Review: Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism

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Review: Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism By Michael Egan Reviewed by Adam M. Sowards University of Idaho, USA Egan, Michael. Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007. 283 pp. ISBN: 0262050862. US$28.00, cloth.

As postwar American society raced pell-mell into an embrace with technology, scientists emerged as nearly unrivaled experts who promised positive changes for all Americans' quality of life. However, a counter-current also emerged in which a dissenting group of scientists worried about the social and ecological consequences of the scientific and technological changes permeating modern life. Among the leaders of this group has been biologist Barry Commoner. Historian Michael Egan's excellent new study of Commoner reveals the contours where science, environmentalism, and social activism intersect.

More than a biography of Commoner, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism tells the story of the shifting ways American society valued the environment. With Commoner as the lens, Egan investigates how the emerging sense of ecological crisis demanded that environmental activism be reformed to include prominently social questions. To accomplish this, according to Egan, a historian at McMaster University, Commoner constructed a new apparatus to address the crisis, a structure emphasizing the importance of dissent, widely accessible scientific information, and public dialogues about environmental dangers.

Commoner employed several strategies to raise awareness and question assumptions about social and environmental costs of postwar changes. For instance, in 1958 he cofounded the Committee on Nuclear Information to publicly report on nuclear testing's health and environmental effects. Commoner also became well known for popular scientific writings such Science and Survival (1966) and The Closing Circle (1971), which resulted in popularizing ecology. By becoming so visible, Commoner attracted critics, including other dissenting scientists (e.g., Paul Ehrlich) and environmentalists. Commoner's vision was always broader than simple nature protection as he strongly incorporated social criticism within his analysis, and he ultimately embraced socialism as preferable to capitalism. Throughout his career, Commoner saw public information and risk assessment as central to a functioning democracy. …