and technological imperialism, the means to reduce infant mortality was introduced into the colonized areas, significantly decreasing the total death rate. However, nothing was done to raise the general quality of life. In addition, the birth rate remained high. The result was a swiftly growing population from which the international business interests could choose the best and cheapest labor, to be discarded, like a machine, when worn out. As the political consciousness of the increasing numbers of surplus laborers has been growing, especially with successful national revolutions to look to for inspiration and support, it is not surprising that massive programs to reduce their numbers have been proposed and have received approval from the governments which represent the more influential corporations.19,20,21

Socially aware ecologists must be careful to differentiate between free access to birth control information and techniques as part of a general improvement in the quality of life, and population control programs aimed at perpetuating economic imperialism. There is a vast difference between a population policy of China and a population control program for Brazil.

An environmental approach can be developed which resolves the contradictions between ecological requirements and the perceived needs of the majority of the people of the U.S. and the world. But this can only be done by examining mechanisms basic to the system which produce both economic inequities and ecological disruptions.

The objection may be raised that “socialist countries” also have environmental problems. This is only all the more reason for ecologists to join in the movements which struggle to fundamentally restructure society. Ecological wisdom can be incorporated into the restructuring only if ecologists are present to speak on its behalf. The  point is that an ecologically sound society cannot even begin to be developed as long as basic economic obstructions, inherent to capitalism, remain.

Ehrlich tells us that “it is better to tell the rich that they will have to share to survive.”22 Ecologists should not waste their time telling the rich to share. The nch will only hire a dozen renown scientists from the most prestigious academic institutions which they fund, to prove you wrong, and to reassure themselves.

Instead, ecologists must take their message to those who are really affected by environmental disruption and who ultimately have the power to transform the society — the people.

Ecologists must struggle with the people for fundamental social change. When the life of the biosphere is at stake, ecological principle points in the direction of nothing less than the revolution. Let us begin by creating an Ecology For The People!


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  1. Science 172, p. 1297, 1971
  2. Censored, published by Science for the People.
  3. Science 171, p. 1212, 1971
  4. Paul Ehrlich, “One Dimensional Ecology,” pre- ons. Many combinations of RPV and air-to-ground weapons publication copy.
  5. San Francisco Chronical, January 29, 1972
  6. Paul Ehrlich, op. cit.
  7. Betrayal of the American Dream, Student Research Facility, Berkeley.
  8. A.B. Makhijani and A. J. Lichtenberg, An Assessment of Energy and Materials Utilization in the U.S.A., Electronic Research Lab, University of California, Berkeley.
  9. Autopsy on the AMA, and From Disease Care to Health Maintenance, Student Research Facility, Berkeley.
  10. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, The American Health Empire, Health-Pac, 1071
  11. Warren Winkelstein, “The Role of Ecology in the Design of Health Delivery Systems,” Journal of the CMA, December 1970
  12. Eliot Friedson, “Professionalism, the Doctor’s Dilemma,” Social Policy, January 1971
  13. Frances Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet, Ballentine, 1971
  14. Gabriel Kolko, Wealth and Power in America, Praeger
  15. Ferdinand Lundberg, The Rich and Super-Rich, Lyle Stuart
  16. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Monopoly Capital, MR Press
  17. Henry George, Progress and Poverty, Robert Schaulkenbach
  18. Gustavus Myers, History of the Great American Fortunes, Modern Library
  19. Barry Commoner, “Alternate Strategies for Environmentally Compatible Technology,” AAAS Meeting, December 28, 1971
  20. Josue de Castro, The Black Book of Hunger, Geography of Hunger.
  21. Felix Greene, “The Enemy,” NACLA Newsletter,
  22. This footnote is missing in the original text.