Barry Commoner: Scientist who forced environmentalism into the world's consciousness

In 1980 he ran for President as Citizens Party candidate; he received 0.25 per cent of the vote

If environmental issues are now part of the social, economic and
political debate across the globe, probably no single individual did
more to give them prominence than Barry Commoner – scientist, teacher,
popular author, public activist and briefly even a US presidential
candidate. There were three themes of Commoner's lifelong advocacy.

The first was the danger posed by pesticides and toxins and other pollutants generated by industrial technology and progress, none greater than the radioactive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests then taking place in the Nevada desert and the Soviet Union. Indeed, Commoner's pursuit of the issue, notably a study he led on the perilous accumulation of strontium-90 in babies' teeth, was a powerful factor in securing the 1963 Test Ban Treaty, forbidding all but underground nuclear tests.

The second theme was the ordinary person's right to be informed of these dangers, often concealed by governments lured by the short-term boons conferred by technology. From these concerns sprang his third theme, the need for "sustainability", whereby mankind lives within the limits of the earth's bounty, respecting the unchanging laws of nature, taking no more than an ecosystem could replenish.

Later he would sum up his philosophy in what he called "The Four Laws of Ecology". First, he declared, everything is connected to everything else, i.e. humans depend on everything else on planet Earth, be it animal, vegetable or mineral. Second, everything must go somewhere; when wood or anything else is burnt, it doesn't just vanish but turns into smoke and ash. Third, nature knows best – in other words, that technology meant to improve on nature will probably damage it. His fourth and final precept was: there is no such thing as a free lunch. Nothing comes without an environmental price.

By and large, too, Commoner practised what he preached. He was anything but a materialist, his habits frugal. He was a dedicated recycler. Mostly he did not bother to iron his shirts, to save electricity. Until he became old, he used nothing but public transport.

Those modest habits were surely instilled early. Commoner's father was a tailor and his mother a seamstress, both of them Russian Jewish immigrants. His earliest education was on Brooklyn's rough streets, but at high school, though he gained a strong interest in biology, going on to take a zoology degree at Columbia University in 1937 and then a doctorate in biology from Harvard four years later.

After naval service in the Pacific in the Second World War, Commoner was an editor at Science Illustrated magazine before moving to Washington University in St Louis in 1974, where he spent the next 34 years, the last four of them as Professor of Environmental Science. At Wash U, he set up the multi-discipline Center for Biology of Natural Systems, the first such academic research institution in the US. In 1981 he moved the centre to Queens College in his native New York.

In St Louis he also emerged as an activist and public educator, among the most recognisable figures of the new environmental movement, with a remarkable knack of explaining complicated science in accessible terms. By 1970 he was on the cover of Time magazine, hailed as the "Paul Revere of Ecology", alerting the world to the perils of unfettered technology as the American patriot had alerted colonial forces to advancing British troops in the War of Independence.

The logic of his arguments led him inexorably towards politics. Already, in his 1971 bestseller The Closing Circle, Commoner had proposed a reorganisation of the American economy to bring it into better harmony with the resources and workings of nature. Today, his views might be described as "eco-socialism". Environmental problems, Commoner insisted, were linked with social concerns such as poverty, civil rights and the rights of women and consumers. In 1980, he even ran for president as candidate of the Citizens Party, winning 233,000 votes, roughly 0.25 per cent of those cast.

He was a self-described "visionary gadfly – right but intransigent"; when he embraced a cause he would fight for it passionately. Commoner was brave enough to tell car workers to their face that their industry damaged public health, and relentlessly demanded the end of what he called "the taboo against social intervention in the production system". Scientists, he argued, had every right to be concerned about what non-scientists do with their work.

On occasion he would take on the sacred cows of his own movement, clashing with the population expert Paul Ehrlich, supported by conservationists like the Sierra Club, who believed the way to solve environmental problems was to curb human population. That approach, Commoner declared in a discussion with Ehrlich, was "a cop-out of the worst kind".

By the end of his life some experts were questioning his views as too simplistic. But from climate change to the growing role of scarce natural resources as a focus of human conflict, events were bearing him out. On learning of Commoner's death, Ralph Nader – that other celebrated consumer activist and presidential candidate – called him quite simply "the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century".

Barry Commoner, scientist and environmentalist: born New York City 28 May 1917; married 1946 Gloria Gordon (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1980 Lisa Feiner; died New York 30 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

The Richmond Fellowship Scotland: Executive Director

£66,192 per annum including car allowance of £5,700): The Richmond Fellowship ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Office Junior

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Site Agent

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This traditional family company...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent