Barry Commoner

I just received the following e-mail from Barry Commoner’s longtime associate David Kriebel, informing me that Commoner died in his sleep today. He was 95. I’m still gathering my own thoughts on this, but I am very grateful for the time he made available to me over the past decade. Very quickly, he shifted from research subject to friend, and I am so glad I had a chance to spend some time with him last month in New York. More to follow.

Barry Commoner died today. His wife Lisa called this evening to say he died peacefully in the hospital with her by his side. They’d had a lovely conversation just last night, and he died in his sleep.

Barry was an optimist. He said that since it was human economic development that had messed up the planet, it was entirely feasible for humans to fix it.

He was also a deep systems thinker, who had no time for the academic jargon of systems. He never used diagrams in his books because he said that if his ideas were going to have impact, they ought to be understandable in plain English.

Barry believed in giving ordinary people the information about the ecologic impacts of technology and he trusted that they would make the right decisions. He thought scientists should serve the public in this way, and he was very skeptical of putting experts in charge of making decisions for the public.

Barry said that good political strategy should be based on good science; trying to force the facts to fit a position would fail because sooner or later the truth would come out, and you would lose the confidence of the public.

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 now is clear. The question which we face is how.

– Barry Commoner, The Closing Circle, p. 300


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