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

 

 

WordItOut-word-cloud-309594

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

Why Barry Commoner Matters

Here is a rough draft of a paper I published in Organization & Environment, outlining Barry Commoner’s social and historical significance. It overlaps with (and is drawn from) a talk at the American Sociological Association I posted recently, but it goes deeper into Commoner’s contributions to science, democracy, and the environment.

Why Barry Commoner Matters

It would be very difficult to properly understand the last fifty years of American environmentalism without recognizing the biologist Barry Commoner’s important contributions to its method and practice.  I make this claim with some vested interest (Egan 2007), but historical analysis of environmental activism since World War II points to a number of significant changes in American environmentalism, many of which find Commoner at their source.  Commoner’s place in the history of American environmentalism is based in large part on the breadth of his activism.  Commoner participated in scientific and activist campaigns to bring an end to aboveground nuclear weapons testing, to raise awareness about toxic chemicals in the city, on the farm, and in the home, to identify the harmful production practices of the petrochemical industry, to address economic and energy sustainability, and to create a more peaceful and equitable world.  More specifically, Commoner was centrally involved in efforts surrounding synthetic pesticides, detergents, and fertilizers; mercury, lead, and several other heavy metals; photochemical smog; population; sustainable energy; urban waste disposal and recycling; dioxin; and, more recently, a return to genetic theory.

But this essay sets out to argue that the depth and influence of Commoner’s activism is of even greater historical significance.  It sets out to provide historical context for Commoner’s career to allow for further investigation of his influence across a broad swath of American scientific, democratic, and environmental principles, and proposes to argue that Commoner saw these three pillars of his activity not as independent aspects of his political sensibilities but part of a single, intrinsic whole.  That science, democracy, and environment should be so related is indicative of Commoner’s deep-seated conviction that human societies, their politics and economies, and their physical environments functioned in larger, holistic systems.  Indeed, Commoner’s great contribution to environmental activism might be articulated as his capacity to identify the root causes of American environmental decline in the post-World War II era.  This is important—indeed, a better and popular understanding of Commoner’s activism is important—because the intersections between science, society, and the environment that serve as the cornerstone of Commoner’s career and work are not simply historical points of interest, but remain vitally relevant to contemporary debates and struggles to address toxic contaminants, energy productions crises, and global climate change.

Science

While Commoner is typically remembered as a social and political activist, it is important to stress that he came to this activism from his professional training in science.  From a very early point, Commoner was devoted to the notion that scientific research should be directed toward the public good.  His training in the 1930s and his early career at Washington University in St. Louis coincided with significant structural changes in the academy and unprecedented technological growth throughout American society.  Of that period, Commoner remembered, “I began my career as a scientist and at the same time … learned that I was intimately concerned with politics.”  That perspective helped him to develop a social perspective that he applied to his all his activities, and before he had completed his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, he was deeply committed to participating in “activities that properly integrated science into public life” (Commoner 2001).

During World War II, Commoner served in the U.S. Navy, and it was during his wartime service that he discovered firsthand that scientific innovations often possessed unanticipated and undesirable side effects.  In 1942, Commoner headed a team working to devise an apparatus that would allow torpedo bombers to spray DDT on beachheads to reduce the incidence of insect-borne disease among soldiers.  The new device was tested in Panama and at an experimental rocket station off the New Jersey coastline that was infested with flies.  The apparatus worked well, and the DDT was tremendously effective in killing the flies.  Within days, however, new swarms of flies were congregating at the rocket station, attracted by the tons of decaying fish—accidental victims of the DDT spraying—that had washed up on the beach (Strong 1988).  As the flies fed upon the dead fish, Commoner witnessed an eerie foreshadowing of how new technologies often brought with them environmental problems that their inventors had not anticipated.  Commoner (1971) would later apply this notion to his four laws of ecology, recognizing that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Such environmental decline—a product of unforeseen consequences associated with many of the new technological products of the petrochemical industry—created a context in which an increasing gulf emerged between what was known and what it was desirable to know (Douglas & Wildavsky 1982, 3), and thereby changed the shape of American science.  Nuclear fallout, the incidental effects of DDT and other synthetic pesticides, the build-up of new detergents and fertilizers in water systems, the introduction of photochemical smog from automobile emissions, and the fact that these new petrochemical products did not break down in nature were the result of a kind of artificial reductionism, which was itself the product of this new science.  In fabricating these new products, innovators directed their attention to the benefits their use might provide, and failed to conceive of what costs these introductions might have on human health and the physical environment.  While atomic bombs, pesticides, detergents, fertilizers, automobiles, plastics, and the other creations of new science and industry were very good at doing what they set out to do, each came with a host of unanticipated environmental problems in large part because their design and implementation was encouraged by sources outside of science.  The economist, Thorstein Veblen, for example, asserted that knowledge reflected the material circumstances of its conception; the questions science asked or new technologies as they were produced were driven by external interests.  Similarly, in a more recent study, Chandra Mukerji (1990) reads a complex interdependence between science and state, wherein scientists tended to assume the role of highly skilled experts retained to provide legitimacy to government policies.  This artificial reductionism—the exercise of focusing on only a part of the larger equation—posed serious harm to both science and society, Commoner warned.  In an unpublished paper titled “The Scientist and Political Power” (1962), Commoner insisted that the integrity of science was “the sole instrument we have for understanding the proper means of controlling the enormously destructive forces that science has placed at the hands of man” (4).  Should that integrity be eroded—and this kind of artificial reductionism was a distinct threat—Commoner worried that “science will become not merely a poor instrument for social progress, but an active danger to man” (2-3).  Commoner’s was not by any stretch a novel observation, but his greater significance in the larger discussion surrounding distrust in science and technology stems from his articulation of the hazards inherent in a “disinterested” science being dictated by outside interests.  Too often, environmental problems arise from the disconnect between nature and scientific evidence on the one hand and state fantasies and directives on the other.

As Shapin has observed (1996, 164), “good order and certainty in science have been produced at the price of disorder and uncertainty elsewhere in culture.”  By way of example, Commoner found that the acceptance of synthetic detergents, which were the product of good order and certainty in science—they were, after all, rather effective in cleaning clothes—produced disorder and uncertainty when foam came from household faucets and other drinking sources because the detergents did not break down in nature and effectively choked water system bacteria.  McGucken (1991) noted the paradox that “achieving human cleanliness entailed fouling the environment.”  This paradox was not lost on Commoner, who observed that synthetic detergents “were put on the market before their impact on the intricate web of plants, animals, and microorganisms that makes up the living environment was understood” (1966a, 7).

