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?”

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.

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.

Barry Commoner Revisited & Revisualized

A dirty secret to start: course preparation is never as smooth as one would like. Behind in my work, I needed a big body of text to run through data visualization tools, so I turned to my dissertation, which I still had on my computer in .pdf. The work consisted of roughly 100,000 words—10,644 unique words. Modest for big data analysis like this, but sufficient for sharing with students in order to show them how digital tools can be used in historical analysis. Here’s a word cloud of the dissertation as a whole:

"Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival." My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by
“Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival.” My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by

At a quick glance, this looks like a decent rendition of the work and its points of emphasis. But word clouds are simply snapshots in time and don’t provide any kind of chronological information. A good starting point, but limited. From here, I took the same text to to show my students how we could get under the hood a little more. The results surprised me a little. Not a lot, after I thought about it, but Voyant revealed some interesting evolutions within the text. Compare the relative and raw frequencies of my use of the words “science” and “environmental” throughout the dissertation in the images below.

Relative frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Relative frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Raw frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Raw frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on

About halfway through the dissertation, there seems to be a pretty clean transition from the history of science to environmental history. This is pretty consistent with the dissertation. The first two chapters engage Commoner’s participation in a number of scientific debates and his emergence as a scientist-activist. Heavy emphasis through these chapters considers scientists and their social responsibility, and investigates concerns over nuclear fallout (an issue that Commoner would later recall is what made him an environmentalist). The third chapter considers the Age of Ecology and scientists as public intellectuals in the developing environmental movement. This is the point where the blue line starts to climb and before the green line drops off. Eventually, I start to focus on the environmental movement as a whole and Commoner as an intellectual leader within that movement rather than as a scientist.

On a lazy morning—and buoyed by having played with some similar searches recently—I thought I could quickly pull Commoner references in The New York Times to see if I could draw any comparisons between my work and the primary source hits. Again: this is hardly a comprehensive or satisfactory methodology, but I think it provides sufficient material for working with undergraduate students as a means of showing them how historians might visualize and analyze bigger chunks of information.

“Barry Commoner” AND (science OR environment)

My search showed up in 252 articles. I elected to not use TV or radio guide references and a quick eye-test of article titles eliminated a number of non-relevant articles, so the total number of articles was reduced to 151. Too small to be a worthwhile dataset, but the articles totalled roughly 200,000 words, twice the number in my dissertation.

Here is the chronological distribution of the original search.

NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.
NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.

Not surprisingly, Commoner’s role as an environmental leader and outspoken activist reaches its apogee in the 1970s. His continuing work, his return to New York, and his presidential campaign likely contributed to his ongoing presence in the 1980s, even if he had technically “retired.”

Breaking up the newspaper findings into three sections—1950-1969, the 1970s, and the 1980s—the resulting clouds offer a story that is somewhat consistent with the Voyant trajectory shown above.

NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.
NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.

Commoner’s work in the 1950s and 1960s as a biologist, working on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (for which he won the Newcomb Cleveland Award from the AAAS). This put Commoner within a ring of biologists informed about the developing events around heredity and the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA’s double helix. I should write about Commoner’s response to molecular biology at some point. But DNA, protein, and virus suggest this emphasis in the newspaper literature (life, too).

Another running theme in the newspaper articles and in the early stages of my dissertation is the treatment of social aspects of science. Too: Commoner’s outspoken opposition to funding for space travel, which he saw as a disconcerting expression of the military-industry complex and the Cold War arms race.

This first cloud also shows the beginning of environmental issues with “water” and some others. What else? This analysis is roughly consistent with the narrative I presented in the first three chapters of my dissertation/book (phew!).

Moving to the 1970s:

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.

This second cloud shows a marked decline in “science,” “scientist,” and “university,” which suggests Commoner’s ascendance in environmental circles and his standing as a public intellectual.

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.

In the third cloud, note the emphasis on “Carter” and “Reagan.” Perhaps the Reagan reference is not so surprising, but note that a goodly number of the Commoner references in the 1980s came from 1980 during Commoner’s presidential candidacy on the Citizens’ Party ticket (Harris refers to Commoner’s vice-presidential candidate, LaDonna Harris). The “Queens” reference is also indicative of Commoner’s retirement from Washington University in St. Louis and his move to CUNY Queens College (a return to his native New York City). Given my recent post, it’s also interesting to see “toxic” (in the bottom right corner) present in the 1980s.

One might also identify a change in environmental themes. “Atomic Energy Commission,” “atomic” and “radiation” in the 1950s and 1960s. “energy” in the 1970s; “recycling” and “waste” in the 1980s. “Environment”/”environmental” grow steadily in each word cloud. Clearly I prefaced this evolution in my dissertation and book—the benefit of looking backwards. And more. Again: limited as they are, I think clouds like these provide students with an interesting departure point for looking at big amounts of information, thinking about what might be present, and asking questions that will shape subsequent research. Play along: in the comments below, what evolving trends can we infer from the three newspaper clouds? What isn’t present, or surprisingly underrepresented?

