May 28: Barry Commoner Day

Barry Commoner would have been 98 today.

Reflecting on his writings in the context of some more recent work, I was reminded of his talk, “What Is Yet To Be Done,” delivered in 1997 at an event in New York to celebrate his 80th birthday. In those remarks, Commoner argued:

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. As the Surgeon General would say, these processes are hazardous to your health. But that is only the immediate problem. Down the line, these same production processes threaten a series of global human catastrophes: higher temperatures; the seas rising to flood many of the world’s cities; more frequent severe weather; and dangerous exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The nonhuman sectors of the living ecosystem are also affected by the crisis: ancient forest reserves are disappearing; wetlands and estuaries are impaired; numerous species are threatened with extinction.

Eighteen years later, we continue to share the same concerns. Further, the vocabulary has evolved. We can talk about an Anthropocene: a new geological epoch driven by human actions. As severe as the environmental crisis confronting us remains, the good news is that this new vocabulary acknowledges that we now live in an age of change and that we must prepare for the inevitable challenges facing us. Breeding resilience in our cities in our food production and in our energy and transportation networks has become a necessity and there are encouraging signs in many sectors.

But spare a thought for the Anthropocene’s social implications. The title of Commoner’s 1997 talk was an explicit reference to Lenin’s famous essay, and the environmental crisis for Commoner was unmistakably a human event: it was caused by human actions, but the ultimate measure of its impact was the threat to human health and well-being. As a concept, the Anthropocene is less good here. We are not all exposed to environmental catastrophe equally. Nor are we all susceptible to environmental vulnerabilities in the same ways.

At a 2014 Earth Day function at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the author China Miéville spoke about “The Limits of Utopia,” and noted the devil’s bargain in “Anthropocene”:

The very term “Anthropocene,” which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied “We.”

“We” are not Tuvalu. “We” are not forced into migration by advancing deserts or retreating waters. Many (likely all) readers of this post are among the privileged, relative few who can lament the almost theoretical/hypothetical hazards confronting us and debate their contexts, outcomes, and solutions. The story is always more complicated, but in Commoner I always found an explicit effort to not lose sight of the signal within the noise. The environmental crisis was a global phenomenon and environmentalism was devoted to human welfare. Thus, he concluded his 1997 talk with a missive to tackle the kind of social change that is so often overlooked when we talk about climate change or other “big” environmental problems. Their source is rarely in the air, soil, or water, but in human actions (and, tragically, human inactions). Even in the context of this new vocabulary, I doubt Commoner’s message would have changed:

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way—for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it—to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists.


On a recent visit to Oxford, I happened upon a bold symbol of the history I mean to write. It was a wet spring and the Cherwell River had flooded. Since I was spending just a short time with family between a workshop on hazardous chemicals in Munich and getting home to my wife and children in Ontario, I didn’t have with me the necessary footwear to tromp across the soggy fields that separate the town and colleges from Marston, where I was staying. The Romans might have marched straight across the fields, but they would have been better shod. So I stuck to the pavements, making a more circuitous walk towards Summertown and then down the Marston Ferry Road. The route took me past the Museum of Natural History, which had on its front lawn a rather striking exhibit called “Ghost Forest,” a collection of massive tropical forest tree stumps, mounted—lying down—on stone slabs. I tarried. It was late afternoon, and as I wandered from installation to installation, reading each plaque—which indicated the tree species and its full height in a manner that felt more like eulogy than informative display—the world became rather quiet. The traffic and bustle of the road, not twenty feet away on the other side of the waist-high stone wall, was muted. I was in a mausoleum, or the silent aura one associates with entering a church.

The exhibit was surprisingly moving: less, perhaps, the explicit ghost forest message, and more, simply, the massive remnants of once-living things. Shelley might have written a less arrogant version of “Ozymandias” for them, where just the stumps remain. I was transported back to childhood holidays on Vancouver Island and trips to Cathedral Grove. There’ Douglas Firs older than the Oxford colleges, through which I had roamed prior to discovering the ghost forest, still stand protected from the axe, accessible to visitors. Equally massive, awe-inspiring. In reflecting upon both Oxford and Vancouver Island, the word “majestic” belongs in this piece.

A significant portion of environmental history’s mission is to highlight human trespasses into nature. Themes of resource extraction, landscape despoliation, scarcity, and sustainability abound in the literature. Global analyses of these topics also investigate the social, economic, and historical factors that explain the more rapid rate of deforestation in the tropical world in relation to the increased protection of old-growth stands in the northern, more prosperous parts of the world (a far from simple, perfect, or complete distinction). The ghost forest was a warning—a testament. But in Oxford, I was especially struck by the sadness I felt. Maybe it was the fatigue of travel catching up with me, combined with mounting homesickness. But the sadness seemed to be born of a kind of kinship—very distant cousins, as it were—with those stumps. It felt more like a palpable reminder of the larger community of life, to which we are all connected.

