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From Northeastern University the National Information Network presents urban confrontation. This week on urban confrontation ecologist Dr. Barry Commoner director of the Center for the study of human environments Washington University. This week's program the price of pollution. The death of man. Here is your host Joseph R. Bader. Every time you drink a glass of water every time you take a deep breath every time you're caught in a traffic jam or feel the deafening roar of a jet plane you have just experienced the effects of one of the most profound problems of the 20th century. Pollution at the start of the 1970s Americans have come to realize that they have on their hands a dirty and a decaying nation. Our guest today is Dr. Barry Commoner of Washington University one of the leaders in the fight to clean up this nation and this world. Dr.
commoner has been heralded as the Paul Revere of ecology. He has written about the cost of pollution may be the death of man. We asked him recently if that wasn't a bit of an exaggeration. The reason for making that statement is that the way in which we are interacting with the environment simply can't go on if we're to survive. We are affecting the environment which after all supports us in such ways is to begin to break down of the capability of the environment to continue to carry out its normal processes. For example of the organic waste that we dump into waters uses up oxygen and causes the bacteria responsible for the self purifying powers of surface waters to die. This breaks down the natural environmental system that's responsible for the purity of water. Now at the rate we're going it's been calculated that we'll be dumping enough organic waste into surface waters in the
United States to use up all of the oxygen in all of the rivers of the country during the summer months that begins to tell us that we are on a course which can't continue without destroying the system that's supporting us. And so in a general way without putting a time on it we are in fact beginning to destroy the environmental system of which man is a part and without which man can survive. One of the major criticisms of polluters on those who attempt to combat pollution is that they overlook the interdependence of man's environment for survival purposes. Each link in the chain of life is hooked to another link. Dr commoner explains this ecological chain the important rule of ecology the science that deals with this problem is that everything is connected to everything else and so in a water system you find that once a fish dies a produces of
organic waste is connected to bacteria to break down the organic matter in the water. The bacteria in turn produce inorganic materials which are used by green plants algae and these in turn are eaten by the fish and so there's a cycle in which all of these elements fish bacteria algae organic matter in organic matter are all tied together in a circle. Now in nature there are many such circles all interconnected and interwoven so that the environment really constitutes a kind of fabric of interconnections involving not only living things but also chemical and physical parts of the environment. At this very moment you may be listening to this radio program while driving along in your automobile. Well ecologist tell us that the American automobile is a major source of pollution in this country. Cars contribute from 60 to
80 percent of the waste material coughed up into our atmosphere in order to accommodate the 2 million cars that roll out of Detroit each year. We have to pave each year more than one million acres of trees and woodlands. Dr commoner feels that we need a more efficient kind of automobile engine. There's no doubt that we are suffering from a good deal of environmental pollution because of the automobile. The main reason is that the gasoline engine has been developed for the modern cost of a B.O. produce a small dog and it does this because it operates a high compression ratios in high temperatures for the sake of generating high power under these conditions the nitrogen and oxygen in the air that's taken into the engine. Combine the nitrogen oxides which command the exhaust are activated by sunlight interact with waste fuel and smog results.
In other words we've got the wrong kind of ancient. I often feel that if we were all driving Model T's probably we wouldn't have any smoke. Political Commentators indicate that the automobile industry has a strong lobby on Capitol Hill and a strong influence on Congress. Assuming this how can American citizens expect that the big car makers will make the engine changes necessary to help make a cleaner environment. Dr Connor is optimistic that the changes will be made. This is simply a question of political persuasion. Actually I think that the automobile manufacturers have already begun to get the message this year as I understand it for the first time in many years the average compression ratio and power output of the engines being built in Detroit has been reduced. In other words it looks as though the auto manufacturers have begun to appreciate the fact that we're going to have to go to
smaller engines and beginning to move in that direction. Whether they'll go fast enough I don't know but I think that. Public pressure simply the kind of attitude that's been expressed so widely during Earth Day. I think this is beginning to move the auto manufacturers. They may need a little help from Congress but I think we're going in the right direction. We've talked about water pollution. We've touched for a moment on air pollution by the American automobile. Now let's examine another way that the environment is being poisoned by pesticide problem. It has been estimated that the milk of pregnant mothers contains point 10 2.30 parts per million. D d t. This is almost six times the amount of DDT that the United States government allows in milk that is shipped across state lines. Dr. commenter points out that day after day we are slowly being poisoned by chemicals that we cannot see cannot smell or feel.