On Scientific Literacy

Directly and indirectly, I spend a lot of time thinking about scientific literacy. My work on Barry Commoner, for example, treated this topic extensively, as Commoner sought to develop a method of communicating a vernacular science to the public so they could participate in pressing environmental debates. And, more recently, I’m revisiting similar themes when it comes to the relationship between science and policy and expertise and public interests while broaching the history of mercury pollution.

Not so long ago, while looking for something else, I stumbled across this really interesting talk by Alice Bell, which does an excellent job of summing up the nature of scientific literacy and the difference or tensions between an informed public and scientists as effective communicators. It’s well worth a listen, and you can link to it here.

My interest in the history of knowledge communication has a great deal to do with the contemporary problem of scientific literacy, especially as these relate to the environment. I’m reminded of the conclusion to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, where they write:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice.

Word Clouding History




A lazy start to the morning, and I found myself messing around with word clouds. The above is a sample drawn from my book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (MIT Press, 2007). A word cloud reflects the frequency with which words are used in a given text. Not surprisingly, “Commoner,” “environmental,” “science,” “public,” and “information” feature prominently. It is also interesting to note trends or foibles in my own writing—words not necessarily specific to the work upon which I seem to lean fairly heavily.

This is all a bit of fun, and perhaps a new kind of “academic” vanity searching, if you like. But it occurs to me that there is some intriguing utility in this exercise, and one that might be worth investigating further in a more research-oriented context. It would be interesting follow word-choice trends in media reporting on environmental issues over time, or develop a word cloud of the language of the toxic century, noting, too, the point at which certain terms or toxins enter our lexicon and the success of their integration (yesterday, for example, I lectured on the development of the environmental endocrine hypothesis, and how prior to the 1990s environmental fears almost exclusively focused on cancer as the environmental disease). Compiling further data on sustainability and sustainable development in United Nations reports or academic journal literature or newspapers might also yield some interesting results. Some of this data collection might be more effectively cultivated and presented in more traditional charts and tables, but there is something visually stimulating about the word cloud.

Perhaps this is worth introducing into the undergraduate classroom as some kind of research and analytical tool or assignment…

Congenital Optimism

Barry Commoner was a congenital optimist. So he proclaimed. He firmly believed that since it was human economic development that had messed up the planet, it was entirely feasible for humans to fix it. According to TIME magazine, he was a “scientist with a classroom of millions.” As the weather turns toward winter, and as we turn our attention toward preparing for the final exam, it is worth reflecting on the course as a whole and the narrative offered across the 30+ lectures in this course. Closing with the military-industrial complex, the bomb and the Cold War’s influence on science and engineering, and having stressed the manner in which knowledge reflects the material circumstances of its conception—Thorstein Veblen’s astute observation—I felt as though the course needed to conclude with a more cheering suggestion of how science and society interact.  My last lecture introduced Commoner’s science of survival.  Here, I intimated, was science not removed from society, but rather science and scientists firmly entrenched with the real world implications of their work and a genuine belief that the world can be made better, not just through human ingenuity, but also through social collaboration.  This was interested science and it’s a poignant message. I attach the lecture podcast & slides for public consumption.

Too: on a personal note, I wrote a book about Commoner’s influence on American politics and environmentalism. It started out as a PhD dissertation project that would allow me to merge my interests in science, politics, and environmentalism into a single project. The more I read about Commoner, the more fascinated I became with his career. When I finally worked up the courage to contact him (in 2001), I received a very friendly and encouraging reply. I first met him in November 2001, at his office at Queens College in Flushing, NY. This, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I recall a series of awkward questions on my part and interesting answers on his. At the end of the interview, he gave me a tour of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (a center he had founded at Washington University in the 1960s and shipped with him to New York when he retired after his presidential bid in 1980). Returning to his office door, he told me two things:

1. “You’re Michael; I’m Barry” (a sign of acceptance)

2. “You’re tackling an excellent and important topic.” (without a shred of self-consciousness)

He was right. Over many more visits to New York and many more interviews, he taught me, directly and indirectly, that the academic intellectual had a social responsibility to share his or her expertise with the public that allowed them to work, and this has motivated my conduct as an instructor and in my publications. Also over the course of those visits, Barry shifted from research subject to friend. He would bring fixings for lunch from a deli near his home in Brooklyn, and we would break for food midway through interviews. In his office, I discovered I loved roasted red peppers on sandwiches. This transition (to friendship, not the discovery of roasted red peppers) was compounded earlier this semester with his passing, and I am still coming to terms with it (his passing, yes, but also the evolution of our relationship). All the more, since I feel—on some level—that in our meetings he disproved one of his own laws of ecology. Roasted red peppers, time with Barry, learning from him: I enjoyed multiple free lunches, for which I remain very grateful. I miss him. As dire as our environmental situation remains, we are better for his example, leadership, and legacy.

Podcast: 2EE3.33 Nov 29

Slides: 2EE3.33

For an overview of Commoner’s life and work, see this New York Times video obituary. In addition, I recently had a letter published in Science, which covers his life as a public intellectual, especially in relation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. You can read it here: Egan_Commoner_Science-2012-1028