Barry Commoner (1917-2012)
UPDATE: If you have trouble loading the YouTube clip of Barry Commoner on William F. Buckley's Firing Line in May 1973 (here's the direct link), you might might try the "Last Word" clip accompanying the NYT obituary.
"[W]hen a Times writer once asked [Dr. Commoner's] Queens College office to mail some material, it arrived in an old brown envelope with the crossed-out return address of the botany department at Washington University -- a place where he had last worked 19 years earlier."
-- the conclusion of Daniel Lewis's NYT obit, "Scientist,
Candidate and Planet Earth’s Lifeguard" (links onsite)
Candidate and Planet Earth’s Lifeguard" (links onsite)
I'm sorry to inflict Wm F. Buckley Jr. on you, but since I wasn't successful at embedding the "Last Word" video interview that the NYT recorded in 2006 to someday accompany his obituary (today being the day), which you can view here, at least in this May 1973 clip you'll note that WFB (still in his younger, less oleaginous years) at least listens to what Barry Commoner has to say about the threat to the environment and has some basic sense that there are real issues at stake. We see that the standards for a pseudo-intellectual poseur were a million jillion times higher then than they are for the amoeba-brained right-wing life forms now infesting public life, who happen to be the most tangible of WFB's legacies.
And how 'bout that environmentally conscious 1973-model Nixon? Of course Commoner notes in the clip that the sleazy opportunist in Nixon was already coming to the surface on environmental matters when confronted with the actual cost of making peace with the environment.
My first thought on seeing Barry Commoner's name was: My goodness, is he still alive? Then I realized that almost certainly the reason I was suddenly seeing his name again was that no, now he isn't alive anymore.
Barry Commoner, a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 95 and lived in Brooklyn Heights.I don't know whether to call it irony or what, but Commoner's death comes at a time when the environment has essentially disappeared from view -- and certainly from the presidential election. It's as if all those problems had magically gone away! One thinks of this anecdote Daniel Lewis recalls in connection with Commoner's 1980 run for the presidency as the Citizens' Party candidate:
His wife, Lisa Feiner, confirmed his death.
Dr. Commoner was a leader among a generation of scientist-activists who recognized the toxic consequences of America's post-World War II technology boom, and one of the first to stir the national debate over the public's right to comprehend the risks and make decisions about them.
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.
In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, Time magazine put Dr. Commoner on its cover and called him the Paul Revere of Ecology. He was by no means the only one sounding alarms -- the movement was well under way by then, building on the impact of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" in 1962 and the work of many others. But he was arguably the most peripatetic in his efforts to make environmentalism a people's political cause.
(The same issue of Time also noted that President Richard M. Nixon had already signed on. In his State of the Union address that January, he said, "The great question of the '70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?" And he followed through: Among other steps, the Environmental Protection Agency was established in December 1970.)
-- from the NYT obit
His own favorite moment of the campaign, he recalled many years later, was when a reporter in Albuquerque asked, "Dr. Commoner, are you a serious candidate, or are you just running on the issues?"We sure don't have to worry about anyone running on environmental issues this year.
Since this is the ultra-liberal New York Times, naturally it's necessary to convey that Commoner, for all his scientific credentials, was a radical socialist.
Wow, talk about radical socialism! (Of course this really matters when it comes to powerful anti-environmentalists like Sens. Richard Shelby and Bob Corker. Not only do they have no interest in dealing with our environmental crises, they recoil in horror at the thought of paying workers a fair wage.)
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.
Although the rules were plain enough, the thinking behind them required leaps of faith. Dr. Commoner's overarching concern was not ecology as such but rather a radical ideal of social justice in which everything was indeed connected to everything else. Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem.
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 a "Last Word" interview with The New York Times in 2006, videotaped to accompany this obituary online, Dr. Commoner elaborated on his holistic views and lamented the inability of society to connect the dots among its multitude of challenges, calling it "an unfortunate feature of political development in this country."
Noting the success of movements that had promoted civil rights, sexual equality, organized labor, environmentalism and an end to the war in Vietnam, he said one might think that "if they would only get together, they could remake the country." But, he added, that has not happened.
Then he said: "I don't believe in environmentalism as the solution to anything. What I believe is that environmentalism illuminates the things that need to be done to solve all of the problems together. For example, if you're going to revise the productive system to make cars or anything else in such a way as to suit the environmental necessities, at the same time why not see to it that women earn as much as men for the same work?"
It's certainly appropriate to delineate the ways in which Commoner came in conflict with other scientists (notably over his insistence that population control wasn't the only, or even a crucial, issue in reversing environmental degradation -- and certainly no excuse for not doing the things sensible people could agree needed to be done. And I guess it's appropriate to note that in his later years Commoner faded from the front lines. (But hey, consider his age!) I'm not sure, though, that this is what is demonstrated by the quote he offers from the great paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould's NYT review of Commoner's 1990 book, Making Peace With the Planet. Gould said that the book "suffers the commonest of unkind fates: to be so self-evidently true and just that we pass it by as a twice-told tale."
To his credit, Lewis doesn't end there.
"Although he has been branded by many as a maverick," Dr. Gould added, "I regard him as right and compassionate on nearly every major issue."
LINKS UPDATE: I think they're all OK now. Thanks to our tweeting tipster for the alert!