Commoner’s concern was a fairly logical one: discoveries in the chemical and physical sciences failed to take into account the biological consequences of their introduction into the marketplace and into nature.  As he noted in Science and Survival (1966b, 25), “Since the scientific revolution which generated modern technology took place in physics, it is natural that modern science should provide better technological control over inanimate matter than over living things.”  Whereas ecology endorsed a more holistic understanding of the environment, industrial science worked in a more reductionist manner.  In “The Integrity of Science” (1965a), Commoner illustrated the dangers of this kind of reductionist approach, noting that the Soap and Detergent Association had admitted that no biological field tests had been conducted to determine how the new detergents would interact with the local ecosystem.  “The separation of the laws of nature among the different sciences is a human conceit,” Commoner concluded elsewhere.  “Nature itself is an integrated whole” (1966b, 25).

The disparity between the physicochemical sciences and the biological sciences was a direct consequence of the American science policy that followed World War II, as government funding supported nuclear physics and industry supported developments in petrochemical experimentation.  This was an important development.  Whereas the ethos of science lauded the wider discipline’s democratic principles and critical peer review, knowledge increasingly came to reflect the material circumstances of its conception.  During and after World War II, those material circumstances were increasingly shaped by an omnipresent military influence that dominated scientific research agendas across the country.  In 1939, the federal government had allotted $50 million per year to science research, 18 percent of all private and public spending on research and development.  By the end of the war, the federal investment was $500 million, and constituted 83 percent of all funding.  In 1955, the annual research and development budget was $3.1 billion.  By the early 1960s, that budget had climbed above $10 billion, and to $17 billion by 1969.  Moreover, since 1940, the federal budget had multiplied by a factor of 11; the budget for research and development had increased some 200 times.  While that money was a significant boon to scientific research, it also suggested that the American research agenda was integrally connected to political interests.  After World War II, that meant military development and, eventually, the space race (see Egan 2007, 25).  As bombs, rockets, and synthetic products emerged as the fruits of this new research—very much the reflection of the material conception—more and more environmental problems emerged.  In sum, science was very good at finding what it was looking for, but little else.

Democracy

As previously noted, Commoner’s science was also deeply imbued with a strong social responsibility.  Shortly after World War II, at the height of Cold War tensions, American scientists found that their intellectual freedoms were being somewhat curtailed by national security interests and that their primary duty was to what President Eisenhower would famously call the military-industrial complex as he left the White House.  Cold War priorities seemed in conflict with what Robert K. Merton (1957) called the “ethos of science,” which protected and preserved the scientific community’s standards, and ensured a climate in which good basic research could be conducted.  Commoner saw a contradiction between the sabre-rattling of the Cold War and the intellectual freedom that drove scientific progress.  During the 1950s, he emerged as one of the more prominent socially engaged scientists, who saw their duty residing in creating a better democratic society, not a dominant one.  The historian Donald Fleming (1972) has called these activist scientists “politico-scientists,” an apt term that is representative of Commoner’s career as a whole.

As a scientist, Commoner worked on the conviction that he had an obligation to serve the society that made his work possible.  In a paper titled “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent,” Commoner wrote:

The scholar has an obligation—which he owes to the society that supports him—toward … open discourse.  And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent.  In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholar’s duty to society (Commoner, 1967, 7).

Commoner had a particular expertise, and it was his social responsibility to identify and speak out on problems that would otherwise be left unaddressed.  And the Cold War was a period of intense (and, frequently, enforced) conformity.  In expressing his obligation to dissent, Commoner was bucking a national social trend in science and in society at large.

The existence of Cold War conformity posed a particular challenge to the politico-scientist, however.  “Conformity is often a sensible course of action. … One reason we conform is that we often lack much information of our own” (Sunstein 2003, 5).  As a means of challenging Cold War conformity and to deflect challenges that he was subverting American values, Commoner invented the science information movement. The reason few people objected to nuclear fallout or DDT or dioxin was because they lacked the technical information to understand the dimensions of the problem.  As a scientist—with a particular kind of expertise and responsibility to the society that supported him—Commoner felt a special duty to provide an accessible and vernacular body of scientific information on the environmental crisis.

The most celebrated example of the science information movement is the Baby Tooth Survey, which collected teeth to demonstrate the hazards of strontium-90, a particularly dangerous component of nuclear fallout.  Strontium-90 was chemically similar to calcium, and followed a similar path through the food chain, falling on grass, being consumed by cattle, and appearing—in place of calcium—in milk, consumed by people, and especially children.  The Greater St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information, of which Commoner was a founding member, responded to growing public concerns that fallout from nuclear weapons testing could have a negative health impact on citizens, and especially children.  The Atomic Energy Commission had long defended aboveground nuclear weapons testing by downplaying any potential health risk inherent.  But by 1953, uncertainty had grown as nuclear radiation was being detected in much higher than anticipated quantities.  Again, another example of scientific hubris defied the ethos or integrity of science.  More immediately, however, Americans wanted to better understand the hazard.  In a campaign begun in early 1958, the Committee for Nuclear Information put out a call for baby teeth from the greater St. Louis area.

The Committee was inspired by an article that the biochemist Herman M. Kalckar had published in Nature in August 1958.  Titled “An International Milk Teeth Radiation Census,” the essay proposed a scientific study of baby teeth as a means of determining the extent to which fallout was being absorbed into human bodies.  “If a continued general trend toward a rise in radioactivity in children’s teeth were attained,” Kalckar wrote, “it might well have important bearings on national and international policy” (283).  In a press statement in December 1958, the Committee for Nuclear Information announced its plans to collect 50,000 baby teeth a year to monitor for strontium-90.  Because strontium-90 had begun to fall to earth roughly ten years earlier, the children who were currently losing their deciduous teeth were providing perfect samples, since these teeth had been formed from the minerals present in food eaten by mothers and infants at the nascent stages of the fallout era.

The response to the Committee for Nuclear Information’s call for teeth was considerable.  By the spring of 1960, the survey had received 17,000 teeth.  In late April 1960, St. Louis Mayor Raymond Tucker declared Tooth Survey Week to initiate the Committee’s spring tooth drive.  Support from the mayor, the St. Louis Dental Society, and the St. Louis Pharmaceutical Association provided publicity for the campaign and developed widespread grassroots support; 10,000 teeth were collected in the next month alone.  In November 1961, the Committee published the Baby Tooth Survey’s preliminary findings in Science, presenting strontium-90 absorption levels in St. Louis between 1951 and 1954, and arguing for the validity of their approach.  By that time, 67,500 had been cataloged and 1,335 had been used in the initial study, which confirmed widespread fears that strontium-90 was increasingly present in children’s bones.  The amount of strontium-90 began increasing after 1952, the year the first hydrogen bomb was detonated.  Whereas levels of strontium-90 found in teeth from 1951 to 1952 contained roughly 0.2 micromicrocuries per gram, that number had doubled by the end of 1953, and tripled and quadrupled in 1954 (Reiss 1961).

