Barry Commoner: 1917- 2012

by jim on October 1, 2012

Dr. Barry Commoner died today. It's hard to summarize the breadth and depth of Dr. Commoner's public life in a single blog post. He was one of the original scientist-activists, along with Linus Pauling and Rachel Carson, who were first concerned by the dangers of radiation poisoning in a post WWII world, and then took that concern and applied it to the entire modern world.

He was perhaps the most eloquent scientific spokesmen for both the opportunity and trivialization of "environmentalism." To him, the environmental movement was just another name for the broader historical social justice movement that was seeking equality for women and minorities, and ending poverty and war.  The same system lead to all of these ills. It was no coincidence that the worst polluters were also the worst union busters and paid women less for the same jobs. Environmentalism was just the name you gave to fighting the side effects of this rotten system when it began to harm the earth's natural cycles as well as our own.

On the other hand, he hated the ghetto of meaning that "environmentalism" had taken on recently, divorced from all of these other symptoms. Barry Commoner was no treehugger. He didn't see value in fighting for the natural world unless it had an impact on people and their collective misery.

“I don’t believe in environmentalism as the solution to anything. What I believe is that environmentalism illuminates the things that need to be done to solve all of the problems together. For example, if you’re going to revise the productive system to make cars or anything else in such a way as to suit the environmental necessities, at the same time why not see to it that women earn as much as men for the same work?

His four informal rules of ecology were catchy enough to print on a T-shirt and take to the street: Everything Is Connected to Everything Else. Everything Must Go Somewhere. Nature Knows Best. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

He insisted that the future of the planet depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up. It followed, by his logic, that scientists in the service of industry could not merely invent some new process or product and then wash their hands of moral responsibility for the side effects. He was a lifelong opponent of nuclear power because of its radioactive waste; he scorned the idea of pollution credit swaps because after all, he said, an industry would have to be fouling the environment in the first place to be rewarded by such a program.

Downwinders benefited from Commoner's lifelong devotion to scholarship. He was an ardent opponent of all forms of waste-incineration, long ago figuring out that industry claims of chemicals going "poof" inside a furnace was at odds with basic physics. Around 1999, Commoner did a landmark study tracing the path of Dioxin emissions from major sources in North America, including TXI's waste-burning cement plant. Methodically, he showed how a poison manufactured and spit out of a smokestack in Midlothian ended-up in the Arctic Circle to become encased in fish fat or whale blubber. Everything Is Connected to Everything Else. Everything Must Go Somewhere.

Downwinders also inherits its sense of mission from the perspective that Dr. Commoner made famous. We see our job as redressing inequality and injustice as it manifests itself in public health and the human physiology. People get shat on by industry. It's our duty to help them, and if we can, build precedents for the next group so that they don't get shat on quite as bad. And if we can get these citizens to also see the similarities between themselves and others who are getting shat on by the same Powers-That-Be, then we're making progress.

Here's to Dr. Commoner and the recognition that no environmental battle is fought in a social or political vacuum.

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