Renaming CBNS

I’ve written a bit about Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems—and how it emerged in response to the popular realization that the 1960s environmental crisis defied or transcended traditional scientific disciplines. The Center’s goal was to think more broadly about what has become known as the science of the total environment.

But I raise this more as a place-marker. Last week I received an invitation to visit CBNS for its renaming. The new name will be the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment, which sounds in line with Ralph Nader’s call for an Institute for Thought and Action in Commoner’s name.

Science, Conspiracy, & Journalism: A Cold War Anecdote

I’m currently teaching a third-year course on the history of truth. The course examines the historical mechanisms that contributed to the social production and consumption of knowledge over time. It interests itself in the construction of “matters of fact,” and how scientific praxis emerged as the primary mode of knowledge authority in the modern world. It aims to explore the cultural features of who could practice science and how their scientific method came to be ingrained as a method of forging consensus among scientists, and how their findings came to be adopted as truths to a more general public. More significantly, this course proposes to examine how these activities changed or evolved over time.

We read Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump and talked about Boyle’s literary technology and virtual witnessing as pillars of the new experimental science. Recently, I lectured on Robert Kohler’s Lords of the Fly as a corollary investigation of the experimental life, and I stressed Kohler’s discussion of the moral economy. Collaboration, trustworthiness, fraud, failure, metaphors in science have featured throughout lectures and discussions. But I have had little opportunity to share anecdotes. Anecdotes can be fun.

Next week, I will be running a small module on science journalism in the twentieth century. I’m especially interested in themes surrounding science literacy and the media’s role as broker in communicating scientific information—translating it for a lay audience. In his classic essay, “Roots of the New Conservation Movement,” in Perspectives in American History  6 (1972), Donald Fleming talked about politico-scientists—scientists were politically engaged (Barry Commoner, for one)—as being part of a specialized fifth estate intent on informing the public. This during a politically tense period in American history.

As a topic, it reminded me of a story Barry Commoner relayed to me during the oral histories I conducted with him. Let me start with the report written by William Laurence (the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—and one of our in-class subjects), which appeared in The New York Times on December 29, 1954.

Headline: "Scientist Decries Curb on Condon."
Headline: “Scientist Decries Curb on Condon.”

In 1954, E. U. Condon was an elder statesman of American physics, a notable quantum physicist from the 1920s, and the outgoing President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After World War II, he had also suffered serious scrutiny from a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Condon had been particularly critical of imposed secrecy in science, and strongly advocated continued international scientific cooperation. On 1 March 1948, the subcommittee described Condon—at the time, the director of the National Bureau of Standards—as “one of the weakest links in our atomic security.” Condon was by no means a radical thinker, but he did believe that science only functioned properly in an open society. His AAAS election (in 1951) had been somewhat controversial, and by 1954 the label of “Communist” or “security risk” constituted a black mark. But turn your attention to the final paragraph: “Dr. Condon received an ovation as he rose to address his colleagues.”

Warren Weaver was a strong supporter of Condon’s (as his remarks above might attest). The young Barry Commoner as well. The story that Commoner told me involved this evening and the standing ovation as Condon retired from his role as President. At the conference, Commoner—who knew Laurence—invited Laurence to join him and others for dinner and drinks before the evening lecture. Because the conference was in California, the time difference was such that Laurence needed to file his story before dinner so that it could appear in the following day’s paper. He hadn’t filed his story yet, and asked Commoner how the membership would respond to Condon’s term. Could vocal support be interpreted as political subversion in Cold War America? The ovation (reported) was hardly a certainty. Commoner assured his friend that there would be a standing ovation: File the story and come for a drink. Which Laurence did. The ovation was reported (if not printed) before it happened. Returning to the conference hall for the evening proceedings, Commoner walked Laurence to the front row of the auditorium to sit down. After Weaver spoke and introduced Condon, Commoner told me (almost 50 years later), Commoner pulled Laurence by the shoulder and gruffly said: “Bill, stand up!” At which point the two led the standing ovation—giving credence to the story Laurence had already filed.

It’s a fun little anecdote, and Commoner told it to me at least twice. But I was reminded of it this week while preparing to discuss and have students research the relationship between science, journalism, and the public.