The Baby Tooth Survey officially continued its work until 1968, but from a public information standpoint, the call for baby teeth was an instant and inspired success and contributed to a sea-change in the American response to nuclear weapons testing and radioactive fallout.  Whereas Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had barely caused a ripple among American voters in 1956 when he proposed a test ban, a more public debate over the costs and benefits of nuclear testing was front and center within a half-decade, and a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963.  In an October 1964 speech, President Lyndon Johnson noted the connection between health and nuclear fallout, referring specifically to the hazards noted by Commoner and the Committee for Nuclear Information:

The deadly products of atomic explosions were poisoning our soil and our food and the milk our children drank and the air we all breathe.  Radioactive deposits were being formed in increasing quantity in the teeth and bones of young Americans.  Radioactive poisons were beginning to threaten the safety of people throughout the world.  They were a growing menace to the health of every unborn child (cited in Commoner 1966b, 14-15).

The Baby Tooth Survey is historically significant on a number of counts.  It constitutes an early example of biomonitoring as a component of environmental activism, a practice that has since become a fundamental aspect of environmental health campaigns (Corburn 2005; Daemmrich 2007; Roberts 2005).  While biomonitoring—the practice of using biological organisms to track fluctuations in the exposure to chemicals or contaminants—was a product of Progressive-era occupational health efforts to trace the impact of lead, arsenic, and other chemicals in workers (see Clark 1997, for example), the Baby Tooth Survey was a very early instance of those practices being applied to a more generic population to monitor and track the exposure of environmental pollutants at large (Egan 2007, 66-72, 75).

As a form of environmental activism, it also had the particular advantage of requiring public participation, which, in turn, provided a ready audience for the results and ensured the development of a grassroots movement.  Concerned parents sent in teeth and waited anxiously to learn the results.  Were their children being poisoned?  The Committee for Nuclear Information also found ways to include children, setting up an Operation Tooth Club.  Children who submitted teeth became members and received a certificate and a pin that read: “I gave my tooth to science.”  As young adults, this generation of children would come to witness the most emboldened and successful environmental legislation in American history and would participate—centrally—in the first Earth Day (1970).  In many respects, the participation required for the success of the Baby Tooth Survey fostered the growth of American environmental awareness by providing the public with the tools necessary for their own empowerment.

But in order to guarantee the success of the Baby Tooth Survey, Commoner and his colleagues needed to carefully translate their technical findings into a more vernacular or accessible language so that their non-scientific audience could understand and act upon their findings.  And this was a critical feature of Commoner’s science information movement: rather than telling people what to do, Commoner developed a rhetorical method of presenting accessible scientific information to the public, empowering them to participate in political decision-making.  Rather than simply sharing the results of the study, Commoner shared the hypotheses, experiments, and observations, leaving the public to participate in the interpretation of the results.  There was little question that nuclear fallout posed some risk to human health.  But how much?  And, more to the point, how much was too much?  These were social questions, not scientific questions, and Commoner saw his role as providing the public with information so that they could properly evaluate the risk and determine their collective threshold, not based on actuarial calculations made by policymakers, but within their own communities.  This re-conception of the scientist in practice—intentionally expanding the traditional peer review in order to include and communicate with a public audience—is likely the most significant development in the history of science since World War II.  This kind of risk analysis, Commoner fervently argued, was a social conversation, not a scientific one; scientists had no special moral authority to make decisions over what constituted acceptable exposure to fallout or DDT or dioxin.  He warned: “The notion that … scientists have a special competence in public affairs is … profoundly destructive of the democratic process.  If we are guided by this view, science will not only create [problems] but also shield them from the customary process of administrative decision-making and public judgment” (1966b, 108).  Commoner challenged the American faith in monitoring the environment and “leaving it to the experts.” Determining the nature of environmental hazards was a scientific exercise, but deciding how a society should address those environmental hazards was a political one.  It warrants noting that this practice of social empowerment has become the cornerstone of environmental justice activism.

This exercise remained, however, highly controversial as it bucked conformist trends.  In order to dodge the hazards of Cold War conformity, Commoner established a mechanism in which information that criticized the existing social and political order could be presented as bolstering democratic virtues.  For instance, as early as 1958, Commoner insisted that the scientific information be presented without conclusion or evaluation.  If the data were sufficiently accessible, the public would be able to draw their own conclusions.  This kind of activity promoted democracy, science’s role in democracy, and how both were involved in the emergence of a new kind of environmentalism after World War II.

Environment

Commoner regularly admitted that his work on fallout had made him an environmentalist.  Whereas the Atomic Energy Commission often limited their studies of fallout to direct exposure, Commoner demanded that they also consider radioactive exposure through the food chain.  People did not live in isolation, but rather as part of a larger ecological community.  The hazards imposed by nuclear fallout or, indeed, the new products of the petrochemical industry, were not simply direct threats to human health, but rather indirectly in their proliferation throughout the environment.  For Commoner, then, the science of fallout was not at all far removed from the contamination of air and water.  This was brought home even more concretely; shortly after the Committee for Nuclear Information began its campaign against aboveground nuclear weapons testing, Rachel Carson breathed new life into the American environmental movement with the 1962 publication of Silent Spring.  The book was remarkably well received by a public audience, already primed by alarming discoveries surrounding radioactive fallout (see Lutts 1985).  Like the Committee for Nuclear Information, Carson also exhibited an astute knack for presenting complicated, technical information in an accessible and persuasive manner.

Prompted by the resounding success of Silent Spring and the emergence of a charismatic generation of environmental scientists—among them Commoner, Paul Ehrlich, LaMont Cole, and Kenneth Watt—the environmental movement gained widespread credibility by relying on scientific expertise of their own.  This rise of popular ecology and the scientific leadership of 1960s environmentalism marks another historically important development.  After World War II the environmental movement was led “not by poets or artists, as in the past, but by individuals within the scientific community.  So accustomed are we to assume that scientists are generally partisans of the entire ideology of progress,” the historian Donald Worster (1994, 22) has observed, “that the ecology movement has created a vast shock wave of reassessment of the scientist’s place in society.”  For more than fifty years, Barry Commoner was at the vanguard of that scientists’ movement.

