Barry Commoner was an American biologist, college professor, and politician. He was a leading ecologist and among the founders of the modern environmental movement. He ran for president of the United States in the 1980 U.S. presidential election on the Citizens Party ticket. He served as editor of Science Illustrated magazine.
Commoner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 28, 1917, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. He received his bachelor's degree in zoology from Columbia University in 1937 and his master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University in 1938 and 1941, respectively.
After serving as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II, Commoner moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he became a professor of plant physiology at Washington University. He taught there for 34 years and during this period, in 1966, he founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems to study "the science of the total environment".
Following his service in World War II, Commoner married his first wife, the former Gloria Gordon, a St. Louis psychologist. They had two children, Frederic and Lucy Commoner, and one granddaughter. Following a divorce, in 1980 he married Lisa Feiner, whom he had met in the course of her work as a public-TV producer.
In the late 1950s, Commoner became well known for his opposition to nuclear weapons testing, becoming part of the team which conducted the Baby Tooth Survey, demonstrating the presence of Strontium 90 in children's teeth as a direct result of nuclear fallout. In 1958, he helped found the Greater St. Louis Committee on Nuclear Information. Shortly thereafter, he established Nuclear Information, a mimeographed newsletter published in his office, which later went on to become Environment magazine. Commoner went on to write several books about the negative ecological effects of atmospheric (i.e., above-ground) nuclear testing. In 1970 he received the International Humanist Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
In his 1971 bestselling book The Closing Circle, Commoner suggested that the American economy should be restructured to conform to the unbending laws of ecology. For example, he argued that polluting products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) should be replaced with natural products (like soap or cotton and wool). This book was one of the first to bring the idea of sustainability to a mass audience. Commoner suggested a left-wing, eco-socialist response to the limits to growth thesis, postulating that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures. He had a long-running debate with Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and his followers, arguing that they were too focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems, and that their proposed solutions were politically unacceptable because of the coercion that they implied, and because the cost would fall disproportionately on the poor. He believed that technological, and above all social development would lead to a natural decrease in both population growth and environmental damage.
One of Commoner's lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971. The four laws are:
- Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
- Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
- Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system”.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
Commoner examined the relationship between poverty and population growth, disagreeing with the way that relationship is often formulated. He argued that rapid population growth of the developing world is the result of standards that have not been met, observing that it is poverty that “initiates the rise in population” before leveling off, not the other way around. These developing countries were introduced to the standards, but were never able to fully adopt them, thus not allowing these countries to advance and limit their population growth.
Commoner continues to describe the reason why developing countries are still “forgotten” because of colonialism. These developed countries were, and economically still remain, “colonies of more developed countries”. Because Western Nations introduced things such as: roads, communications, engineering, and agricultural and medical services as a huge part of using and exploiting the developing nation’s labor force and natural resources, the first step towards a “demographic transition” was met, but other stages were not. This did not happen because the wealth that these developing countries created did not stay; it was “shipped out”, so to speak, and enabled the wealthier nations to achieve the different “levels of demographic transition”, while the colonies continued on without achieving the second stage, which is population balancing.
He feels that poverty is the main cause of the population crisis. If the reason behind overpopulation in poor nations is because of exploitation, then the only way to end it is to “redistribute [the wealth], among nations and within them”.
Commoner published another bestseller in 1976, The Poverty of Power. In that book, he addressed the "Three E's" that were plaguing the United States in the 1970s: “First there was the threat to environmental survival; then there was the apparent shortage of energy; and now there is the unexpected decline of the economy.” He argued that the three issues were interconnected: the industries that used the most energy had the highest negative impact on the environment; the focus on non-renewable resources as sources of energy meant that those resources were growing scarce, thus pushing up the price of energy and hurting the economy. Towards the book's end, Commoner suggested that the problem of the Three E's is caused by the capitalistic system and can only be solved by replacing it with some sort of socialism.
Time magazine introduced a section on the environment in their February 1970 issue, featured articles on the “environmental crisis”, and highlighted a quote from Richard Nixon's State of the Union address, when calling it, The great question of the '70s: Shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?
The magazine called Commoner, the “Paul Revere of ecology” for his work on the threats to life from the environmental consequences of fallout from nuclear tests and other pollutants of the water, soil, and air. Thus, the cover can also be considered to be a "Call to Arms", to mobilize public opinion by appeals to conscience. The following month, the first Earth Day took place, which saw 20 million Americans demonstrating peacefully in favor of environmental reform, accompanied by several events held at university campuses across the United States. The publications of Commoner are also considered influential in the decision of the Nixon administration in the following June to announce the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Clean Air Act of 1970.
In 1980, Commoner founded the Citizens Party to serve as a vehicle for his ecological message, and he ran for President of the United States in the 1980 U.S. Election. His vice presidential running mate was La Donna Harris, the Native-American wife of Fred Harris, a former Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, although she was replaced on the ballot in Ohio by Wretha Hanson. His candidacy for President on the Citizens Party ticket won 233,052 votes (0.27% of the total).
After his unsuccessful bid, Commoner returned to New York City and moved the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems to Queens College. He stepped down from that post in 2000. At the time of his death, Commoner was a senior scientist at Queens College.
Commoner died on September 30, 2012, in Manhattan, New York. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
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Commoner, Barry (May 1972). "A Bulletin Dialogue: on "The Closing Circle" - Response". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: 17–56. Population control (as distinct from voluntary, self-initiated control of fertility), no matter how disguised, involves some measure of political repression, and would burden the poor nations with the social cost of a situation—overpopulation—which is the current outcome of their previous exploitation, as colonies, by the wealthy nations;
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