Secretary of Survival

I’ve spent this week going through some old Barry Commoner material to write a biographical encyclopedia entry. I find these increasingly difficult to write, not least because I have written a number now, but also because Barry shifted from research subject to friend in the years between my dissertation and his passing. I take the task no less seriously, but I feel the weight of an added responsibility to render a synthesis of his life and career while stressing the aspects of his work that he most valued.

The following little exchange made me chuckled, however, and brought a bit of levity to work. In 1973, Commoner appeared on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” a conservative talk show that ran for many years. Buckley’s role in the rise of American conservatism is a story that probably ought to be examined more carefully. He was an erudite and articulate writer and broadcaster and a worthy debate foe. The subject was “Is there an Ecological Crisis?” In his preamble Buckley insinuated the question seemed less urgent than it had a few years earlier. Commoner had, in 1971, published The Closing Circle, which outlined his approach to the environmental crisis (which he felt was quite serious). Buckley acknowledged that Commoner was not an environmental doomsayer in the vein of Paul Ehrlich and other prominent environmentalists, but the discussion veered toward environmental policy, with Commoner criticizing Nixon for backing away from much of the strong environmental policy he had signed during the first two years of the decade. Commoner wanted more. More investment in environmental remediation. More enforcement of environmental legislation. More stringent guidelines for various production processes. In one of his traditional quips, Buckley attempted to skewer his interlocutor. I rather think Commoner got the better of the exchange.

Buckley: “I hope you, if President of the United States, would not appoint as Secretary of Defense somebody who would superordinate the problems of ecology over those of national sovereignty.”

Commoner: “Well, that is your hope; mine is the reverse.”

Buckley: “Why would you call him Secretary of Defense? Call him Secretary of Undefense, or Secretary of Surrender.”

Commoner: “Why don’t we call him Secretary of Survival?”

American Dreams & American Fear

I’m spending the summer frantically writing. The current project with an end-of-summer writing deadline is a history of toxic fear in the American 1980s. Title to be determined, but I hope to trace an American history of toxic chemicals in the 1980s, and how pollution produced unprecedented fears. From Three Mile Island and Love Canal to Times Beach and Woburn, the decade was punctuated by a series of local crises, which gained national media attention. But I mean to argue that toxic fear was a good deal more than a simple shift in media reporting. I’ll save themes and methodologies for subsequent posts.

After spending most of the last decade trying to escape my training as an American historian—much of my work on mercury has attempted more global and/or transnational perspectives—this project has been a happy return to US history. And the 1980s is a relatively new decade for me. Given, though, that 1980 marks the halfway point between the end of World War II and the present, it’s probably high time to acknowledge that the decade deserves careful study. Much groundwork has already been done, but the environmental history remains somewhat light.

This long preamble is a preface for a comparison that struck me this morning while writing. Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) features prominently in my reading of toxic fear in the 1980s. Not just because of the book’s “toxic airborne event,” which throws DeLillo’s narrative into chaos, but because of its funny, poignant, and deliberate descriptions of American culture run adrift. His final paragraph is wonderful (apologies for the poor reading):

I’m especially fond of White Noise, so its inclusion in my work is a special pleasure and a personal conceit. And while I am no literary scholar and only a “reforming” American historian, it’s hardly my place to claim that it is a definite candidate as one the great American novels, even if only for the moment in which it was written. I’m not alone, of course: White Noise was awarded the National Book Award for 1985. But I think it also holds up especially well.

DeLillo’s conclusion also put me in mind of another favourite concluding paragraph, this one from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which I read over and over when I first discovered Kerouac more than twenty years ago:

I don’t want to make a meal of the comparison, but I was struck by the disparate tones of hope and despair—or sad promise (Kerouac) and numbed satire (DeLillo). The youthful energy of On the Road contrasts with the implicit defeat of DeLillo’s America almost thirty years later. Of course, no one needed to wait thirty years: in Kerouac’s Big Sur (1962), Cody Pomeranz and Lorenzo Monsanto chop down trees. Cody, the vivacious reincarnation of Neal Cassady, formerly On the Road‘s Dean Moriarty, lays into his axe with gusto. The older Monsanto is slower, more deliberate. His tree falls first.

The road and the grocery store aisle as windows to knowledge and sustenance offer polar opposites to the American experience. What happened? Kerouac was writing at the dawn of the 1960s, an “age of contradiction,” as historian Howard Brick has contended. Brick’s chapter titles outline the coming tensions: this was a decade marked by knowledge and ideology; authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; peace and violence. Kerouac’s sunset in On the Road is also evening in an America bent on conformity. The 1960s would be loud. But DeLillo’s 1980s would be quite different again. In contrast to an age of contradiction, the historian Daniel T. Rodgers examined the last quarter of the twentieth century and described an “age of fracture.” The social, moral, and economic boundaries that defined previous American generations lost concrete definition, creating a certain ambivalence that trades on a new chapter of American exceptionalism—and, indeed, postmodernism, where scepticism towards metanarratives, heightened superficiality, and consumerism reign supreme. Which is very much the world of White Noise.

On the one hand, the lazy point to make is how these two literary conclusions suggest a dissolution of the American dream. But there is also a fascinating expression of the American sadness described some years later by David Foster Wallace in The Infinite Jest (1996). I need to do more to situate toxic fear within this grander context, but uncertainty, changing risk perceptions, and widespread fear are consistent with many of the cultural themes Rodgers sees in his age of fracture.


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.