Remembering Barry Commoner, 1917-2012




From The Nation online today, by Occidental College professor, Peter Dreier: At the ISE, we especially remember Barry Commoner for his pioneering advocacy for renewable energy and against nuclear power, his socially and politically conscious approach to environmental sustainability, his work against waste incineration and dioxin contamination in the late 1980s, and his return to the public stage in 2000 to keynote the ISE’s Biodevastation 2000 protest against the annual convention of the biotechnology industry.

Dreier writes:

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.

Dreier explains further:

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 Nader.

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. . . 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.”


In 1979 Commoner helped form the Citizens Party, hoping it would gain influence similar to that of the Green Party in Europe. The next year Commoner ran as the party’s presidential candidate. He got on the ballot in twenty-nine states but received less than one-third of 1 percent of the national vote. . . Commoner did not run again for office, but he advised Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party presidential campaigns in the 1980s.

The full story is at The New York Times has posted an excellent 12 minute commemorative video, focusing most effectively on Commoner’s early research and advocacy against the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.