Remembering Barry Commoner

Three years ago today, I gave probably the most important public talk of my life. I had the extreme honour of having been invited to speak at Barry Commoner’s memorial service. It was a moving event in a full room at the New York Academy of Medicine, across the street from Manhattan’s Central Park. Below: some scribblings in preparation of my remarks that day.


Over the past ten years, I have given dozens of lectures—formal and informal—on why Barry Commoner matters—how Barry and his career serve as the lynchpin for social, economic, environmental, and political justice and for a broader movement for making peace with the planet and with each other. But for me, today offers a new opportunity to reflect on why Barry matters to me.

I first met Barry in November 2001. I was at a conference in Albany and took the train down to meet him at CBNS. I won’t lie: I was nervous. I was meeting with Dr. Barry Commoner and he had nominally agreed to let me interview him for my dissertation that would examine his role in galvanizing the American environmental movement. I don’t remember a lot from that first visit, other than he gave me a tour of the Center at the end of our conversation. And we stopped outside of Sharon [Peyser]’s office and he said: “You’re Michael; I’m Barry.” (no more Dr. Commoner). He also told me that I was tackling an excellent and important topic. I don’t have to tell an audience of friends that he informed me of this without a shred of arrogance, but rather with a kind and genuine sense of purpose.

So, Barry started out as a research subject. As an historian, I wanted to try to maintain a modicum of professional distance—close enough that he trusted me, but sufficiently removed that I could tell his story as I interpreted it. Well, friends, I regret to report that I am not a very good historian. Somewhere during my semi-regular visits between 2001 and 2004, Barry very quickly shifted from research subject to friend. And my most vivid memories are not of the oral histories I conducted, but rather of making lunch together in the CBNS office with fixings he’d brought from his deli in Brooklyn, our informal chats over lunch, and him insisting on driving me back to the Flushing train station at day’s end. Also, a very memorable evening spent with Barry and Lisa in their home. I’ve told Barry and Lisa that Barry turned me on to roasted red pepper (I’ll leave you to find the free lunch joke to be had here, but the colour seems appropriate, too).

And after I completed my dissertation, I enjoyed our friendship all the more. Every few months, I would get a phone call—either at home or at my office. There would be a familiar and warm, but gruff voice on the other side of the line. And he would start by asking me to recall some part of his past. Where did he give such-and-such a lecture, or was the St. Louis AAAS meeting before or after the San Francisco one. Or could I recall the dates of his correspondence with Rosalind Franklin. But then we would chat. I’d learn about how his book was coming along. Now, understand, I’m not a biologist, but Barry never talked down to me (even after I confessed to dropping out of Grade 12 Biology). He explained things on a curious plain somewhere between assuming I had a body of knowledge I didn’t and with an explanatory tone that meant I understood what he was describing. Having studied his career, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this. But here’s my takeaway: I got private biology lessons from Barry Commoner!

So this is what I’m still processing: not just the passing of a friend. Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about Barry as a teacher. As I started my first academic job and settled into publishing my dissertation, I held very tightly to lessons I’d learned from Barry about the public intellectual’s social responsibility and the scholar’s role as knowledge broker. And I reread Barry’s 1962 paper “The Scholar’s Obligation to Dissent” at least once a year to make sure I haven’t drifted too far from the right path. The late 2000s and early 2010s constitute a very different academic landscape than the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but in Barry’s writings and example I see a relevant and important model for social activism and a code of conduct to which I strive to adhere.

I don’t know if Barry would have had me as a student, but I owe him a great debt to how I have approached my teaching, my research, and my role at the university. I might also note that this past term I adopted his notion of hybrid vigor in my graduate seminar, and brought in colleagues from around campus to discuss global environmental issues. Which is to say that on a very practical level, on Monday afternoons over the past few months, Barry was front and center in my thoughts.

Not least, because I had the opportunity to visit him late last August. He was frail, but we spent the entire afternoon together at his home. And we talked and talked. For hours. The consummate teacher: he wanted to talk me through his book project, making sure I understood both the narrative arc, but also the more technical particulars. As ever, I was learning from my friend, Barry. And as he became more passionate about a particular feature, his energy levels would rise. It was a great afternoon, punctuated by Lisa returning home and a cheerful dinner that evening.

So let me finish with Barry’s enduring lesson. In one of our later meetings, he related to me how he had discovered the secret of life. The secret to life, he told me with an almost boyish grin, is life. Now, Barry was teasing out the very clear biological polemic implicit in that statement, but I think it was also a reiteration of his long-held belief that we are what we make, and our heavy investment in creating synthetic chemicals was breaking that cycle of life.

