Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival

(MIT Press, 2007). Click on the book for more information.

For over half a century, the biologist Barry Commoner has been one of the most prominent and charismatic defenders of the American environment, appearing on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 as the standard-bearer of “the emerging science of survival.” In Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival, Michael Egan examines Commoner’s social and scientific activism and charts an important shift in American environmental values since World War II.

Throughout his career, Commoner believed that scientists had a social responsibility, and that one of their most important obligations was to provide citizens with accessible scientific information so they could be included in public debates that concerned them. Egan shows how Commoner moved naturally from calling attention to the hazards of nuclear fallout to raising public awareness of the environmental dangers posed by the petrochemical industry. He argues that Commoner’s belief in the importance of dissent, the dissemination of scientific information, and the need for citizen empowerment were critical planks in the remaking of American environmentalism.

Commoner’s activist career can be defined as an attempt to weave together a larger vision of social justice. Since the 1960s, he has called attention to parallels between the environmental, civil rights, labor, and peace movements, and connected environmental decline with poverty, injustice, exploitation, and war, arguing that the root cause of environmental problems was the American economic system and its manifestations. He was instrumental in pointing out that there was a direct association between socioeconomic standing and exposure to environmental pollutants and that economics, not social responsibility, was guiding technological decision making. Egan argues that careful study of Commoner’s career could help reinvigorate the contemporary environmental movement at a point when the environmental stakes have never been so high.


“Egan’s telling of the life, science, and politics of Barry Commoner reminds us of a time when scientists could be activists, and science and activism could coexist.”
Jody A. RobertsChemical Heritage

“Egan tells an absorbing tale about a remarkable man who is insightful, persistent, iconoclastic, informed, and optimistic.”
Sylvia N. TeshAmerican Scientist

“Finally we have a book that recognizes the extraordinary importance of Barry Commoner in 20th-century scientific and social justice thinking. At a time when almost everyone acknowledges that the natural world is imperiled by an ever-growing human economy, this book reveals what we can still learn from Commoner’s powerful vision of ‘the science of survival’ and the social justice perspective needed to restore balance.”
Peter Montague, Executive Director, Environmental Research Foundation

“In combining science with activism, Barry Commoner has long been one of the major figures in the world of environmental politics and the making of green knowledge. Michael Egan’s impressive book fills a critical gap in the literature on the history of environmentalism.”
Andrew Jamison, Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University, Denmark

“A riddle: Why has the scientist who has arguably had the greatest impact on the course of post-World War II science been almost entirely ignored by mainstream historians of science? Because his accomplishments were as a social activist rather than as a scientist. But now, at long last, Barry Commoner’s supremely important challenge to the morphing of Big Science into handmaiden of the chemical and nuclear industries has been recognized and admirably recounted by Michael Egan. Bravo, Mr. Egan, for filling in a large blank in recent history of science.”
Clifford D. Conner, author of A People’s History of Science



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