Commoner’s primary contribution here stems from his resistance to reductionist science and environmental thought.  Building on his earlier discussion of risk and public participation, he pointed to the limitations of science and expertise when it came to environmental problems.  To illustrate these problems, Commoner devoted a chapter of The Closing Circle (1971), his classic treatise on the environmental crisis, to the air pollution problem in Los Angeles; he began by claiming that “for teaching us a good deal of what we now know about modern air pollution, the world owes a great debt to the city of Los Angeles. …  There are few cities in the world with climates so richly endowed by nature and now so disastrously polluted by man” (Commoner 1971, 66).

Los Angeles has suffered a host of air pollutants; one of the earliest during the Second World War was dust from industrial smokestacks and incinerators.  By 1943, residents of Los Angeles started noticing the whitish haze, tinged with yellow-brown that bothered many peoples’ eyes.  They eventually started referring to this new pollutant as smog after the term invented in England to describe the thick clouds that had killed 4,000 Londoners.  The dangerous component in London smog was sulfur dioxide, which had increased in Los Angeles with wartime industrialization; the burning of coal and fuel oil that contain sulfur produced sulfur dioxide.  By 1947 fuel changes and controls began to reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide in the air, and Los Angeles reached prewar levels by 1960.  But instead of getting better, the smog got worse.  Later research determined that the problem in Los Angeles began with nitrogen oxides, which caused photochemical smog.  Nitrogen oxide is produced whenever air becomes hot enough to cause its natural nitrogen and oxygen to interact.  The primary culprit seemed to be high temperature power plants, and authorities imposed rigid controls on open venting of the numerous oil fields and refineries that surrounded the city.  With this new information in hand, Los Angeles authorities sought methods to control and reduce the levels of photochemical smog.  But still the smog got worse until scientists stumbled across the notion that cars and trucks were emitting more hydrocarbons and creating more nitrogen oxide than was the petroleum industry.  Detroit introduced engine modifications that reduced hydrocarbon emissions, but at the same time increased nitrogen oxides through the 1960s.  Los Angeles had effectively traded one pollutant for another, and the step-by-step process pursued by researchers of smog and the one-dimensional response from the auto industry proved myopic in really addressing the air pollution problem in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles case also highlights problems inherent in scientific method as we understand it today.  As Commoner noted in The Closing Circle in reference to air pollution in Los Angeles, “it is extremely difficult to blame any single air pollutant for a particular health effect.  Nevertheless, ‘scientific method’ is, at present closely bound to the notion of a singular cause and effect, and most studies of the health effects of air pollution make strong efforts to find them” (Commoner 1971, 78).  This is the great flaw in reductionist science, and why it is so particularly difficult to prove that any single air pollutant is the specific cause of a particular disease, and how tobacco and lead among other threats have been so difficult to regulate against.  When we are forced into a reductionist rubric, it becomes near impossible to target an individual pollutant.  At the same time, we are simply missing the bigger picture.  By concentrating things down to their smallest elements, we reduce our scientific peripheral vision, limiting our capacity to consider—never mind recognize—the potential for multiple causes and effects.  If ecology has taught us nothing else, Commoner repeatedly argued, it has amply demonstrated the complexity that living systems are subject to a multiplicity of intricate relationships on macro and micro scales that defy definitive specialized explanations.

Commoner combated this reductionism on a variety of levels.  The most famous expression of this contempt is, perhaps, his articulation of ecology’s four laws:

  1. Everything is connected to everything else
  2. Everything must go somewhere
  3. Nature knows best
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch

These four laws have been regularly cited and repeated in popular and scholarly arenas, but they deserve some comment here, as their importance to Commoner’s environmental thinking is frequently understated (Egan 2002).  With the benefit of almost forty years’ hindsight, we might treat Commoner’s four laws as a larger expression of social and environmental interaction and recognize that the connections, changes, knowledges, and free lunches are not merely ecological transpirations, but socioeconomic ones, too.  Industrial pollution, the source of the postwar environmental crisis, was generally considered the cost of postwar affluence; it represented jobs, productivity, and reduced prices of consumer goods and services.  Because the petrochemical industry could manufacture synthetic fertilizers in huge quantities—which lowered production costs—synthetic fertilizers quickly came to dominate the market.  Pollution controls, sustainable energy consumption, and greater efforts to ensure workplace safety and health were frequently marginalized because they reduced the scale of profits enjoyed by such high-polluting industries.  Pollution, inefficient energy use, and the trivialization of worker safety became popular accepted as the price of progress, but in reality they cumulatively constituted a false prosperity.

The real costs of pollution, Commoner argued, were not appearing on the balance sheet.  While private industries belched carcinogens into the environment, the public suffered rising cancer rates.  In The Closing Circle, Commoner stressed the significance of externalities: the infliction of involuntary, non-beneficial, or indeed, detrimental repercussions on another industry or the environment or the public.  “Mercury benefits the chloralkali producer but harms the commercial fisherman,” he observed (Commoner 1971, 253).  With its pollution and unanticipated costs, the technological revolution that followed World War II introduced a series of “external diseconomies,” the external or third-party effects of commerce.  As early as 1966, Commoner saw this disconnect between the apparent and real costs of new technologies.  “Many of our new technologes and their resultant industries have been developed without taking into account their cost in damage to the environment or the real value of the essential materials bestowed by environmental life processes. … While these costs often remain hidden in the past, now they have become blatantly obvious in the smog which blankets our cities and the pollutants which poison our water supplies.  If we choose to allow this huge and growing debt to accumulate further, the environment may eventually be damaged beyond its capacity for self-repair” (Commoner 1966a, 13).

Not only did these externalities hide the true damage of the environmental crisis, they were also an expression of reductionist thinking.  “Environmental degradation represents a crucial, potentially fatal, hidden factor in the operation of the economic system,” Commoner argued in The Closing Circle (273).  Coal-burning power companies were among the greatest polluters of air, but disparity between their rising profits as demand for electricity increased and the growing and social and environmental costs suggested a paradox.  Stressing the nature of external diseconomies, Commoner observed that “if power companies were required to show on electric bills the true cost of power to the consumer, they would have to include the extra laundry bills resulting from soot [from burning coal], the extra doctor bills resulting from emphysema, the extra maintenance bills due to erosion of buildings [from acid rain].”  These were hidden expenses.  “The true account books are not in balance,” Commoner continued, “and the deficit is being paid by the lives of the present population and the safety of future generations” (Commoner 1970, 5-6).  As a result of these kinds of externalities, Commoner insisted “the costs of environmental degradation are chiefly borne not by the producer, but by society as a whole.”  In noting these external diseconomies, Commoner identified the social impact of environmental decline.  “A business enterprise that pollutes the environment is … being subsidized by society” (Commoner 1971, 268).

Commoner also emphasized the hazards of reductionist science, introducing a kind of systems thinking to environmental activism.  Systems thinking works on the premise that the component parts of a system will act differently when isolated.  As a concept, we might recognize the relationship between systems thinking and holistic interpretations; in each case the sum is greater than its parts.  With respect to Commoner’s career, science, democracy, and the environment might be taken as the three key systems that drove the post-World War II world and Commoner identified how they were intrinsically linked.  Commoner’s historical significance is the product of his capacity to recognize that “everything is connected to everything else” and then to explain that in accessible and persuasive language.  Identifying the relationship between biodiversity, occupational health, social equality, and peace literally transformed the landscape of environmental thinking during the 1960s and 1970s.  What’s important here is the fact that Commoner drew persuasive connections between the myriad social problems that emerged after World War II.  The discovery of pollutants like dioxin rarely altered production choices, in large part because expertise demanded a more reductionist examination of the problem.  Instead, management of those risks became a more prominent feature of the technological landscape.  (This is a variant on the old prevention vs. cure routine).  Irrespective of which pollutants are particularly harmful, we can conclusively insist that polluted air makes people sicker than they would otherwise be.  In a discussion of public environmental risk, Commoner argued there was something inherently wrong with existing methods of measuring harmful elements in the environment when the burden of proof rested on the side of human health.

Identifying the nature of these burdens was also critical.  Whereas Commoner noted that society shared in the costs of environmental degradation, they rarely did so equally.  The unequal distribution of environmental risks also posed a deeper social problem insofar as environmental pollutants inhibited human health, which, in turn, inhibited social progress.  A vicious circle: poor and minority communities were more exposed to environmental hazards, suffered greater health problems, and were prevented from achieving significant social progress.  This prompted Commoner to charge that “there is a functional link between racism, poverty, and powerlessness, and the chemical industry’s assault on the environment” (Russell 1989, 25).  In observing that poor and minority communities faced greater environmental threats by dint of their geographic location and limited political power in work dating back to the 1960s, Commoner effectively anticipated the environmental justice movement.

Conclusion

On 17 February 1965, at the 4th Mellon Lecture at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, Commoner gave a paper entitled “Is Biology a Molecular Science?” He criticized molecular biology and the new cult of DNA, which promised to unlock the secret of life, and concluded his remarks with the assertion: “If we would know life, we must cherish it—in our laboratories and in the world” (Commoner 1965b, 40).  It was a simple statement, but one that would resonate through most all of his activism and take on especially poignant significance as we move into the twenty-first century.  Knowing and cherishing life applied to Commoner’s integration of science, democracy, and the environment insofar as it challenges us to think about poverty, health, inequality, racism, sexism, war, means and modes of production, scientific method and practice, and our exploitation of natural resources.  Commoner’s felicity at grasping for the larger picture puts these disparate themes into harmonious conversation with each other.

Commoner worried about reductionism accompanied by startling advances in chemistry, physics, and biology.  He appreciated the urgent need for the greater study of living things, not just as a scientific endeavor, but also as a social and environmental imperative.  And as an environmental necessity, this approach demands greater public participation and interaction in addition to more scientific recognition.  For fifty years, Commoner’s criticisms of the petrochemical industry focused on the manner in which its products barged unwelcome into the chemistry of living things and polluted people, animals, and ecosystems. While most of the chemicals manufactured or released as waste by the petrochemical industry resembled the structure of chemical components found in nature, they were sufficiently different to be hazardous to life. To Commoner, the connection to twenty-first century genetic engineering was clear: we were in the process of committing the same tragic error, but this time with the secret of life.

But the message was the same.  Environmental risks were being unequally disseminated throughout the environment without the public’s approval or participation.  They were being distributed unevenly, and the public was frequently unaware of the inherent hazards.  This larger phenomenon constitutes a central feature of American environmental history since World War II, and the public response—for which Commoner was a key catalyst—is a pivotal component of the history of American environmentalism.  Barry Commoner matters—or deserves scholarly and political attention—because of the method and practice of a career spent developing a social mechanism for developing and disseminating information, bringing science and the environment into the mainstream, and challenging scientists, the public, and policy-makers to examine the world in more holistic frames.  Combined, these portions of Commoner’s career offer a historically significant account of the past half-century of American environmentalism, but they also offer a poignant and positive prescription for the future.  Amid journalistic criticisms eulogizing the death of environmentalism (Nordhaus & Shellenberger 2007), Commoner, almost forty years ago, provided a template that resonates as clearly in the twenty-first century:

In our progress-minded society, anyone who presumes to explain a serious problem is expected to offer to solve it as well.  But none of us—singly or sitting in committee—can possibly blueprint a specific “plan” for resolving the environmental crisis.  To pretend otherwise is only to evade the real meaning of the environmental crisis: that the world is being carried to the brink of ecological disaster not by a singular fault, which some clever scheme can correct, but by the phalanx of powerful economic, political, and social forces that constitute the march of history.  Anyone who proposes to cure the environmental crisis undertakes thereby to change the course of history.

But this is a competence reserved to history itself, for sweeping social change can be designed only in the workshop of rational, informed, collective social action.  That we must act is clear.  The question which we face is how (Commoner 1971, 300).

Barry Commoner and the Origins of Environmental Justice

Something getting lost in the recent tributes to Barry Commoner is his emphasis on social justice. This is an excerpt from an older piece I presented at the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Providence, RI in 2003. I suspect I would want to revise this more carefully, but it makes an argument I stand by: that Commoner never saw “environmentalism” as a singular issue but rather as a part of a much more complex struggle for a more equitable world.

 

 

“The emergence of the concept of ecology in American life is potentially of momentous relevance to the ultimate liberation of black people.  Yet blacks and their environmental interests have been so blatantly omitted that blacks and the ecology movement currently stand in contradiction to each other.”[1]  So wrote Black Scholar publisher and sociologist, Nathan Hare in April 1970 as Earth Day activists filled urban centers across the country.  While Hare embraced the significance of ecology, he lamented the movement’s exclusion of people of color and their particular environmental problems.  For example, in Robert Rienow’s 1967 study, Moment in the Sun: A Report on the Deteriorating Quality of the American Environment, rather representative of the environmental literature emerging in the 1960s, no reference was made to African-Americans.  Further, while “suburbia” received considerable attention, “slums” and “ghettos” received none.[2]  Moreover, while population control policy suggestions appealed to a significant portion of the environmentally concerned.  African Americans, particularly, opposed zero population growth, which they saw as a serious challenge to their political survival.[3]  Hare argued that the population explosion was less of a problem than the population implosion, the increasing concentration of peoples on relatively small proportions of the United States’ land surface.[4]  This increased urbanization resulted in crowding and environmental problems many of which were specific to communities of color, who were invariably poorer and less mobile.  The new environmentalists in suburbia were blind to the urban-living environmental issues most immediately relevant to them.

Earth Day environmental rhetoric implied that all Americans were equally guilty of over-consumption, oblivious to the fact that consumption and affluence were not evenly distributed throughout the country’s population.  Hare, among others, pointed out that African Americans statistically consumed less the whites, and that such “ecological crusades” clearly made environmentalism seem irrelevant to advocates of social justice.

Precisely because of their frontline experiences with urban health issues like lead poisoning and air pollution, biologist Barry Commoner insisted that “blacks need the environmental movement, and the movement needs blacks.”[5]  Commoner recognized the kind marginalization expressed by critics like Hare and actively sought ways of including African Americans within the mainstream context.  “In many ways,” he argued in 1970, “blacks are the special victims of pollution.”[6]  Commoner suggested that a white suburbanite could “escape from the city’s dirt, smog, carbon monoxide, lead, and noise when he goes home,” but that ghetto dwellers—predominantly minority populations—lived in it.[7]  It was, he argued, ultimately a question of the mainstream movement appreciating its potential breadth.

Commoner criticized the environmental movement’s lack of foresight in attempting to make alliances with minority groups.  In The Closing Circle, Commoner described an Earth Week 1970 incident, where San Jose State College students buried a brand new car as a symbol of environmental rebellion.  Black students picketed the event, arguing that the $2,500 paid for the car could have been put to far better use in the ghetto.  The burial reflected the mainstream environmental movement’s contention that excessive consumption was responsible for the environmental crisis, but it also suggested that the environmental movement had some ground to cover if it wanted to speak to and for the entire spectrum of the American population.

Divisions between the civil rights movement and the environmental movement existed throughout the 1960s.  The civil rights movement initially regarded the environmental movement as a challenge to federal funds and resources to which it felt it had a moral priority.[8]  Critics of environmentalism argued that environmental issues were so innocuous that they served to divert people from more serious, controversial issues.  But Commoner rejected this argument, insisting that, “as a political issue, environmental protection is neither innocuous nor unrelated to basic questions of social justice.”[9]  Commoner equated environmental hazards with obstacles relating to social progress: “one thing that does clearly emerge from nearly all statistical studies of the effects of air pollution on health,” he wrote in The Closing Circle, “is that they are most heavily borne by the poor, by children, by the aged and infirm.”[10]  In making this assessment, Commoner anticipated the environmental justice movement—the coalition of environmental and civil rights interests—by more than a decade.  Commenting specifically on inner-city air pollution, Commoner argued that “certain features of social progress, such as improved nutrition, living conditions, and medical care, are known to improve health generally.  In a sense, air pollution has a similar—but opposite—effect on human health.  It destroys social progress.”[11]

Leading up to Earth Day in 1970, Commoner and his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, based at Washington University in St. Louis felt it was both “appropriate and timely” to engage in a public dialog on race and the environment.[12]  Under the auspices of the Center, Wilbur L. Thomas, Jr., the Program Coordinator for the Center’s Environmental Field Program, gave a paper at Southern Illinois University that described what Commoner referred to as “’the double dose effect’ of environmental hazards that confront most Blacks within our cities.”[13]  In the paper, titled “The Real Issue of Black Survival In Our Polluted Cities,” Thomas essentially made a call to arms to African Americans by outlining the parameters of the environmental crisis and noting that minorities bore the brunt of environmental hazards.  Galvanizing minority communities, Thomas argued that the most outspoken advocates for preserving environmental integrity were those least affected, namely middle class Caucasians.  In contrast, he argued, African Americans had been conspicuously silent.  “The ‘nitty gritty’ issues relevant to Blacks,” he stated, “is simply the fact that a disapportional number of blacks are exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks. …  Exposure to additional hazards such as lead poisoning, infant mortality, air pollution, and rat control are all indigenous problems to most Black communities.”[14]  Thomas added by insisting that “Black unity must develop and push for any and everything that could help improve living conditions.”[15]

The notion that a disproportional number of Blacks were exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks became the basis for the Commission for Racial Justice’s study of the relationship between toxic waste sites and race in 1987.[16]  While such statistical evidence was hardly surprising, Commoner had recognized it as important and a particular reason for African Americans to be environmentally concerned and to find ways of including them within the broader environmental framework.

Thomas followed this first paper with another in November 1970 at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Engineering Science in Washington, DC.  In “Another Look at Black Survival In Our Polluted Cities,” he reiterated the environmental problems inherent in urban areas, drawing again on data compiled by Commoner and the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems.  While the symbols of Earth Day largely excluded African Americans from the celebration of ecological awareness, there lay in some of its rhetoric, promoted by Barry Commoner, the stepping stones toward a new movement for social and environmental justice, the growth of which we are still witnessing today.


[1]             Hare, “Black Ecology,” The Black Scholar, 2.

[2]             Robert Rienow, Moment in the Sun: A Report on the Deteriorating Quality of the American Environment (New York: Dial Press, 1967).

[3]             While Commoner’s rhetoric was unmistakably socialist, Ehrlich’s ambiguity not only got him in trouble with minority groups, it also associated his arguments with less popular positions, which ultimately tarnished his reputation.  One notable example was Miss Ann Thropy’s short essay on the beneficial environmental effects of AIDS in The Earth First! Journal.  The anonymous author wrote: “if radical environmentalists were to invent a disease to bring human population back to ecological sanity, it would probably be something like AIDS.  As radical environmentalists, we can see AIDS not as a problem, but as a necessary solution.”  Miss Ann Thropy, “Population and AIDS,” The Earth First! Journal (5 January 1987), 32.  Miss Ann Thropy’s short article illustrates the breadth of the division between the humanist and naturalist positions as represented between environmental socialism and radical environmentalism.

[4]             Nathan Hare, “Black Ecology,” The Black Scholar (April 1970), 2-8.

