BOOK REVIEW : Factual Follow-Up to the Earth Day Hype : MAKING PEACE WITH THE PLANET <i> by Barry Commoner</i> , Pantheon, $19.95, 293 pages.

Now that Earth Day has come and gone, the hard question remains: What can we do about our poisoned planet?

According to Barry Commoner in “Making Peace With the Planet,” it’s just not enough to load up the BMW with “biodegradable” trash bags and cloth diapers. The environmental crisis must be solved on a global level by making fundamental changes in what Commoner calls “the technosphere,” the technology that supplies food, energy, transportation and housing. And it’s unlikely the corporate sponsors who joined in hyping Earth Day will be quite so enthusiastic about Commoner’s call for “social governance” of free enterprise as the only workable way to clean up the environment.

Commoner is the grand old man of environmental activism, and his early and influential books--especially “The Closing Circle"--helped raise the ecological consciousness of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Much of Commoner’s new book, however, is devoted to an unhappy chronicle of how environmental policy and the environment itself have deteriorated in the two decades since the first Earth Day.

Drawing on data collected by the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, the environmental research center he directs, Commoner reminds us that our air, water and food are still befouled.


He bemoans the let-them-eat-cake policies of the Reagan-Bush administrations. “The Reagan Administration’s initial response (to ozone depletion),” he reminds us, “was to promote the use of dark glasses and suntan lotion.”

At the heart of Commoner’s book is a red-hot idea. It is not enough to “control” environmental pollutants through devices like catalytic converters or scrubbers, Commoner argues; instead, we must go to the source of the pollution, which is usually the technology of production, and eliminate the pollutants. And the only way to control production is what Commoner euphemistically calls the “social governance” of private enterprise.

“We must recognize that the assault on the environment cannot be effectively controlled, but must be prevented; that prevention requires the transformation of the present structure of the technosphere, bringing it into harmony with the ecosphere; that this means massively redesigning the major industrial, agricultural, energy and transportation systems; that such a transformation of the systems of production conflicts with the short-term profit-maximizing goals that now govern investment decisions; and that, accordingly, politically suitable means must be developed that bring the public interest in long-term environmental quality to bear on these decisions.”

Commoner suggests that consumer activism and even government regulation are not effective against the entrenched power of corporate free enterprise, and he concedes that the so-called socialism of the Soviet bloc and the Third World have only aped the environmentally disastrous technologies of the West. But he holds out the hope that East and West can rescue the planet by taking control over the profit makers:

“We in America,” Commoner concludes, “have as much reason as the Soviet Union to engage in a perestroika of our own--to open to public discussion the serious conflict between our unexamined capitalist ideology and the failed effort to resolve the environmental crisis--as a prelude to radical (in the sense of getting at the root of the problem) remedial action.”

“Making Peace” is a sober book, well-reasoned and well-argued, but its language and ideas conceal a fundamental radicalism. Although Commoner is no Marxist, his book is nothing less than the Manifesto of environmental activism. It’s a refreshing change from the hype that fueled the Earth Day orgy.

If Bette Midler, Doogie Howser and Time-Warner managed to pique your interest in environmentalism, Commoner’s book will give you the unpretty and unfunny facts about what he believes it will really take to save Mother Earth.

Next: Richard Eder reviews “Sexing the Cherry” by Jeannette Winterson.