May 28, 1917, is the birthdate of the biologist and ground-breaking environmental activist Barry Commoner. Following his principle that scientists had a responsibility to influence public policy, he went so far as to run for president of the United States in 1980, as the candidate of the Citizens Party. He won only 0.27 percent of the vote – but that number belies the immense influence he had on discussion of environmental issues in the U.S. over decades.
Barry Commoner was born in the East New York section of Brooklyn. Both his parents, Isidore Commoner and the former Goldie Yarmolinsky, were Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire: Isidore worked as a tailor until he lost his vision, and Goldie was a seamstress. They changed the family name from “Comenar” to “Commoner” at the urging of Goldie’s brother, Avrahm Yarmolinsky, who headed the department of Slavic languages at the New York Public Library.
Not just ‘another New York Jew’
Barry was a 1933 graduate of Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, and it was his intention to attend the City College of New York. It was the opinion of Uncle Avrahm, however, that with a degree from City College, Barry would just be another “New York Jew.” Thus, with Avrahm’s encouragement and connections, he applied and was accepted to Columbia University.
Commoner worked his way through college, studying zoology and graduating in 1937. Already at that stage, he was convinced of the importance of being involved in “activities that properly integrated science into public life,” as he told Michael Egan, author of a book about Commoner’s political work, late in his life.
Commoner went on to graduate school at Harvard University, earning a master’s in biology in 1938, and his doctorate in cellular biology three years after that.
By now, he was involved, like many of his contemporaries, in a number of left-wing and radical causes, including support for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and for the civil rights movement at home.
Best way to spray DDT
He served in the U.S. Naval Air Corps during World War II, reaching the rank of lieutenant, participating in a team that was charged with devising a method for spraying the insecticide DDT from the air.
Meanwhile, Commoner joined the faculty of Washington University, St. Louis, in 1947. He would remain there for 34 years before moving to Queens College, back in New York, bringing with him the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems – for the study of the “science of the total environment” – he had established in 1966.
Strontium-90 in baby’s teeth
Commoner was active in lobbying against nuclear weapons in the 1950s and 1960s: His research on the presence of strontium-90 in the teeth of babies in areas where atmospheric nuclear testing had taken place played a role in the passage of the nuclear test ban treaty in 1963. But it was in 1970 that he became a ubiquitous public figure. That’s when he published “The Closing Circle,” and ended up on the cover of Time magazine as America held its first Earth Day.
The worldview that Commoner put forward in that book, and continued to push over the next four decades, was that environmental issues cannot be separated from economic and social ones, and that, according to one of four ecological “laws” he presented, “everything is connected to everything else.” It’s an approach that seems all the more prescient today.
Commoner’s holistic outlook convinced him that capitalism was by its very nature environmentally rapacious, and that it was responsible for global poverty in the most basic way.
He and biologist Paul Ehrlich had an ongoing debate over the latter’s claim that overpopulation was the greatest threat facing humanity: Commoner believed that redistribution of wealth would naturally lead to reduced fertility rates in developing countries – and alleviation of the other main environmental dangers.
Barry Commoner remained active and productive, writing and speaking out, both after his 1980 presidential bid and even after retiring from Queens College in 2000. He died on September 20, 2012, at the age of 95.
Reviewing Commoner’s final book, “Making Peace with the Planet” (a prescription for reconciling the means of production with nature) in the New York Times in 1990, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould declared that “I regard him as right and compassionate on nearly every major issue.”