[5]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 208.

[6]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 208.

[7]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 208.

[8]             For the division between civil rights activism and environmentalism, see Time, 3 August 1970, 42.  The article made passing reference to the environmental movement as an almost exclusively white organization.  See also Eileen Maura McGurty, “From NIMBY to Civil Rights: The Origins of the Environmental Justice Movement,” Environmental History 2 (July 1997), 301-23.  See especially, 301-305.

[9]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 207.

[10]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 79.

[11]             Commoner, The Closing Circle, 79.

[12]             Introduction to Wilbur L. Thomas, Jr., “The Real Issue of Black Survival in our Polluted Cities.”  This paper was presented 20 February 1970 in East St. Louis, Illinois, as part of a series of programs concerned with critical areas within the Black community, and sponsored by the Urban and Regional Department of Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville Campus.  Barry Commoner Paper, Library of Congress, Box 307.

[13]             Introduction to Wilbur L. Thomas, Jr., “The Real Issue of Black Survival in our Polluted Cities.”

[14]             Thomas, “The Real Issue of Black Survival in our Polluted Cities,” 6.

[15]             Thomas, “The Real Issue of Black Survival in our Polluted Cities,” 11.

[16]             Commission for Racial Justice, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites (New York: United Church of Christ, 1987).

Barry Commoner: The Paul Revere of Ecology

Another sound byte on Barry Commoner’s passing. I was interviewed this afternoon by Melissa Block of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” The brief interview is here.

As the dust settles, I want to sit down and write a brief response to the multiple obituaries that are appearing this week (this one included). I submit that Commoner’s big contribution is not the Four Laws of Ecology or the Paul Revere of Ecology stuff. Rather he committed his entire career to the science information movement, dedicated to disseminating scientific information to the public in an accessible format so that citizens were informed and able to participate in political debate on pressing social, environmental, and public health issues. Remember this first. Commoner enjoyed recounting how, at the height of the disputes over aboveground nuclear testing and the dangers of radioactive fallout, one official told him they were getting countless letters from the public, “and they know what Strontium 90 is.  And they know how to spell it right.”  Commoner was rightly proud of this.

Commoner in Context

What follows is the text of a paper I presented in 2007 at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting. I was honoured to be invited to participate; my instructions were simple: situate Barry Commoner in his historical context and introduce him. He spoke eloquently—just months after his 90th birthday—and it was a treat to be in the room, never mind introducing him.

My instinct is that we will hear the same references over and over again in the coming days and weeks: Commoner introduced the Four Laws of Ecology, he ran for President in 1980, and he was called (by TIME magazine in 1970) “the Paul Revere of Ecology.” All true, but I should like to stress a much more fundamental point: Commoner invented the science information movement, a method of communicating technical information so that the public could better participate in complex social, political, and environmental debate. Commoner was a staunch believer in the public making the right decisions if armed with the necessary scientific information. Indeed, the better  tagline followed “the Paul Revere of Ecology” on TIME read: “the scientist with a classroom of millions.” That’s really important. And I would argue that the science information movement has played a far more significant role in twentieth-century history that I think we fully appreciate.

 

Commoner in Context: Science, Democracy, and the Environment

Box 366 of the Barry Commoner Papers at the Library of Congress is full of correspondence from 1971 and 1972, during which time Commoner was centrally involved in heated public debates about human population growth and its ecological impact.  At the back of the box, behind folders titled “requests for papers,” “requests for information,” “letters for reply,” “letters to answer,” and “pending answer” is a folder with the heading: “subtle answers.”  What’s peculiar here is not that the folder is empty—which it is—but rather that a folder with such a heading should even exist among Commoner’s papers.[1]  Throughout his career, Commoner engaged in a practice he called “principled arrogance,” which rarely left room for subtlety when it came to disagreement.

My role on this panel is to provide historical context for Commoner’s career so that we might better investigate his contributions to science, democracy, and the environment in history and today.  It might be wise to start by highlighting the breadth of his activism, which brought these three branches together.  Throughout his career, Commoner participated in scientific and activist campaigns to end aboveground nuclear testing, to raise awareness about toxic chemicals in the city, on the farm, and in the home, to identify the harmful production practices of the petrochemical industry, to address economic and energy sustainability, and to create a more peaceful and equitable world.  (“participated” is a rather passive verb for Commoner’s role in these efforts).  More specifically, Commoner was centrally involved in efforts surrounding nuclear fallout; synthetic pesticides, detergents, and fertilizers; mercury, lead, and several other heavy metals; photochemical smog; population; sustainable energy; urban waste disposal and recycling; dioxin; and, more recently, a return to genetic theory.  (I should stress that this is Commoner the public intellectual; Commoner the scientist developed a strong reputation for his lab work dealing with the tobacco mosaic virus, free radicals, and for a number of publications on DNA replication).

We might pause to consider the expanse and breadth of these lists.  For me, it is these lists that makes Commoner a vital part of the history of American environmentalism, because these lists and the manner in which Commoner asserted that each component was connected to the others constitute what I called the remaking of American environmentalism.  Identifying and articulating the relationship between biodiversity, occupational health, social equality, and peace literally transformed the landscape of environmental thinking during the 1960s and 1970s.  What’s important here is the fact that Commoner drew persuasive connections between the myriad social problems that emerged after World War II.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  And, perhaps, easier to diagnose.

But to limit my discussion to a list of what Barry did would be to miss the point of Commoner’s greater contribution to American social and environmental history and the history of science.  I should like to argue that the more important feature of Commoner’s career is the manner in which he worked as a scientist in society.  In my book, I refer to Commoner’s social apparatus for reinvigorating the American environmental movement.  This apparatus consisted of three components that shaped the nature of his social and scientific activism: the scientist’s obligation to dissent, the science information movement, and public participation in risk analysis.

But before I situate these contributions in their proper historical context, let me situate Commoner more properly in his social and scientific context.  Note, first, that after World War II the environmental movement was led “not by poets or artists, as in the past, but by individuals within the scientific community.  So accustomed are we to assume that scientists are generally partisans of the entire ideology of progress,” the historian Donald Worster has observed, “that the ecology movement has created a vast shock wave of reassessment of the scientist’s place in society.”[2]  For more than fifty years, Barry Commoner was at the vanguard of that scientists’ movement.

And this is important, because the beginning of Commoner’s professional career coincided with heightened Cold War tensions and a larger social shift toward consensus and conformity.  After the communist witch hunts that punctuated the early 1950s, Commoner saw in academic circles a deep-seated reluctance to question the increasing secrecy that pervaded intellectual practice.