We really don't appreciate the medical consequences of things like DVT and strontium 90 all present together in the same body. I think that we're going to have to examine the effects of many of the new synthetic compounds on human beings. There's been very little work done so far for example to study the effects of herbicides on people although we suspect from laboratory studies that they may be responsible for birth defects. About 25 years ago we began to produce many new synthetic compounds and introduced them into the environment long before we really understood the effects on human beings. And I think it's time for us to pause and really take a very hard look at that human beings. Too many of them too many mouths not enough food. The statistics are alarming. It took from the beginning of human time until the year 1850 for one billion people to collect on this earth.
But by 1930 less than a century later that number had doubled. And today 40 years later there are more than three billion people alive and it is estimated that by the end of this century that number will double again. Many ecologist like Dr. Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University believe that this population problem is the keystone AAB all environmental problems. But Dr commoner disagrees. My position is different. I don't think that the actual data that we have support the idea that the rising population of the United States is responsible for the rising level of pollution. Most of the pollutants that we're concerned with made their appearance about 20 or 25 years ago. Now in that time the level of these pollutants has gone up. Oh perhaps five hundred to fifteen hundred percent. But in that same period while the pollutant levels were rising that much the population
increased only 43 percent. And so I think it isn't quite reasonable to argue that a rising population is the cause of the rising level of pollution. Of course people are responsible for everything both good and bad. And in that sense people are responsible for pollution. However I don't feel that we need to have the pollution levels that we're now experiencing. Given the population of the United States I think what's wrong is that our technology is faulty and if that's changed I think we can support the present population without much difficulty. We'll pause at this point in the program to let our audience around the country know that they're listening to Dr. Barry Commoner one of the leaders in the fight to clean up our nation's environment on Earth Day. Dr. comet already delivered a challenging talk at Harvard University. Our microphones were there and here is a portion of Mr. commoner's remarks.
What is the environmental system that supports this. It has a very distinctive characteristic in that system. Nothing is born or produced before its burial or decomposition has been already arranged for. In other words. One of the first laws of ecology is. That everything has to go somewhere. It's a rather interesting idea. There is no such thing as waste. Everything that's born dies everything that dies decomposes everything that decomposes gives birth to new material. In other words the environmental system is fundamentally a network of cycles. Everything is connected to everything else. Now our technology. Is not such an integrated network. It is an accidental interlocking. Separately
designed enterprises. Each of which has been established. For a limited value. The car manufacturers produce cars not small. Because you can't sell smog. But of course they do make smog. And the question is Where does it go and how does it interact with the intrinsic network that supports this. And I think it should be clear then that there's bound to be a clash between the ecological system. Which is interconnected and which will accommodate events only if they fit together in the network. And a technological improvement. Which carefully avoids the consequences beyond the limited venue. Now there is one important. Fact about the conflict between the environment and technology. The environment got here
first and it will be here last. The fact is that it's up to us to conform to the environment or we won't make it. There's something wrong with the way in which our technology looks at its impact on the environment. Take the automobile. The automobile was developed by technologists for the purpose of driving people around sometimes mad. And the engineers the engineers developed the gasoline engine with all the laws of physics and chemistry at their disposal. They built an enormously powerful device that able to transmit energy very effectively and they did it for that purpose that's what sells the cars. And they produced an engine which operates at high pressure and therefore has high temperature and therefore produces nitrogen oxides. Because the nitrogen oxides have produced one. Oxygen and nitrogen in the air combine under the high temperature. Well now when this is turned loose the nitrogen oxides are
hit by sunlight. They become reactive. They combine with hydrocarbons and that's what causes small. Now there are people that say well our technology can solve this. With what's called a technological fix. What you do is come along and add to the bad technology something that will fix it and sell. This is been done we've now put exhaust devices on cars which hold back the hydrocarbons and as a matter of fact in Los Angeles hydro carbon emissions have been cut down. And the result is that there's less smog in the last few years in Los Angeles. But since everything has to go somewhere. The nitrogen oxide concentration has gone up. And nitrogen oxides are poisonous. While now the technological fix is well we'll put a catalyst on the device to burn up the nitrogen oxides and these have been tried but it turns out. That the catalyst is poisoned by the lead in the gasoline. One hour why is the lead in the gasoline. The lead is in the
