Barry Commoner, dies September 30, 2012, RIP

In 1980, I broke with my own party which had decided to renominate Jimmy Carter for the Presidency, first to support Edward Kennedy for the President, and then when he dropped out, John Anderson. Anderson, although the thinking man’s candidate that year, wasn’t really in tune with what I believed so by Election Day I decided to choose Barry Commoner of the Citizens Party. Barry didn’t win but I never regretted my vote. Regretting a vote is a feeling worse than failing to vote for a winner.

Described in 1970 by Time magazine as the “Paul Revere
of ecology,” Commoner followed Rachel Carson as
America’s most prominent modern environmentalist. But
unlike Carson, Commoner viewed the environmental crisis
as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed economic and
social system. A biologist and research scientist, he
argued that corporate greed, misguided government
priorities, and the misuse of technology accounted for
the undermining of “the finely sculptured fit between
life and its surroundings.”

Commoner insisted that scientists had an obligation to
make scientific information accessible to the general
public, so that citizens could participate in public
debates that involved scientific questions. Citizens,
he said, have a right to know the health hazards of the
consumer products and technologies used in everyday
life. Those were radical ideas in the 1950s and 1960s,
when most Americans were still mesmerized by the cult
of scientific expertise and such new technologies as
cars, plastics, chemical sprays, and atomic energy.

Commoner linked environmental issues to a broader
vision of social and economic justice. He called
attention to the parallels among the environmental,
civil rights, labor, and peace movements. He connected
the environmental crisis to the problems of poverty,
injustice, racism, public health, national security,
and war.

*   *   *   *   *

Born in 1917, Commoner grew up in Brooklyn, New York,
the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He studied
zoology at Columbia University and received a doctorate
in biology from Harvard University in 1941. After
serving in the Navy during World War II, Commoner was
an associate editor for Science Illustrated and then
became a professor at Washington University in St.
Louis, Missouri, a position he held for thirty-four
years. There he founded, in 1966, the Center for the
Biology of Natural Systems to promote research on
ecological systems. He later moved the center to Queens
College in New York.

While serving in the Navy, Commoner discovered a
disturbing unintended consequences of technology. He
was put in charge of a project to devise an apparatus
to allow bombers to spray DDT on beachheads to kill
insects that caused disease among soldiers. The
military wanted to remove the insects before troops
landed. Commoner’s crew discovered that the DDT sprayed
from bombers effectively eliminated hordes of flies on
the beach, but also that more flies soon came to feast
on the tons of fish that the DDT had also killed. This
lesson became a central theme for Commoner throughout
his career: humans cannot take action on one part of
the ecosystem without triggering a reaction elsewhere.

After the war, many scientists, including Albert
Einstein, alarmed by America’s use of the atomic bomb
on Japan in 1945, began to rethink their role in
society. They questioned whether dropping the bomb had
been necessary for the United States to win the war.
They were shocked by the scale of the damage in terms
of both immediate deaths and long-term human suffering.
And they worried about the potential for a prolonged
arms race between the United States and the Soviet
Union, which, they feared, could end in a nuclear war
in which all humanity would be the losers.

As Commoner told Scientific American in a 1997

“The Atomic Energy Commission had at its command an
army of highly skilled scientists. Although they knew
how to design and build nuclear bombs, it somehow
escaped their notice that rainfall washes suspended
material out of the air, or that children drink milk
and concentrate iodine in their growing thyroids. I
believe that the main reason for the AEC’s failure is
less complex than a cover-up but equally devastating.
The AEC scientists were so narrowly focused on arming
the United States for nuclear war that they failed to
perceive facts–even widely known ones–that were
outside their limited field of vision.”

Commoner and other scientists — including chemist
Linus Pauling (a professor at the California Institute
of Technology and a Nobel Prize winner) — believed
they had a responsibility to sound the alarm about the
potentially devastating effects of nuclear fallout. In
1956, when Adlai Stevenson ran for president as the
Democratic Party nominee, he sought Commoner’s advice
and then called for the United States to take the lead
in ending nuclear testing.

*   *   *   *   *

Commoner was neither a back-to-the-land utopian or a
Luddite opposed to modern industrial civilization. He
did not place the burden of blame on the consumers who
buy these products or the workers who produce them. He
believed that big business and their political allies
dominate society’s decision making, often leading to
misguided priorities, a theme that paralleled the ideas
of economist John Kenneth Galbraith and, later, Ralph

Commoner believed that the corporate imperative for
wasteful growth is the root cause of the environmental
crisis and must be corralled by responsible public
policies demand by a well-educated public. As he told
Scientific American: “The environmental crisis arises
from a fundamental fault: our systems of production–in
industry, agriculture, energy and
transportation–essential as they are, make people sick
and die.”

Commoner’s proposals for addressing these problems
reflect his lifetime of promoting a progressive agenda.
He told Scientific American:

“What is needed now is a transformation of the major
systems of production more profound than even the
sweeping post-World War II changes in production
technology. Restoring environmental quality means
substituting solar sources of energy for fossil and
nuclear fuels; substituting electric motors for the
internal-combustion engine; substituting organic
farming for chemical agriculture; expanding the use of
durable, renewable and recyclable materials–metals,
glass, wood, paper–in place of the petrochemical
products that have massively displaced them.”

*   *   *   *   *

Excerpts from Peter Dreier, THE NATION (October 1, 2012)


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