But I want to also address a deeper meaning to suggest that through his work, his acts, his writings, his teaching, his friendships, his beliefs, his sense of social responsibility, his humor, his example: I think Barry had a finger firmly pressed against the pulse of that secret. And he taught that to me (as I’m sure he has—directly and indirectly—to everyone here and to countless others the world over). And it’s important that we continue to share that secret as widely as we can. And maybe, collectively, we can do it almost as well as he did. I miss him.

Survival Science

I included in the title my book about Barry Commoner: “The Science of Survival.” At the time, I interpreted the science of survival as a way of describing Commoner’s social and scientific activism—and most significantly, his advocacy of the science information movement. After the book was completed, however, I turned my attention towards Commoner’s role in producing a vernacular science during the 1960s. This was an implicit feature of the book, but I felt it deserved greater attention. I dabbled. I still think there’s a book project that treats the history of this vernacular or public science, especially in light of recent events (I’m thinking, especially, about the Flint lead water crisis) to talk about how citizens engage with, participate in, and understand scientific findings, and what place these findings control in public policy debates.

So, there’s that. It’s been awhile since I thought about much of this material, until I was invited to a couple of workshops in Europe this past fall. The first, in Århus, interrogated the place of science in the 1970s (arguably, an under-examined and underestimated decade in the history of science). The second, in Lugano, considered the relationship between “collapse,” environmental justice, and the role of evidence. Both workshops were fascinating—complete with gracious hosts, fantastic presentations, and stimulating conversations. Working from different vantage points, these two workshops provided me with the opportunity to reimagine some of the earlier vernacular science work, but also to frame in a new light as “survival science.” I post a link to a special issue of Intervalla, which published a version of the Lugano paper. So, here’s a first stab at making sense of “survival science” in its historical context.

Secretary of Survival

I’ve spent this week going through some old Barry Commoner material to write a biographical encyclopedia entry. I find these increasingly difficult to write, not least because I have written a number now, but also because Barry shifted from research subject to friend in the years between my dissertation and his passing. I take the task no less seriously, but I feel the weight of an added responsibility to render a synthesis of his life and career while stressing the aspects of his work that he most valued.

The following little exchange made me chuckled, however, and brought a bit of levity to work. In 1973, Commoner appeared on William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line,” a conservative talk show that ran for many years. Buckley’s role in the rise of American conservatism is a story that probably ought to be examined more carefully. He was an erudite and articulate writer and broadcaster and a worthy debate foe. The subject was “Is there an Ecological Crisis?” In his preamble Buckley insinuated the question seemed less urgent than it had a few years earlier. Commoner had, in 1971, published The Closing Circle, which outlined his approach to the environmental crisis (which he felt was quite serious). Buckley acknowledged that Commoner was not an environmental doomsayer in the vein of Paul Ehrlich and other prominent environmentalists, but the discussion veered toward environmental policy, with Commoner criticizing Nixon for backing away from much of the strong environmental policy he had signed during the first two years of the decade. Commoner wanted more. More investment in environmental remediation. More enforcement of environmental legislation. More stringent guidelines for various production processes. In one of his traditional quips, Buckley attempted to skewer his interlocutor. I rather think Commoner got the better of the exchange.

Buckley: “I hope you, if President of the United States, would not appoint as Secretary of Defense somebody who would superordinate the problems of ecology over those of national sovereignty.”

Commoner: “Well, that is your hope; mine is the reverse.”

Buckley: “Why would you call him Secretary of Defense? Call him Secretary of Undefense, or Secretary of Surrender.”

Commoner: “Why don’t we call him Secretary of Survival?”

May 28: Barry Commoner Day

Barry Commoner would have been 98 today.

Reflecting on his writings in the context of some more recent work, I was reminded of his talk, “What Is Yet To Be Done,” delivered in 1997 at an event in New York to celebrate his 80th birthday. In those remarks, Commoner argued:

The environmental crisis arises from a fundamental fault. Our systems of production—in industry, agriculture, energy, and transportation—essential as they are, make people sick and die. As the Surgeon General would say, these processes are hazardous to your health. But that is only the immediate problem. Down the line, these same production processes threaten a series of global human catastrophes: higher temperatures; the seas rising to flood many of the world’s cities; more frequent severe weather; and dangerous exposure to ultraviolet radiation. The nonhuman sectors of the living ecosystem are also affected by the crisis: ancient forest reserves are disappearing; wetlands and estuaries are impaired; numerous species are threatened with extinction.