In the interest of national security, aboveground nuclear weapons testing took place in the American Southwest.  While the development of a nuclear weapons program satisfied American military strength and security for some, the testing disseminated radioactive and carcinogenic elements such as strontium-90 and iodine-131 throughout the environment.  While the logic of a nuclear weapons arsenal and the theory of Mutual Assured Destruction, not to mention the indiscriminate introduction of hazards into the American environment did not necessarily justify the tests, scientists and scholars often found themselves risking their careers in challenging this Cold War conformity.

But in a paper titled “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent,” Commoner wrote:

The scholar has an obligation—which he owes to the society that supports him—toward … open discourse.  And when, under some constraint, scholars are called upon to support a single view, then the obligation to discourse necessarily becomes an obligation to dissent.  In a situation of conformity, dissent is the scholar’s duty to society.[3]

Commoner had a particular expertise, and it was his social responsibility to identify and speak out on problems that would otherwise be left unaddressed.

“Conformity is often a sensible course of action. … One reason we conform is that we often lack much information of our own.”[4]  As a means of challenging Cold War conformity and avoiding challenges that he was subverting American values, Commoner invented the science information movement. The reason few people objected to nuclear fallout or DDT or dioxin was because they lacked the technical information to understand the dimensions of the problem.  As a scientist—with a particular kind of expertise and responsibility to the society that supported him—Commoner felt a special duty to provide an accessible and vernacular body of scientific information on the environmental crisis.

This is tricky, but rather than telling people what to do, Commoner developed a rhetorical method of presenting accessible scientific information to the public, empowering them to participate in political decision-making. I would argue that this re-conception of the scientist in practice—intentionally expanding the traditional peer review in order to include and communicate with a public audience—this is likely the most significant development in the history of science since World War II.

In order to dodge the hazards of Cold War conformity, however, Commoner established a mechanism in which information that criticized the existing social and political order could be presented as bolstering democratic virtues.  For instance, as early as 1958 in challenging nuclear fallout, Commoner insisted that the scientific information be presented without conclusion or evaluation.  If the information was sufficiently accessible, the public would be able to draw their own conclusions.  (I go into more detail on this in chapter 2 in my book by looking at the Committee for Nuclear Information’s famous Baby Tooth Survey).

This kind of risk analysis, Commoner fervently argued, was a social conversation, not a scientific one.  (This is the third part of Commoner’s apparatus for those keeping score at home).  Commoner challenged our faith in monitoring the environment and “leaving it to the experts.” Determining the nature of environmental hazards was a scientific exercise, but deciding how a society should address those environmental hazards was a political one.  Commoner argued that scientists had no special moral authority to make decisions over what constituted acceptable exposure to fallout or DDT or dioxin.

How do we sum up Barry Commoner’s contributions to science, democracy, and the environment?  On 17 February 1965, at the 4th Mellon Lecture at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, Commoner gave a paper entitled “Is Biology a Molecular Science?” He criticized molecular biology and the new cult of DNA, which promised to unlock the secret of life, and concluded his remarks with the assertion: “If we would know life, we must cherish it—in our laboratories and in the world.”[5]

It was a simple statement, but one that would resonate through most all of his activism and take on especially poignant significance as we move into the twenty-first century.  “If we would know life, we must cherish it.”  It applies, I would argue to his integration of science, democracy, and the environment insofar as it challenges us to think about poverty, health, inequality, racism, sexism, war, means and modes of production, scientific method and practice, and our exploitation of natural resources.  Commoner’s felicity at grasping for the larger picture puts these disparate themes into harmonious conversation with each other.

“If we would know life, we must cherish it.”  This beautiful statement defies reductionism.  And it’s where—I think—Commoner’s work comes full circle.  Commoner worried about reductionism accompanied by startling advances in chemistry, physics, and biology.  He appreciated the urgent need for the greater study of living things, not just as a scientific endeavor, but also as a social and environmental imperative.  And as an environmental necessity, this approach demands greater public participation and interaction in addition to more scientific recognition.

In conclusion, I’m never sure whether Commoner’s career thus far should be read as a progressive or a declensionist narrative.  Heroic and admirable, yes; but what of his legacy?  On the one hand, so many of the problems Commoner identified are still with us.  While the numbers and a few case studies might have changed, Science and Survival and The Closing Circle, originally published in 1966 and 1971, hold up remarkably well.  This can’t be good news.  On the other hand, Commoner repeatedly confessed to being a congenital optimist, so let me offer the following:

In 1970, TIME magazine hailed Professor Barry Commoner as the “Paul Revere of ecology,” but the better title from the same article was “a scientist with a classroom of millions.”  The size and composition of the audience for this session is suggestive that many of Commoner’s students from almost 40 years ago are still among us; but it is also worth noting a younger generation—a new classroom—is equally present today and ready and willing to take Commoner’s lessons well into the future.

With that, I am delighted and privileged to introduce my friend and mentor, Professor Barry Commoner, grand poo-bah of American environmentalism.  He is Director Emeritus and Senior Scientist at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College, across the East River from where we are today.  I should note that Commoner founded CBNS in 1966 at Washington University in St. Louis.  He is the author of several books, including Science and Survival, The Closing Circle, The Poverty of Power, The Politics of Energy, and Making Peace with the Planet.  He is currently at work on critical genetics, a return of sorts to work he published in the 1960s, pointing out holes in the current understanding of molecular biology and DNA replication.

In 1980, Professor Commoner ran for president of the United States on the Citizens’ Party ticket.  He didn’t win.  As he claimed, he was the third candidate who finished fifth.  Now, I’ve done my rounds of the US, researching and talking about Barry Commoner, and I have been struck by the sheer number of people who tell me they vividly remember his campaign and recall voting for him.  Given these numbers—unofficial and unsubstantiated data, of course, of the kind that might make sociologists cringe—it seems to me that we might sensibly forget Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004; USA 1980 is where the recount should take place.  And as an historian, I can’t help but think how that might have changed history…

Friends and scholars, Professor Barry Commoner.


[1] See Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 366.

[2] Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas 2nd edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 22.

[3] Barry Commoner, “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent,” commencement address, University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, 10 June 1967 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, box 493), 7.

[4] Cass R. Sunstein, Why Societies Need Dissent (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 5.

[5] Barry Commoner, “Is Biology a Molecular Science?” 4th Mellon Lecture of the School of Medicine,

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, 17 February 1965 (Barry Commoner Papers, LoC, Box 16), 40.