Barry Commoner, path-breaking scientist and social activist, passed away yesterday at the age of 95. I was fortunate enough to work for Barry in the late 1970s as a research assistant on two of his books, The Poverty of Power (1976) and The Politics of Energy (1979). Commoner, a botanist and biologist, was a founder of the environmental movement, along with peers such as Rachel Carson (The Silent Spring, 1962) and Margaret Meade. He believed that scientists have an obligation to share scientific information with the general public to enable them to participate in public debate on scientific issues. His work on the effects of nuclear fallout, documented through the collection of baby teeth and reinforced by a petition signed by 11,201 scientists worldwide, provided the scientific foundation for the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
Commoner also helped establish the roots of today’s BlueGreen Alliance of labor and environmentalists. He first began working with Tony Mazzocchi, a longtime leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in the 1950s, who collected baby teeth from the children of members of his Long Island local union. Commoner’s work showed the connections between the environmental crisis and social and economic issues such as “poverty, injustice, public health, national security and war,” and that the roots of the environmental crisis lay in excessive corporate power and flawed systems of production. He argued that only by changing those systems—for example, by replacing nuclear power, coal and oil with renewable energy—could the root causes of our environmental problems be eliminated. Not coincidentally, these same policies would create millions of new domestic jobs, reducing pollution, inequality and our trade deficit simultaneously. As Commoner established in The Closing Circle (1971), the first of his “four laws of ecology” was, “Everything is connected to everything else.” Indeed.