Barry Commoner & the Production vs. Consumption Conundrum

Barry Commoner turns 95 today. In 2007, I had occasion to visit him in New York and give a short talk at a large celebration in recognition of his 90th birthday. He’s still actively writing and the last I heard he remains in good health and good form. And his career and writings remain just as relevant to the contemporary environmental discussion. That is to say, Commoner is not simply a key historical figure in environmentalism; I maintain that he is still one of the clearest and most important voices in the continuing struggle for social and ecological justice and sustainability.

Recently, I was asked by a student about consumer power in addressing environmental problems—and whether consumer trends couldn’t sway corporate powers to be more ecologically sensitive. My answer is typically “only to a point,” before I talk about how production methods are the primary drivers here. This morning, I came across the following (older) excerpt from Commoner on the power of consumers. Talking off the cuff during a Q&A at a 1988 meeting sponsored by the EPA, I thought Commoner nailed it:

The reason we’re in trouble with automobile pollution is big cars. As Henry Ford said, “Mini cars make mini profits.” The reason Detroit went to big cars is not that people wanted them — until they were told. It was because big cars were more profitable.

Still, the issue always comes up: Isn’t it up to us? Isn’t it our fault that we buy the big cars, for instance? Well, no it isn’t.

Let me give you my favorite example of why the consumer is not really to blame in most cases. I wear size 12 socks. That’s an intimate fact I will share with you. Not long ago, I went into a well-known New York department store and asked for a pair of size 12. They said, Oh, that’s a special order. But over there you can get size 10-to-I3.”

Today it is very hard to get sized socks. Is this because of consumer demand? Do you know anyone who went into a store and said: “Listen, my feet change size every week. I need a variable-size sock?”

That is not why it was done. It was done to reduce inventories and maximize profits.

I’ll give you a less facetious example. You go to the store to buy a refrigerator. You and the storekeeper have no idea how the thing was delivered from the factory. It could have come by railroad or truck. If it comes by truck, it causes four times as much pollution as if it came by railroad, because the fuel efficiency is four times lower. But what am I going to do, go into the store and say, “Listen, I’m an ecologist. I must have a refrigerator delivered by railroad”?

My response to that kind of situation, and I tend to be somewhat practical, is to get into politics. You have to rebuild the railroads, and you’re not going to do that by saying: “Oh, well, we should not buy these silly refrigerators.”

Certainly there are consumer efforts that are important. For example, I think the plastics industry is going to go into conniptions soon over growing consumer rejection of plastics, and I think that’s fine. But let me tell you, you’re not going to get the petrochemical industry the Dows and Monsantos, to roll over the way McDonald’s did, because Dow and Monsanto don’t sell directly to the public. There are no fast-plastic-selling joints.

So there you are. I tend to see the issue as social, economic, and political. I simply refuse to blame us consumers. Mind you, I have a sort , of religious preference for natural fibers over plastic ones, but that’s about as far as I go.


Happy birthday, Barry!

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