gasoline to prevent the Naki. Due to the high compression which is what causes the production of nitrogen oxide. Now that's what we mean by everything being connected to everything else. And you get into a seamless web here. Clearly the problem is to be solved as to see to it that the nitrogen oxides are not produced. Now again this is an illustration of the failure of our technology and I think many more can be mentioned. Rachel Carson pointed out that DDT won't work because it kills insects it kills the predators and parasites that attack insect pests and therefore will upset the natural balance. So I assert my thesis that we are in trouble because our technology doesn't acknowledge the priority the primacy of the ecological systems. Well what do we do about it. And I think it's interesting to examine what Mr. Nixon would have to do if he were indeed
interested in coping with the environmental crisis that he has enunciate it in such strong words. What government actions should be taken to make the life of our society compatible with the demands of the ecosystem. Here are a few. The first thing that he can do incidentally and this is just a plug but it's important that you all know the scientific community is in the worst financial crisis of its recent history. And the first thing you know you can do is stop cutting off funds for Environmental Research which is what's happening. Now another thing you can do with a stroke of the pen he can in the name of ecological sanity halt the development of the SS teat. It's an environmental Haro which will put a quarter of the U.S. population in the noise situation that you have within a thousand yards of the Kennedy runway. If it's flown over the US land area and if it isn't flown over the US land area it'll break the airlines. Or you can take a choice. Another thing you can do is
halt the exploitation of the oil deposits in Alaska until the pipeline which is all designed can be made to operate in a way which is consistent with the permafrost. It's now clear we know very little about the permafrost it's now clear that that pipeline will cause flowing rivers of mud until the pipeline hangs out over empty space and breaks. Now this hasn't been worked out yet but the pipeline and the oil is ready to go. Another thing you can do if you want to recognize the primacy of ecology. I think it's the stop the war in Vietnam and halt the barbaric destruction of the ecological resources of that unfortunate land. And what as far as I'm concerned is the first ecological warfare that this country has carried out since the attacks on the American Indians. I think he can also declare to the world what we in the scientific community have long known and that is that modern
warfare simply doesn't work. Now these are the things that he can do. And I think it's fair to ask is he going to take these steps to pay the debt to nature. But given his track record thus far. I am afraid that what he is likely to do rather than pay our debt to nature probably won't even begin to pay the interest on that debt. Now what then. And this is a question suppose. Our fearless leaders. Don't show us what to do. What can we do. The recent aspects of the environmental movement show us that there are ways of succeeding and all I want to do is mention one of them. I want to mention what is to my mind the world's record. For the fastest largest one man ecological action. And that is. And let's pay tribute to Mr. nor hold him right. He's going to go down in history. You know he is he's a graduate student of Zoology at the University of Western Ontario on March 19
1970. He made a single measurement on a single picture from like St. Clair or marker and found that the mercury content was 35 times higher than the allowable limit. He wrote a letter to the Canadian minister within two weeks. Two chemical plants the Tao plant in the Wyandotte chemical plant was told to close down. The Canadian government embargoed a half billion dollar a year fisheries industry and they are taking action to force the chemical plants to pay the cost. I think that we have a lesson to learn from Mr. ephemerides experience. This country is vastly ignorant of the extent and depth of the environmental crisis. Ask yourselves what do you know about the amount of Esso too that you're breathing and what heavy metals are entering your lungs. How much to for five to be an agent which has caused birth defects in experimental animals is being sprayed by the road crews along the highways. How much
lead Mark route carbon monoxide to you getting. No community in this country knows the answers to that. Yet it is within our power. Teachers students. All of us to find the answers we've got to take the knowledge about the environment out to the people because the obligation that our technological society forces on all of us is to discover how humanity can survive. The new power that science has given us and that's what the environmental crisis is about. It is our chance to show that by our own hand we can dedicate the wisdom of science and the power of technology to the welfare of man. If we do that we shall survive. That was Dr. Barry Commoner one of the nation's leading environmentalist ecologist argue that Americans are destroying nature's world. Each American child because of his standard of living demands 50 times more from the
environment than a small child in India demands. We Americans who make up 6 percent of the world's population require 40 to 50 percent of the world's natural resources to maintain our standard of living. We asked Dr commoner how we can hold to that same standard of living. Repair our damaged environment while still helping the people of the world to achieve a comparable standard of living. At the present time high standard of living is compounded of certain types of products which are really quite useless. We waste an enormous amount of our resources in the way in which we produce what young people call the junk culture we produce too many cars because they break down so fast need to be junk so fast we produce too much electricity because an awful lot of it is wasted on advertising which is in a human sense useless. In other words we aren't sure what
