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.

8 thoughts on “Commoner in Context

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s