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.

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Life & Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers