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.

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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.