An Un-Commoner Interview

Barry Commoner was once one of the country's best-known environmentalists. His work, which studied the health effects of nuclear testing, helped lead to the 1963 Test Ban Treaty. His 1971 book, The Closing Circle, was a touchstone of the environmental movement. His concerned visage graced a psychedelic cover of Time in 1970, and when he ran for president in 1980 on an eco-socialist platform, he managed to net nearly a quarter-million votes. Plus, he has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. How many other environmentalists can say that?

But, based on some unscientific polling and a few, quick web searches, I think it's safe to say that Commoner's star has fallen in a way that Rachel Carson or Edward Abbey's have not. How many young environmentalists today could identify the man Time called "the Paul Revere of ecology"?  Probably not too many, unless they happened to read The New York Times' Science section last week. The section featured a surprising and enjoyable interview with the 90-year-old scientist; surprising that the country's biggest paper would take the space to interview an old lion of environmentalism, and enjoyable due to Commoner's sharp and amusingly crotchety rejoinders. (We’ll overlook the fact that the newspaper gets Time’s Paul Revere quote a little wrong). Commoner, the Times notes, is also the subject of a new biography from MIT Press called Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival, written by Michael Egan.

It's good to see him back in the spotlight after all these years.

Not one to duck a debate, Commoner lays out his arguments against nuclear power (which he calls "shortsighted environmentalism"). He also argues for the use of DDT under certain circumstances ("I don’t want to put anybody into a position of avoiding the use of something in a particular life-and-death situation."), and for his own infallibility ("You mean have I made any mistakes? … [Pause] The answer is no."). Commoner comes across as realistic about the successes and failures of the movement he helped define, but also remains committed to a greener future. It's nice to see the press recognizing that environmentalism didn't start with An Inconvenient Truth and that it's worth giving space—even if it’s just a short Q&A—to someone who's been fighting a good fight for so long.


I suspect that the return of environmentalism into the mainstream will force Commoner and his work back into the popular discussion. His is still really the only message that managed to address the larger complexity of the environmental crisis by putting all its various components together.

In addition, I think Commoner's message is one that younger generations can relate to. I recently assigned Making Peace with the Planet (1990) to an undergraduate class, and students responded very favorably; I think they really picked up on the relationship between poverty and environmental decline...