In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner suggested that the American economy should be restructured to conform to the unbending laws of ecology. For example, he argued that polluting products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) should be replaced with natural products (like soap or cotton and wool). This book was one of the first to bring the idea of sustainability to a mass audience. Commoner suggested a left-wing, eco-socialist response to the limits to growth thesis, postulating that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures. He had a long-running debate with Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and his followers, arguing that they were too focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems, and that their proposed solutions were politically unacceptable because of the coercion that they implied, and because the cost would fall disproportionately on the poor. He believed that technological, and above all social development would lead to a natural decrease in both population growth and environmental damage.e of Commoner’s lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971:
- Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
- Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
- Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system”
- There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
Time magazine in their February 1970 issue, featured articles on the “environmental crisis”, and highlighted a quote from Richard Nixon‘s State of the Union address, when calling it, The great question of the ’70s: Shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?
The magazine called Commoner, the “Paul Revere of ecology” for his work on the threats to life from the environmental consequences of fallout from nuclear tests and other pollutants of the water, soil, and air. Thus, the cover can also be considered to be a “Call to Arms”, to mobilize public opinion by appeals to conscience. The following month, the first Earth Day took place, which saw 20 million Americans demonstrating peacefully in favor of environmental reform, accompanied by several events held at university campuses across the United States. The publications of Commoner are also considered influential in the decision of the Nixon administration in the following June to announce the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Air Act of 1970.