Courtesy: Washington University. Via Oregon State University.
Described in 1970 by Time magazine as the “Paul Revere of ecology,” Commoner followed Rachel Carson as America’s most prominent modern environmentalist. But unlike Carson, Commoner viewed the environmental crisis as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed economic and social system. A biologist and research scientist, he argued that corporate greed, misguided government priorities and the misuse of technology accounted for the undermining of “the finely sculptured fit between life and its surroundings.”
Commoner insisted that scientists had an obligation to make scientific information accessible to the general public, so that citizens could participate in public debates that involved scientific questions. Citizens, he said, have a right to know the health hazards of the consumer products and technologies used in everyday life. Those were radical ideas in the 1950s and ’60s, when most Americans were still mesmerized by the cult of scientific expertise and such new technologies as cars, plastics, chemical sprays and atomic energy.
Commoner linked environmental issues to a broader vision of social and economic justice. He called attention to the parallels among the environmental, civil rights, labor and peace movements. He connected the environmental crisis to the problems of poverty, injustice, racism, public health, national security and war.
Commoner first came to public attention in the late 1950s when he warned about the hazards of fallout caused by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. He later used his scientific platform to raise awareness about the dangers posed by the petrochemical industry, nuclear power and toxic substances such as dioxins. He was one of the first scientists to point out that although environmental hazards hurt everyone, they disproportionately hurt the poor and racial minorities because of the location of dangerous chemicals and because of the hazardous conditions in blue-collar workplaces. Commoner thus laid the groundwork for what later become known as the environmental justice movement.
Born in 1917, Commoner grew up in Brooklyn, New York, the child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He studied zoology at Columbia University and received a doctorate in biology from Harvard University in 1941. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Commoner was an associate editor for Science Illustrated and then became a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, a position he held for thirty-four years. There he founded, in 1966, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems to promote research on ecological systems. He later moved the center to Queens College in New York.
While serving in the Navy, Commoner discovered a disturbing unintended consequences of technology. He was put in charge of a project to devise an apparatus to allow bombers to spray DDT on beachheads to kill insects that caused disease among soldiers. The military wanted to remove the insects before troops landed. Commoner’s crew discovered that the DDT sprayed from bombers effectively eliminated hordes of flies on the beach, but also that more flies soon came to feast on the tons of fish that the DDT had also killed. This lesson became a central theme for Commoner throughout his career: humans cannot take action on one part of the ecosystem without triggering a reaction elsewhere.