In Praise of Barry Commoner

He had a name that you might call Dickensian, except Barry Commoner, who died this week at 95, was anything but his nomenclature. A man of the people, yes. Common, no.

Barry Commoner was uncommon.

Today, millions of Earth’s inhabitants believe that overpopulation, increased affluence, and advanced technology are the root causes of environmental degradation. Back in 1971, when Commoner published his catalytic book, “The Closing Circle: Man, Nature, and Technology,” his ideas were considered radical, annoying, and revolutionary. Gasoline at the time cost 36-cents per gallon. Automobiles cost around $2,500. The phrases “peak oil” and “Middle Eastern jihadi” had not entered the lexicon. Many conservatives – those who liked things just the way they were – couldn’t understand why anyone would want to disrupt a fossil fuel energy model that seemed to provide human beings with a “better” life than any time in civilized history.

He, together with Rachel Carson and her book “The Silent Spring,” was one of the leading thinkers of the ecology movement. Commoner, in the early 1960’s, called for a nuclear test ban treaty; he drew attention to the potential of solar energy, recycling, and pollution abatement; he railed against harmful chemicals, such as dioxin, in our food supply.

Commoner was also one of the first scientists to suggest a causal link between environmental ruin and social and economic injustice.

His complex philosophy could be summarized in four simple principles:

+ Everything is connected to everything else.

+ Everything goes somewhere, it never disappears.

+ Nature knows best.

+ Free lunches do not exist in the natural world.

If these ideas don’t seem radical to you, credit must go to Barry Commoner, who dedicated his life to standing up for his principles, no matter how unpopular they made him. He even formed a political party and ran for President in 1980, garnering very few votes and very many accidental intellectual converts.

Today, you don’t have to be a tree-hugging, pot-smoking, granola-eating, dreadlock-wearing hippie-alarmist to state candidly at a dinner party that you believe we must address climate change immediately, because we’re the main cause of it. Commoner was saying as much nearly fifty years ago.

Barry Commoner was smart. Lucky for us, he was also brave. Although he didn’t die defending an Iraqi oil pipeline or stepping on an IED in Kabul, we can properly call Barry Commoner a true American Hero.

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