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).

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