SOFT&GREEN Circular economy

The scientist: Barry Commoner, combining ecologism with the social and policy dimensions

In his book, “The Closing Circle” (1971), he was perhaps the first to imagine a model of a circular economy and was certainly among the first to combine science and political activism, linking the issues of ecology to those of public participation and social justice: environmental crisis and political decision-making.

We are talking about Barry Commoner (1917 – 2012), an American scientist and activist. He graduated in Zoology from Columbia University, received a PhD in Biology from Harvard University and was a professor of Plant Physiology at Washington University in Saint Louis for many years. Commoner is the man who led the first steps of environmentalism by studying the effects on people’s health caused by the American nuclear tests of the 1950s (his action contributed to their ban, in 1963).

Amongst other things, he then dealt with problems related to water contamination, fertilisers and pesticides, and also studied the systemic effects produced by energy released into the environment. At that time, his findings were also defined as the “science of survival”. Beyond the labels, he was able to highlight the environmental and human costs of economic choices that did not take into account the balances of the biosphere.

Four laws of ecology.
His most famous book, “The Closing Circle” is where we find the four laws of ecology.

  • First law of ecology: everything is connected to everything else.
  • Second law of ecology: everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature.
  • Third law of ecology: nature knows best.
  • Fourth law of ecology: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Commoner explains, “In ecology, as in economics, every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to overall improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.”

It is all too easy to see how much of our present is contained in these statements.

In 1980, he also stood for the Citizens’ Party in the presidential elections of the United States, collecting a modest 0.3%. But Commoner’s party had already won in other ways.