Barry Commoner, a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people’s political cause, died on Sunday in Manhattan. He was 95 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.
Raised in Brooklyn during the Depression and trained as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, he came armed with a combination of scientific expertise and leftist zeal. His work on the global effects of radioactive fallout, which included documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in the baby teeth of thousands of children, contributed materially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
From there it was a natural progression to a range of environmental and social issues that kept him happily in the limelight as a speaker and an author through the 1960s and ’70s, and led to a wobbly run for president in 1980.
His four informal rules of ecology were catchy enough to print on a T-shirt and take to the street: Everything is connected to everything else. Everything must go somewhere. Nature knows best. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Having been grounded, as an undergraduate, in Marxist theory, he saw his main target as capitalist “systems of production” in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation that emphasized profits and technological progress with little regard for consequences: greenhouse gases, nonbiodegradable materials, and synthetic fertilizers and toxic wastes that leached into the water supply.
He insisted that the planet’s future depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up. It followed, by his logic, that scientists in the service of industry could not merely invent some new process or product and then wash their hands of moral responsibility for the side effects. He was a lasting opponent of nuclear power because of its radioactive waste; he scorned the idea of pollution credit swaps because, after all, he said, an industry would have to be fouling the environment in the first place to be rewarded by such a program.
In the science establishment, Dr. Commoner’s standing was ambiguous. Along with eminent figures of the postwar years like the chemist Linus Pauling and the anthropologist Margaret Mead, he was concerned that the integrity of American science had been compromised — first by the government’s emphasis on supporting physics at the expense of other fields during the development of nuclear weapons, and second by the growing privatization of research, in which pure science took a back seat to projects that held short-range promise of marketable technologies.
He found his political voice when he encountered the indifference of government authorities to the high levels of strontium 90 in the atmosphere from atomic tests. Quite simply, he said in an interview with The Chicago Tribune in 1993, “The Atomic Energy Commission turned me into an environmentalist.
He helped organize the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information in 1958, and was eventually its president. Dr. Commoner told Scientific American years later that the committee’s task “was to explain to the public — first in St. Louis and then nationally — how splitting a few pounds of atoms could turn something as mild as milk into a devastating global poison.”
Continue reading at Scientist, Candidate and Planet Earth’s Lifeguard
◇See also interview at 90 in NYT re global warming and nuclear renaissance