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Barry Commoner

Date of birth : 1917-05-28
Date of death : -
Birthplace : New York City, New York, US
Nationality : American
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-01-06

Barry Commoner was a biologist who became an environmental activist, leading efforts to inform the general public about the many environmental dangers posed by various scientific advances and common practices. He was one of the founders of the modern environmental movement who was referred to as the "Paul Revere of Ecology."

Barry Commoner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 28, 1917. As a boy he lived the rugged life of the city streets, but on weekends he prowled Brooklyn's Prospect Park looking for microscope specimens. Educated at James Madison High School, which fostered his interest in biology, he put himself through Columbia University by doing odd jobs and got his bachelor's degree with honors in 1937. Earning master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard (1938, 1941), he began his teaching career as a biology instructor at Queens College (1940-1942). Serving in the Navy in World War II, he took part in spraying Pacific islands against insect-borne diseases with the new wonder chemical DDT, unaware as yet that indiscriminate use of such toxins was an invitation to environmental disaster.

Married after the war to Gloria Gordon, a psychologist, Commoner served as associate editor of Science Illustrated before joining the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, first as associate professor of plant physiology, later as chairman of the Botany Department, and finally as university professor of environmental science (1976-1981). It was here that he began the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS). Although he published numerous professional research papers, he rejected the conventional view that what non-scientists do with scientific knowledge is none of the scientists' business. He became a social activist and vocal public educator.

What brought him out of the laboratory in 1953, Commoner declared afterward, was strontium-90, one of the radioisotopes contained in the fallout from nuclear tests in the atmosphere. His Committee for Nuclear Information set parents all over St. Louis to collecting their offspring's baby teeth for testing, and found out that in addition to the normal element calcium, those teeth contained also ominous proportions of strontium-90, which behaves physically and chemically much like calcium and can combine in building bones and teeth in much the same way, except that strontium-90 is highly radioactive.

In the first sentence of a book published in 1966, Science and Survival, Barry Commoner announced that "the age of innocent faith in science and technology may be over." A massive electric power failure all over the Northeast, the admission of children to a St. Louis hospital 15 years after they had been exposed to radio-iodine from Nevada nuclear bomb tests, the disturbing news about DDT, and the potential menace of recombinant DNA—not to mention the threat of "nuclear winter" in the event of
thermonuclear war, a prospect Commoner discussed years before most Americans even heard of it—led him to the conclusion that science, like the magic practiced by the legendary Sorcerer's Apprentice, was getting out of control. Therefore, scientists could no longer simply remain at their work; they had to go out and alert the nonscientists to the problems that their work was creating. "Science can reveal the depth of this crisis," the book concluded, "but only social action can resolve it."

By 1970 Time magazine was calling Barry Commoner "the Paul Revere of Ecology." It said that Commoner was "endowed with a rare combination of political savvy, scientific soundness and the ability or excite people with his ideas." Commoner was not trained professionally as an ecologist. He came to it in reaction against the dismemberment of modern science by over-specialization, such that its practitioners could not see the forest for their own narrow trees. Scientists as well as laypeople, he believed, had to be educated to the fact that in nature "everything is connected to everything else," which is the primary message of ecology. From the 1950s Commoner played a leading role in every aspect and important phase of the environmental movement. He stated his opposition to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, was part of the science information movement of the 1960s, joined the energy debates of the 1970s and the organic farming/pesticides, waste management/recycling, and toxic chemicals issues of the 1980s and 1990s.

Commoner's best-known book, The Closing Circle (1971), concluded that "human beings have broken out of the circle of life, driven not by biological need, but by the social organization which they have devised to 'conquer' nature. … We must learn how to restore to nature the wealth that we borrow from it." The political lesson to be learned from Los Angeles smog, from fertilizer-poisoned water supplies in Illinois, from algal bloom in Lake Erie, and from detergent foam everywhere was that the older forms of both capitalism and socialism, with their emphases respectively on profit and productivity, were quite inadequate to cope with a deteriorating planet. At the same time Commoner did not want to sit back and contemplate nature fatalistically, or, as he called it, "inactivism."

