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Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner
Born (1917-05-28)May 28, 1917
Brooklyn, New York, U.S.
Died September 30, 2012(2012-09-30) (aged 95)
Manhattan, New York, U.S.
Education Columbia University
Harvard University
Occupation Biologist
Religion Judaism
Spouse(s) Gloria Gordon (divorced; 2 children)
Lisa Feiner (m. 1980)
Awards Newcomb Cleveland Prize (1953)

Barry Commoner (May 28, 1917 – September 30, 2012) 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.[1] He served as editor of Science Illustrated magazine.[2]

Early life

Commoner was born in Brooklyn, New York, on May 28, 1917, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia.[3] 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.[4]

Career in academia

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".[citation needed]

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.[5][6] In 1958, he helped found the Greater St. Louis Committee on Nuclear Information.[7] Shortly thereafter, he established Nuclear Information, a mimeographed newsletter published in his office, which later went on to become Environment magazine.[5] 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.

The Closing Circle

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.[8] For example, he argued that polluting products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) should be replaced with natural products (like soap or cotton and wool).[8] This book was one of the first to bring the idea of sustainability to a mass audience.[8] 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.[9]

Four laws of ecology

One of Commoner's lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971.[10] The four laws are:[11]

  1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
  2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no "away" to which things can be thrown.
  3. 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"
  4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.

Poverty and Population

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.[12] 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”.[12] 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,[12] 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.

“Thus colonialism involves a kind of demographic parasitism: the second population balancing phase of the demographic transition in the advanced country is fed by suppression of that same phase in the colony”.[12] “As the wealth of the exploited nations was diverted to the more powerful ones, their power, and with it their capacity to exploit increased. The gap between the wealth of nations grew, as the rich were fed by the poor”.[12] Due to this exploitation of resources taken from developing nations, regardless of whether it was legal, it led to an unforeseen problem—rapid population growth. This could be seen by Nathan Keyfitz, a demographer, analysis that concluded “the growth of industrial capitalism in the Western nations during the period 1800–1950 resulted in the development of a one-billion excess in the world population, largely in the tropics".[12]

This is can also be seen in the study of India and contraceptives, in which family planning failed to reduce the birthrate because the people felt that “in order to advance their economic situation”, independent children were a necessity to gain better opportunities. The studies show that “population control in a country like India depends on the economically motivated desire to limit fertility”.[12]

The solution presented in Commoner's argument is that wealthier nations need to help the exploited or colonized countries develop and “achieve the level of welfare” that developed nations have. This is the only solution to gaining a balanced population in these developing countries. Commoner states that in order to remedy the world population crisis, that, in essence, is the outcome of abuse of poor nations by rich ones, can only done by “returning to the poor countries enough of the wealth taken from them to give their peoples both the reason and the resources voluntarily to limit their own fertility".[12]

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”.[12]

The Poverty of Power

Commoner published another bestseller in 1976, The Poverty of Power.[8] 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."[13] 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.[8]

File:Barry Commoner Time Magazine February 2, 1970 Vol 95 No 5.jpg
Time reported in its February 1970 issue that "the national concern over the environment has reached an unprecedented level of intensity." On the cover, the visage of Barry Commoner projected a powerful image of ecology, which took the stage for the first time in the public eye.[14]

Making Peace with the Planet

In 1990, Commoner published Making Peace With the Planet, an analysis of the ongoing environmental crisis in which he argues that the way we produce goods needs to be reconstrued.


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?[15]

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.[16] Thus, the cover can also be considered to be a "Call to Arms", to mobilize public opinion by appeals to conscience.[14] 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.[14]

Political activism

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.[17][18] His candidacy for President on the Citizens Party ticket won 233,052 votes (0.27% of the total).[19]

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.

Personal life

After serving in World War II, Commoner married his first wife, the former Gloria Gordon, a St. Louis psychologist.[20] They had two children, Frederic and Lucy Commoner, and one granddaughter. Following a divorce, in 1980 he married Lisa Feiner,[21] whom he had met in the course of her work as a public-TV producer.

Death and legacy

Commoner died on September 30, 2012, in Manhattan, New York.[2][22]

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[23]





  1. ^ Vinciguerra, Thomas (June 19, 2007). "A Conversation with Barry Commoner: At 90, an Environmentalist From the '70s Still Has Hope". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2012. 
  2. ^ a b "Barry Commoner, Environmental Scientist and Scholar, Dies at 95". The New York Times. October 1, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2012. Barry Commoner, a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 95 and lived in Brooklyn Heights. 
  3. ^ Rupert Cornwell (October 6, 2012). "Barry Commoner: Scientist who forced environmentalism into the world's consciousness". The Independent. Retrieved November 8, 2012. 
  4. ^ "Barry Commoner, C250: Columbia Celebrates Columbians Ahead of their Time.". Archived from the original on February 14, 2008. Retrieved February 20, 2008. 
  5. ^ a b McGowan, Alan H. (March–April 2013). "Remembering Barry Commoner". Environment 55 (2): 17. doi:10.1080/00139157.2013.765312. 
  6. ^ Krasner, William (March–April 2013). "Baby Tooth Survey: First Results". Environment 55 (2): 18–24. doi:10.1080/00139157.2013.765314. Reprinted from Nuclear Information 4 (1), 1961 
  7. ^ a b Gottlieb, Robert. 1993. Forcing the Spring. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, p.172. ISBN 1-55963-122-8
  8. ^ a b c d e Herrera, Philip (May 31, 1976). "Books: Learning the Three Es". Time. Retrieved October 2, 2012. 
  9. ^ 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. 
  10. ^ Egan, Michael (2007). Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT. pp. 126–127. ISBN 978-0-262-05086-9. 
  11. ^ Miller, Stephen (October 1, 2012). "Early Voice for Environment Warned About Radiation, Pollution". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved October 2, 2012. In his 1971 best seller The Closing Circle, Mr. Commoner posited four laws of ecology: that everything is connected, that everything must go somewhere, 'Nature knows best,' and 'There is no such thing as a free lunch.' 
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i Commoner, Barry (August–September 1975). "How Poverty Breeds Overpopulation and Not the Other Way Around". Ramparts: 1–6. 
  13. ^ Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (1976), p. 1.
  14. ^ a b c Eldon H. Franz (2001). "Ecology, Values, and Policy". BioScience 51: 469–474. doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2001)051[0469:EVAP]2.0.CO;2. 
  15. ^ "Fighting to Save the Earth from Man". Time. February 2, 1970. 
  16. ^ "Environment: Paul Revere of Ecology". Time. February 2, 1970. 
  17. ^ [1][dead link]
  18. ^ "Wood County, 1980-1989" (PDF). August 4, 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 25, 2003. 
  19. ^ 1980 Presidential General Election Results, US Elections Atlas
  20. ^ "Barry Commoner Biography". The Gale Group, Inc. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  21. ^ Lewis, Daniel (October 1, 2012). "Barry Commoner, Environmental Scientist and Scholar, Dies at 95". The New York Times. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  22. ^ Dreier, Peter (October 1, 2012). "Barry Commoner, Pioneering Environmental Scientist and Activist, Dies at 95". Huffington Post. Retrieved October 1, 2012. 
  23. ^ St. Louis Walk of Fame. "St. Louis Walk of Fame Inductees". Retrieved April 25, 2013. 

Further reading

External links

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Party political offices
Preceded by
Citizens Party presidential candidate
Succeeded by
Sonia Johnson

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