resources we really need to use in order to support human welfare. And I think that we could probably so to speak shake down our standard of living a good deal and achieve the kind of quality of life we want without using the vast resources that we are at the present time. It is a basic belief of our economic system not a growth in the gross national product always produces a better quality of life not more necessarily equals better. To suggest that the economy should slow down in order to allot the environment job is almost like preaching capitalistic heresy. However Dr commoner believes that some kind of slowdown is inevitable if we are to survive as a people. I think that the notion that economic growth has a limit is probably a fairly radical one I think it's radical both in
a capitalist economy as well as a socialist economy. He seems to be a pretty serious division of opinion on this almost anywhere you look. It is a crucial question because as far as I'm concerned it is quite clear that they environmental system the ecosystem on which we depend for all our productivity cannot continue to be driven faster and faster without breaking down. If we want to maintain an equilibrium situation and not have environmental pollution there is simply a limit to the productivity that the planet will support. And so ultimately any economic system has to come into a state in which it no longer grows which is productivity no longer rises. And I think that it's going to be very interesting to see whether our system or any other system is going to be capable of achieving. It had no growth condition in an orderly way.
It's one thing to hold Earth Day celebrations to walk in picket lines with armbands demanding that big corporations stop soiling our ecological system. But it's another thing again for a genda vigil to be willing to alter his personal lifestyle to accumulate less material goods to take the subway rather than driving a dirty car to recycle containers or wear one's clothing an extra year. Those are the kinds of changes and the day to day way we live that will have to happen by the millions. If we are to give our children a clean earth to live on. Dr Connor is optimistic that today's young people will make those changes. I have the impression of particularly among young people there is a shift in lifestyle. I think that young people particularly are less prone to accumulate material goods than they used to be. I think that there is a very serious interest in limiting the strain that we place on our resources so that we use just those things that are needed
for our own benefit and which at the same time maintain the integrity of the environment. I do think that we will find that these changes taking place as far as we've been able to tell ours is a unique place in all the universe we live in what scientists call the biosphere. Then the envelope of fresh air where I am that I draw order of things the life cycle is balanced. For better or worse man has upset the OP not troll order. As Dr commenter points out the environment got here first and like it or not it will be here last. This is our planet at this time. We have no other options and so you have it. A plea from amount to maybe a gentle reminder for us to take care of some long overdue cleanup work or a mount who could prove to be a prophet of our own destruction. At this point
Dr Connors warnings and suggestions are in the hounds of you the listener. Northeastern University has brought to you ecologist Dr. Barry Commoner director of the Center for the study of human environment. Washington University. Today's program the price of pollution. The death of man. The views and opinions expressed on the preceding program were not necessarily those of Northeastern University or the station. Questions I asked were the moderators method of presenting many sides of today's topic. Your program host has been Joseph R. Bader Director Department of radio production. This week's program was produced by Peter Lance directed by Sheila Sylvester with technical supervision by Paul Diamond executive producer for urban
confrontation is Peter Lance. Urban confrontation is produced for the division of instructional communications at the nation's largest private university. Northeastern University requests for a tape recorded copy of any program in this series may be addressed to urban confrontation. Northeastern University Boston Massachusetts 0 2 1 1 5. Your announcer Dave. EMMA. This is the national educational radio network.
Urban Confrontation
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Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)
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Urban Confrontation is an analysis of the continuing crises facing 20th century man in the American city, covering issues such as campus riots, assassinations, the internal disintegration of cities, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. Produced for the Office of Educational Resources at the Communications Center of the nations largest private university, Northeastern University.
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Producing Organization: Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)
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Chicago: “Urban Confrontation; 19,” 1970-00-00, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 2, 2024,
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