Barry Commoner: An Institution
A Science for the People Profile
by Erik Wallenberg
This article is co-published at Climate & Capitalism.
Celebrating his 80th birthday in 1997, Barry Commoner’s friends, colleagues, political accomplices, and those inspired by his decades of working as a scientist for radical social change put together a symposium to highlight his work and legacy. After speeches by environmentalist and labor leader Tony Mazzocchi, anti-corporate campaigner Ralph Nader, and a host of others, Commoner took to the stage. Using the opportunity to note it was also the 80th anniversary of the socialist revolution in Russia, Commoner titled his remarks, “What is Yet to Be Done,” a not-so-subtle reference to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin’s famous tract.1 Commoner called for “a transformation of the major systems of production more profound than even the sweeping post-World War II changes in production technology.”2
As part of the team that designed the technology used by the military to spray DDT in combat zones, Commoner has a special place in this history. He, as an “unwitting perpetrator,” came to question his role in environmental destruction. Rebelling against the narrow focus of science and technology in the post WWII era, Commoner came to play a part in the larger environmental movement, raising ecological consciousness in the broader public.
Commoner was not simply a biologist who happened to call for social change. He was a skilled organizer, committed to thoroughgoing change in social and economic conditions because he saw these arenas as critical to creating an ecologically oriented society. He made this point in his opening remarks at that symposium in 1997. “The interaction between science and social problems and the need to resolve them applies not only to the environment but to a number of other issues that also cry out for action, for example, health and–if we concede that economics is indeed a science–the economy,” he said. “However, the environmental crisis is special, for it expresses the relation between science and society and the overriding importance of action in a distinctive way that illuminates the wider range of issues as well. 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.””3
After forty years of environmental reform rollbacks and the ever-increasing crisis of rapid climate change, we need the voice of Commoner. He saw the limits of the reformist tinkering and the on focus technological fixes. This is evident in his first book, Science and Survival where he argues, “Science can reveal the depth of this crisis, but only social action can resolve it.” His follow-up book, The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology, shows the “ecological failure of modern technology” that focuses its “attention to a single facet of what in nature is a complex whole.”4 He shows the limits of attempts to treat or clean-up pollution, and argues that the only way to a healthy environment is by “stopping production or use of a pollutant,” as in the of bans on DDT, PCBs, CFCs, and nuclear bomb testing.5
Commoner ends The Closing Circle by noting the “narrow options that are possible in a world gripped by environmental crisis” and the attendant “deep pessimism” that often results from learning the details of the scale of the crisis. But he sees a “cause for optimism” in that it’s not our biology that must change but instead our social practices. Relative to our biology, social practices have changed rapidly in the past and so have the possibility to transform in the near term again, when “social organization…is brought into harmony with the ecosphere.”6
Most widely known for his work organizing and advocating for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which he claimed as one of the greatest achievements of the modern environmental movement, Commoner became famous for his baby teeth study, which asked children from around the country to ignore the tooth fairy and offer up their teeth for science instead of cash. Wildly popular, the teeth collection study showed the path of nuclear testing fallout from the atmosphere into the milk supply and, eventually, into children’s developing bones. Commoner and his colleagues created the Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI) to impart their findings on radiation pollution and public health to the broader public. This kind of work brings science and ordinary people together, making it accessible and showing its relevance for their lives.7
Commoner was joined in this endeavor by Tony Mazzocchi. The science information movement, which took “responsibility to educate the public” about the scientific background to issues of nuclear and toxic poisoning was central to Commoner’s entire life. This is the kind of model that socialists today should be promoting. Tony Mazzocchi found that he could unite the union that he led with the environmental movement in just this way and saw the CNI as “a place to unite workers and scientists and environmentalists.”8 Ralph Nader made a similar point, noting, “We need community-based scientific, engineering, and civic institutions to develop intelligent and honest research and to wisely apply scientific knowledge,” continuing, “Barry Commoner has helped set the standard for such sound science.”9
Bringing together scientists and citizens was a lifelong project for Commoner. He “emphasize[d] that the precautionary principle should be the driving force behind policy decisions, and…the first step, therefore, was making sure that the public was more aware of the stakes.” As Commoner’s biographer, Michael Egan argues, “politico-scientists needed a citizen constituency in order to help raise their concerns about the misguided nature of American technological enthusiasm” and saw the alliance of these two groups as “the one invention of our technological age [that] can conserve the environment and preserve life on earth.”10
“And while one may certainly view Barry Commoner as an individual, and certainly may use a metaphor by describing him as an institution,” Ralph Nader noted, “I’m sure that he would be the first to agree that we need community-based scientific, engineering, and civic institutions all over our land so that we can develop the counter-building forces of intelligent and honest research and apply them to the problems at hand.”11 What better description could we find for the intentions of the relaunch of the organization and publication Science for the People?
- Barry Commoner, “What is Yet to Be Done?” in David Kriebel, ed., Barry Commoner’s Contribution to the Environmental Movement: Science and Social Action (Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Company, 2002), 82.
- Ibid, 74.
- Barry Commoner, Science and Survival (New York: Viking, 1967); The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (New York: Bantam Books, 1972), 181.
- Barry Commoner, Making Peace with the Planet (New York: Pantheon, 1990), 42-43.
- Commoner, The Closing Circle, 297-298.
- Michael Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007)
- Tony Mazzocchi, “Crossing Paths: Science and the Working Class” in David Kriebel, ed., Barry Commoner’s Contribution to the Environmental Movement: Science and Social Action (Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Company, 2002), 29.
- Ralph Nader, “Real Junk Science: The Corruption of Science by Corporate Money” in David Kriebel, ed., Barry Commoner’s Contribution to the Environmental Movement: Science and Social Action (Amityville, New York: Baywood Publishing Company, 2002), 31.
- Egan, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival, 59.
- Nader, “Real Junk Science,” 42-43.