In the 1970s, as Congress passed laws for clean air, pure water, and the protection of the environment, Barry Commoner's warnings seemed to be generating serious political and legal action because, as Time warned in its cover story on Commoner (February 2, 1970), "the price of pollution could be the death of man." Gradually, however, Commoner came to believe that much of the politicians' concern with the environment and with energy conservation was sham. He was particularly disappointed in President Jimmy Carter's national energy policy, which Commoner said was "not designed to solve the energy crisis … but merely to delay it."

In The Politics of Energy (1979) Commoner called for "a national policy for the transition from the present, non-renewable energy system to a renewable one"—a transition which he believed a traditional free market economy would be unable to accomplish. He wanted Americans to use solar rather than conventional power, trains rather than automobiles, and methane or gasohol rather than gasoline—proposals which ran not only up against powerful vested interests but also against come basic American habits and preferences. This theme of the evils of an increased dependence on technology remained a theme for the rest of Commoner's career appearing again in 1995 in his book Making Peace with the Planet.

Since none of the presidential candidates of 1980 seemed to be dealing with environmental issues in the most superficial way, Barry Commoner ran for president on a ticket of his own, the Citizens Party. It polled only a quarter of one percent of the vote.

Commoner returned to Queens College in 1981 as professor of earth and environmental sciences, serving also as visiting professor of community health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also moved his Center for the Biology of Natural Sciences to Queens as well. The research conducted at Queens continued to make major advances in environmental science. He discovered the origin of dioxin in trash-burning incinerators, developed alternatives to incinerators and the economic benefits to communities of recycling their trash and developed a computer model that tracks the long-range transport of dioxin and other pollutants from their sources through the food chain into the human diet. This model became invaluable to evaluating dioxin contamination of milk on Wisconsin and Vermont dairy farms.

The 1980s saw a slight diminution of Commoner's influence as capitalist sway was on the rise and environmental concerns fell by the wayside. With the advent of the 1990s, however, increased interests in the environment returned Commoner and his theories to the forefront. In 1995, he was one of the featured speakers at the Dartmouth College Earth Day Conference, commemorating the 25th anniversary of Earth Day. There he called for the government to include in its "industrial policy" a promotion of organic farming and the improvement of electric motors as a clean energy source. He encouraged the development of a preventive strategy that encourages production without polluting in the first place.

The Earth Times (October 21, 1995) cited Commoner as one of the "100 Who Made A Difference" world-wide and called him "the dean of the environmental movement, who has influenced two generations." In May 1997, on the occasion of his 80th birthday and to commemorate his 50 year career in environmental research and activism, a symposium was sponsored by CBNS, entitled "Science and Social Action: Barry Commoner's Contribution to the Environmental Movement." The purpose of this event was to both honor Commoner's career of outspoken activism, even before it was fashionable, and to create a momentum for a strong future environmental movement.

In a directory of scientists published in 1984 Barry Commoner listed among his special concerns "alterations in the environment in relation to modern technology" and "the origins and significance of the environmental and energy crises"—realities which would not go away just because people for the moment chose to ignore them.

Barry Commoner, together with other outstanding figures in the modern environmental movement such as Lewis Mumford, Rene Dubos, F. Fraser Darling, and Paul Ehrlich, is discussed in an informative account by Anne Chisholm, Philosophers of the Earth (1972). He made the cover of Time (February 2, 1970) in conjunction with an in-depth essay on the ecological issues he helped to publicize. Several of Commoner's own books are written for lay people in non-technical language, including Science and Survival (1966), The Closing Circle (1971), and The Politics of Energy (1979) Making Peace with the Planet (1990). Newsweek took note of his presidential campaign in an article titled "Dr. Ecology for President" (April 21, 1980).



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