Commoner’s Four Laws of Ecology
[the second part of my introduction to ecological literacy, Ecology 101]
COMMONER’S FOUR LAWS of ECOLOGY
In The Closing Circle in 1971 ecologist Barry Commoner proposed the following four laws as a simple, popular summary of the ecological perspective:
1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else
2. Everything Must Go Somewhere
3. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
4. Nature Knows Best
Ad 1. The law of interdependence
Ecologically, our reality on this planet is one interconnected whole and so ecology is necessarily holistic. In this it is diametrically opposed to the prevailing paradigms of our economic and scientific systems. One cannot for example, as capitalist economics does, separate off the economy, technologies and living standards from nature or from human physical, mental and spiritual health. A single signature under a piece of paper in a corporate boardroom or government office can severely harm or wipe out thousands of species or forests or humans or cause immense suffering in thousands of families. As chaos theory would have it, a butterfly beating its wings in the Amazon can help trigger a storm over the Atlantic. The elimination of a key species can bring down a whole ecosystem. Everything is connected to everything else.
In a way, this is just common sense. As we know in our everyday lives, all our actions can have many ramifications and unintended effects. Ecological thinking tries to grapple with at least some of these ramifications and effects. Reductionist science, in contrast, first separates things off from one another and their real contexts and then cuts everything up into increasingly smaller pieces in its attempt to understand and technologically control them. (The following two laws are just corollaries of this basic law.)
Ad 2. The law of no waste
Seen ecologically, nature knows of no ‘wastes’, nor has it any space into which humans can simply get rid of or ‘dispose’ of inconvenient things.
In contrast, reductionist science and government ‘regulators’ believe in the voodoo of ‘dispersion’ theory: emit toxic or radioactive waste elements from stacks and pipes and the plumes will simply and conveniently ‘disperse’ into air or water columns. Abracadabra.
This kind of primitive magic thinking ignores the first ecological law of interdependence, which in this case is can be specified as the ecological law of ‘bio-accumulation’. According to this law, the dispersed toxic elements are gathered up in nutrients or food by bacterial, plant and animal organisms which thus re-concentrate them up the trophic levels of the food chains. Everything must go somewhere.
Based on this anti-ecological dispersion ideology, capitalism’s industrial pollution has now made us all into living toxic waste dumps: humans are now already born with at least 200 industrial chemicals in their bodies. Cancers and a plethora of immune system disorders are skyrocketing.
Ad 3. The law of hidden subsidies
Even the apparently more environmentally benign technologies like renewable energy or cyberspace come with considerable ecological price tags. To provide these ‘clean’ technologies immense amounts of polluting fossil fuel energy are needed to mine, manufacture, transport, maintain and dispose of the many materials needed for renewable energy or internet hardware and infrastructures. Often they are built under oppressive conditions which exploit workers. Some of these materials, like rare earths, are also geographically concentrated in nations suffering from extreme violent conflict or authoritarian oppression (e.g. Congo, China).
Another version of this law is Murphy’s Law: if anything can wrong, it will. If a nuclear reactor can fail, it inevitably will, with now well-known results (Chernobyl, Fukushima). The ‘free lunch’ of nuclear power generation turns out to mean radioactive contamination of the planet from uranium mining to fuel production to meltdowns and waste ‘disposal’ for tens of thousands of years. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Ad 4. The law of ecological management
‘Nature knows best’ is not romanticism. Rather it expresses ecology’s scepticism regarding asystemic, unecological interventions and admiration for, and ultimate faith in, the marvellously complex, self-regulating and self-organising workings of ecosystems.
The mechanistic and engineering paradigms prevalent under industrial capitalism try to ignore or externally control or arrogantly impose fragmented, standardising, linear and industrial order on natural systems. Industrial agriculture’s crop monocultures and feedlots are a prime example.
Ecological management, in contrast, tries to understand the internal self-ordering processes of ecosystems and work with and within them. The organic, agro-ecological polycultures of many peasant and small, mixed-farm cultures are a good example.
Ecological thinking understands that ‘nature knows best’, not because of any naïve romanticism but because the whole is by definition greater than its parts: nature has had four billion years of evolutionary trial and error while, in contrast, humanity a mere hundred thousand years or so, industrial humanity a mere century or two. Ecological management is inherently humble and respectful of the immense complexity and unpredictability of ecosystems. It tries to work with the grain and dynamics of ecosystems rather than against them. It is more like ju-jitsu than boxing.