Eighteen years later, we continue to share the same concerns. Further, the vocabulary has evolved. We can talk about an Anthropocene: a new geological epoch driven by human actions. As severe as the environmental crisis confronting us remains, the good news is that this new vocabulary acknowledges that we now live in an age of change and that we must prepare for the inevitable challenges facing us. Breeding resilience in our cities in our food production and in our energy and transportation networks has become a necessity and there are encouraging signs in many sectors.

But spare a thought for the Anthropocene’s social implications. The title of Commoner’s 1997 talk was an explicit reference to Lenin’s famous essay, and the environmental crisis for Commoner was unmistakably a human event: it was caused by human actions, but the ultimate measure of its impact was the threat to human health and well-being. As a concept, the Anthropocene is less good here. We are not all exposed to environmental catastrophe equally. Nor are we all susceptible to environmental vulnerabilities in the same ways.

At a 2014 Earth Day function at the University of Wisconsin’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the author China Miéville spoke about “The Limits of Utopia,” and noted the devil’s bargain in “Anthropocene”:

The very term “Anthropocene,” which gives with one hand, insisting on human drivers of ecological shift, misleads with its implied “We.”

“We” are not Tuvalu. “We” are not forced into migration by advancing deserts or retreating waters. Many (likely all) readers of this post are among the privileged, relative few who can lament the almost theoretical/hypothetical hazards confronting us and debate their contexts, outcomes, and solutions. The story is always more complicated, but in Commoner I always found an explicit effort to not lose sight of the signal within the noise. The environmental crisis was a global phenomenon and environmentalism was devoted to human welfare. Thus, he concluded his 1997 talk with a missive to tackle the kind of social change that is so often overlooked when we talk about climate change or other “big” environmental problems. Their source is rarely in the air, soil, or water, but in human actions (and, tragically, human inactions). Even in the context of this new vocabulary, I doubt Commoner’s message would have changed:

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way—for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it—to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists.

Renaming CBNS

I’ve written a bit about Commoner’s Center for the Biology of Natural Systems—and how it emerged in response to the popular realization that the 1960s environmental crisis defied or transcended traditional scientific disciplines. The Center’s goal was to think more broadly about what has become known as the science of the total environment.

But I raise this more as a place-marker. Last week I received an invitation to visit CBNS for its renaming. The new name will be the Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment, which sounds in line with Ralph Nader’s call for an Institute for Thought and Action in Commoner’s name.

Barry Commoner Revisited & Revisualized

A dirty secret to start: course preparation is never as smooth as one would like. Behind in my work, I needed a big body of text to run through data visualization tools, so I turned to my dissertation, which I still had on my computer in .pdf. The work consisted of roughly 100,000 words—10,644 unique words. Modest for big data analysis like this, but sufficient for sharing with students in order to show them how digital tools can be used in historical analysis. Here’s a word cloud of the dissertation as a whole:

"Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival." My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by
“Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival.” My dissertation from 2004. Word cloud generated by

At a quick glance, this looks like a decent rendition of the work and its points of emphasis. But word clouds are simply snapshots in time and don’t provide any kind of chronological information. A good starting point, but limited. From here, I took the same text to to show my students how we could get under the hood a little more. The results surprised me a little. Not a lot, after I thought about it, but Voyant revealed some interesting evolutions within the text. Compare the relative and raw frequencies of my use of the words “science” and “environmental” throughout the dissertation in the images below.

Relative frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Relative frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Raw frequencies of "environmental" (716) and "science" (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on
Raw frequencies of “environmental” (716) and “science” (445) in my dissertation. Chart produced on

About halfway through the dissertation, there seems to be a pretty clean transition from the history of science to environmental history. This is pretty consistent with the dissertation. The first two chapters engage Commoner’s participation in a number of scientific debates and his emergence as a scientist-activist. Heavy emphasis through these chapters considers scientists and their social responsibility, and investigates concerns over nuclear fallout (an issue that Commoner would later recall is what made him an environmentalist). The third chapter considers the Age of Ecology and scientists as public intellectuals in the developing environmental movement. This is the point where the blue line starts to climb and before the green line drops off. Eventually, I start to focus on the environmental movement as a whole and Commoner as an intellectual leader within that movement rather than as a scientist.

On a lazy morning—and buoyed by having played with some similar searches recently—I thought I could quickly pull Commoner references in The New York Times to see if I could draw any comparisons between my work and the primary source hits. Again: this is hardly a comprehensive or satisfactory methodology, but I think it provides sufficient material for working with undergraduate students as a means of showing them how historians might visualize and analyze bigger chunks of information.

