Earlier this week the environmental movement lost one of its most innovative and creative leaders. Barry Commoner, considered by many to be the founder of the modern ecology movement passed away at the age of 95 in Manhattan, NY. Along with Rachel Carson Barry Commoner was one of the most influential and prominent environmentalists in American history.
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For more than 60 years, Barry Commoner played a pivotal role in the environmental movement. He spoke out against nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, led the movement to make scientific information available to the public in the 1960s, and participated in the energy debates of the 1970s. More recently he spoke to the dangers of dioxin and incinerators and pioneered research on recycling, organic farming and toxic chemical substitution. He was also among the first to link environmental issues to broader issues of social and economic justice and felt that environmental problems could not be solved without also addressing the problems of poverty, injustice, racism and public health.
Born to Russian immigrants in 1917, Commoner grew up in Brooklyn, NY, was educated at Columbia University and earned a PhD from Harvard in cellular biology in 1941. After serving in the war, he took a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, MO where for 34 years he wrote about the environmental consequences of the post WW II industrial and chemical revolution. It was here that he became interested in the nuclear tests the U.S. was conducting in Nevada and the impact on the American public from the fallout from those tests. When he tried to find out more about the fallout tests, Commoner was told that the information was classified and not available to the public.
This rejection struck at the heart of Commoner’s sense of justice and scientific integrity and he began a public campaign to address the importance of open communication of science between government, corporations and the public. As Commoner saw it, the heart of science was open communication, so secrecy whether imposed by government or by private corporations undermined the very nature of science.
At Commoner’s 80th birthday celebration, Peter Montague credited Commoner with introducing many fundamental ideas that are the heart of the grassroots environmental health and justice movement. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Commoner developed many of the fundamental ideas that today propel the burgeoning movement of grassroots environmentalism. Specifically, in Commoner’s early writings, I find the following ideas that today seem entirely contemporary and widely accepted – moral wisdom resides in citizens; scientists have no special competence in moral matters; scientists have an obligation to make alliance with citizens; pollution must be prevented, it cannot be successfully managed; the burden of proof lies properly with the polluter; citizens have a right to know; the precautionary principle should guide our decisions; environmental impact assessment is a necessary tool; and risk assessment is political, not scientific.”
Barry Commoner made clear that scientists have a social responsibility to make their work relevant and understandable to the public. He laid the foundation for bridging science with public policy and citizen activism. He maintained that scientists had an obligation to make scientific information accessible to the general public and that the public not only had the right to be involved in public debates that involved scientific questions but an obligation.
In his best selling book, The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability writing that there’s only one planet, where everything is connected to everything else and where what affects one, affects all. He felt that we needed to design and make products that didn’t disrupt the delicate balance between people and nature. And he railed against the corporate need for growth that emphasized profits and technological progress with little regard for the consequences and the impact on the planet.
Few people made greater contributions to protecting and improving the environment than Barry Commoner as a scientist, teacher and advocate. He will greatly be missed.
To read more about Barry Commoner see