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

Click to follow

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.