“Barry Commoner” AND (science OR environment)

My search showed up in 252 articles. I elected to not use TV or radio guide references and a quick eye-test of article titles eliminated a number of non-relevant articles, so the total number of articles was reduced to 151. Too small to be a worthwhile dataset, but the articles totalled roughly 200,000 words, twice the number in my dissertation.

Here is the chronological distribution of the original search.

NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.
NYT references to Barry Commoner AND (science OR environment) by decade (1950-1989). 252 total responses.

Not surprisingly, Commoner’s role as an environmental leader and outspoken activist reaches its apogee in the 1970s. His continuing work, his return to New York, and his presidential campaign likely contributed to his ongoing presence in the 1980s, even if he had technically “retired.”

Breaking up the newspaper findings into three sections—1950-1969, the 1970s, and the 1980s—the resulting clouds offer a story that is somewhat consistent with the Voyant trajectory shown above.

NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.
NYT references to Barry Commoner between 1950 & 1969.

Commoner’s work in the 1950s and 1960s as a biologist, working on the Tobacco Mosaic Virus (for which he won the Newcomb Cleveland Award from the AAAS). This put Commoner within a ring of biologists informed about the developing events around heredity and the Watson-Crick discovery of DNA’s double helix. I should write about Commoner’s response to molecular biology at some point. But DNA, protein, and virus suggest this emphasis in the newspaper literature (life, too).

Another running theme in the newspaper articles and in the early stages of my dissertation is the treatment of social aspects of science. Too: Commoner’s outspoken opposition to funding for space travel, which he saw as a disconcerting expression of the military-industry complex and the Cold War arms race.

This first cloud also shows the beginning of environmental issues with “water” and some others. What else? This analysis is roughly consistent with the narrative I presented in the first three chapters of my dissertation/book (phew!).

Moving to the 1970s:

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1970s.

This second cloud shows a marked decline in “science,” “scientist,” and “university,” which suggests Commoner’s ascendance in environmental circles and his standing as a public intellectual.

NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.
NYT references to Barry Commoner in the 1980s.

In the third cloud, note the emphasis on “Carter” and “Reagan.” Perhaps the Reagan reference is not so surprising, but note that a goodly number of the Commoner references in the 1980s came from 1980 during Commoner’s presidential candidacy on the Citizens’ Party ticket (Harris refers to Commoner’s vice-presidential candidate, LaDonna Harris). The “Queens” reference is also indicative of Commoner’s retirement from Washington University in St. Louis and his move to CUNY Queens College (a return to his native New York City). Given my recent post, it’s also interesting to see “toxic” (in the bottom right corner) present in the 1980s.

One might also identify a change in environmental themes. “Atomic Energy Commission,” “atomic” and “radiation” in the 1950s and 1960s. “energy” in the 1970s; “recycling” and “waste” in the 1980s. “Environment”/”environmental” grow steadily in each word cloud. Clearly I prefaced this evolution in my dissertation and book—the benefit of looking backwards. And more. Again: limited as they are, I think clouds like these provide students with an interesting departure point for looking at big amounts of information, thinking about what might be present, and asking questions that will shape subsequent research. Play along: in the comments below, what evolving trends can we infer from the three newspaper clouds? What isn’t present, or surprisingly underrepresented?

On Scientific Literacy

Directly and indirectly, I spend a lot of time thinking about scientific literacy. My work on Barry Commoner, for example, treated this topic extensively, as Commoner sought to develop a method of communicating a vernacular science to the public so they could participate in pressing environmental debates. And, more recently, I’m revisiting similar themes when it comes to the relationship between science and policy and expertise and public interests while broaching the history of mercury pollution.

Not so long ago, while looking for something else, I stumbled across this really interesting talk by Alice Bell, which does an excellent job of summing up the nature of scientific literacy and the difference or tensions between an informed public and scientists as effective communicators. It’s well worth a listen, and you can link to it here.

My interest in the history of knowledge communication has a great deal to do with the contemporary problem of scientific literacy, especially as these relate to the environment. I’m reminded of the conclusion to Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, where they write:

Our present-day problems of defining our knowledge, our society, and the relationships between them centre on … dichotomies between the public and the private, [and] between authority and expertise. … We regard our scientific knowledge as open and accessible in principle, but the public does not understand it.  Scientific journals are in our public libraries, but they are written in a language alien to the citizenry.  We say that our laboratories constitute some of our most open professional spaces, yet the public does not enter them.  Our society is said to be democratic, but the public cannot call to account what they cannot comprehend.  A form of knowledge that is the most open in principle has become the most closed in practice.