Barry Commoner, 95, a Pioneer of Environmentalism

By Lewis, Daniel | International Herald Tribune, October 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Barry Commoner, 95, a Pioneer of Environmentalism


Lewis, Daniel, International Herald Tribune


Dr. Commoner was a leader among a generation of scientist- activists who recognized the toxic consequences of the post-World War II technology boom in the United States.

Barry Commoner, a founder of modern ecology and one of its most provocative thinkers and mobilizers in making environmentalism a people's political cause in the United States, died Sunday in Manhattan. He was 95.

His wife, Lisa Feiner, confirmed his death.

Dr. Commoner was a leader among a generation of scientist- activists who recognized the toxic consequences of America's post- World War II technology boom, and one of the first to stir the national debate over the public's right to comprehend the risks and make decisions about them.

Raised in Brooklyn during the Depression and trained as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard, he came armed with a combination of scientific expertise and leftist zeal. His work on the global effects of radioactive fallout, which included documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in the baby teeth of thousands of children, contributed materially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

From there it was a natural progression to a range of environmental and social issues that kept him happily in the limelight as a speaker and an author through the 1960s and '70s, and led to a wobbly run for president in 1980.

In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, Time magazine put Dr. Commoner on its cover and called him the Paul Revere of Ecology. He was by no means the only one sounding alarms -- the movement was well under way by then, building on the impact of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring" in 1962 and the work of many others. But he was arguably the most peripatetic in his efforts to draw public attention to environmental dangers.

The same issue of Time also noted that President Richard M. Nixon had already signed on. In his State of the Union address that January, he said, "The great question of the '70s is, 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?" And he followed through: Among other steps, the Environmental Protection Agency was established in December 1970.

Dr. Commoner was much in demand as a speaker and a debater, especially on college campuses, where he helped supply a generation of activists with a framework that made the science of ecology accessible. …

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