Uncertainty, Fear, & Mercury at Minamata: A Brief Overview

The tragic mercury poisoning epidemic at Minamata, Japan, serves as one of the critical first chapters in the history of the Toxic Century. The mercury spill in Minamata Bay in the 1950s constitutes one of the first expressions of the new landscapes that typify the Toxic Century. From 1932 to 1967, the Chisso Chemical Plant dumped mercury into the bay, from which local villagers subsisted on a fish-heavy diet. By the early 1950s, a growing number of animals and then residents were afflicted with a mysterious disease that flummoxed medical experts. Most typically, the symptoms involved debilitating damage to their nervous system. While researchers at Kumamoto University were able to identify heavy metal poisoning, it took some time before they could point to methyl mercury with confidence. (Minamata disease symptoms were first observed in humans in 1953; in 1959, studies definitively concluded that methyl mercury was the source).

Uncertainty ruled the early response. Hospitals quarantined sick patients, concerned that their ailment was contagious. “Whenever a new patient was identified,” Akio Mishima reported in Bitter Sea, “white-coated public health inspectors hurried to his or her house to disinfect every nook and cranny.” And still the fishing community ate the fish from the bay. Kibyo—strange illness—the locals said, when another neighbour showed symptoms. In historical circles, we resist talking about passive victims, but the hapless not-knowingness of the early stages of the Minamata outbreak can be framed in a manner that would impress Alfred Hitchcock.

Fear: the delay in discovering acute mercury poisoning was the source of Kibyo provoked fear around not knowing the source of the ailment. Subsequent victims also expressed fears about dying. Another form of fear manifests itself in the cultural response to victimhood. As science pointed toward the bay and the fish therein as the source of Minamata disease, divisions within the community arose between the afflicted and the fishermen who depended upon the bay for their livelihood. Patients’ families seeking compensation suffered discrimination from their neighbours. This ostracism also stimulated new forms of fear.

The Toxic Century: An Organizing Principle

I thought I’d written this post already. For more than a year I have been organizing my research agenda around the Toxic Century—a period, post-World War II, in which a host of toxic chemicals proliferated the physical environment and created a series of health concerns. My introductory summary in a grant proposal, submitted last year:

We live in a toxic century. Each of us is a walking, breathing artifact of humanity’s toxic trespasses into nature. Unwittingly or not, we are all carrying a chemical cocktail in our blood, our bones, and our tissue, which constitutes the problematic legacy of persistent organic pollutants. This project is a history of that century from within, where “within” refers to the fact that we are still living in the toxic century—it begins after World War II—but also that this is an embodied history, which explores the history of the toxins we carry around inside us.

Persistent organic pollutants, such as synthetic pesticides, plastics, and PCBs, defy environmental degradation. As a result they pose considerable risks to human and environmental health insofar as they are able to move great distances from their points of origin and because they tend to magnify up the food chain and accumulate in human and animal tissue. They are a by-product of the chemical revolution that began at the end of the 19th century and proliferated in the marketplace in the years immediately following World War II. As carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, persistent organic pollutants have become the ominous centrepiece of the global toxic story that continues to haunt us.

The toxic century refers to the contamination of the entire planet. The synthetic chemicals defining this century have become a ubiquitous feature of the human footprint on the global landscape. More than 350 of them have been identified in the Great Lakes, where they would persist, even if their emission were halted tomorrow. They also have demonstrated a distinct capacity to travel over great distances in waterways, in the atmosphere, in our mobile bodies. Multiple chlorinated chemical by-products have been located in measurable quantities in the Canadian Arctic and over the Atlantic Ocean, for example, thousands of kilometers from their point of manufacture.

As a history of persistent organic pollutants and their science in a global context, this project first explores the manufacture and proliferation of toxic chemicals before concentrating on the post-World War II environmental science that raised alarms about their threats to human health and ecological integrity. In this manner, the project merges environmental politics with public health and toxicology to uncover the scale and scope of our toxic crisis, putting special emphasis on the emergence of environmental toxicology as a hybrid discipline designed to confront the uncertainty that has driven so much of the recent history of chemical harm. And it helps readers understand that, since World War II, a variety of military and industrial practices have introduced new chemicals into the environment and into our bodies, many of which pose serious health risks and have wrought damage to the physical environment, the extent of which we do not even know. This project aims to ensure that even if the damage remains uncertain, our understanding of the history that produced these problems—and the history of efforts to repair them—should not.

Over the past year, I moved away from the idea of drafting a project on the Toxic Century writ large. Instead, my interest in toxic fear is an avenue of inquiry within this framework. Further, the idea of telling “history from within,” provides a context for linking the Toxic Century to my other interests in the history of the future. Another angle I mean to pursue involves investigating the history of disaster science, which explicitly links toxics and the future around ideas of planning and anticipating environmental contamination.