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

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