KSJ Tracker October 2, 2012

Barry Commoner dies: Rounding up the obits

Barry Commoner was much better known in the 1960s and 1970s than now. Rachel Carson is remembered, but Commoner--who, in one writer's opinion, was more influential than Carson--is not remembered, except, perhaps, by those who knew him back in the day.

For years, he was a regular fixture at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where the number of reporters coming to his press availability dwindled until one year when I seemed to be the only one who stopped by to see what he was up to. That might have been in the late 1980s or early 1990s. (Disclosure: Although I did not know Commoner well, he did supply a blurb for my first book, The Last Harvest, in 1995.)

It's nice to see, then, that obituary writers have taken some pains to restore him to his proper place in the environmental movement. 

Daniel Lewis at The New York Times does a comprehensive recap of Commoner's career in a page-one story, in which he notes that in 1970 Commoner made the cover of Time magazine, which called him "the Paul Revere of ecology." To my knowledge, Commoner did not ride a horse through the streets of Queens, where he taught, announcing that "the toxins were coming," but that's probably the only thing he didn't do to alert us to the toxic consequences of industrial society.

At least as nice as Lewis's obit is Andrew Revkin's comment at his Dot Earth blog at the Times. He quotes the historian Michael Egan, who wrote:

It may be heretical to say it, but I think he’s a more important figure in American environmentalism than Rachel Carson, if only because of the range of issues he addressed and the methods he brought to his activism. Over his career, Commoner worked on nuclear fallout, pesticides, water contamination, air pollution, toxic metals, the petrochemical industry, population, energy and nuclear power, urban waste disposal, dioxin, recycling, and all manner of other environmental issues.

Revkin notes that he was invited to deliver the inaugural Barry Commoner Environmental Lecture at Marymount Manhattan College earlier this year. There, he said, "I was able to spend some time with him afterwards, talking on all manner of issues. I value that time more than ever now." Revkin also points to a video interview with Commoner, part of a New York Times fixture called "The Last Word," in which participants are interviewed with the understanding that the video will not be shown until after the subject dies. A little creepy; and probably not the best place to sell an ad for Dr. Scholl's orthotics. But a good place for those unfamiliar with Commoner to hear what he had to say.

Elaine Woo at The Los Angeles Times quoted a historian who said that Commoner and Rachel Carson were the two foremost figures in the American environmental movement, and that Commoner's once-radical agenda 30 years ago is now "pretty much taken for granted."

Maggie Rotermund at UniversityCityPatch borrows heavily from The New York Times. Peter Dreier of Occidental College, in his blog at the HuffingtonPost, sifts the clips and provides some nice perspective, including dredging up a nice quote for a 2007 interview, in which Commoner said, "Environmental pollution is an incurable disease. It can only be prevented."

The Wall Street Journal online, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Washington Post online run the tepid AP obit that includes the necessary information but fails to give any sense of the man.

A search for "Commoner" among the dozens of blog posts listed at scienceblogging.org led me only to Revkin's post.

-Paul Raeburn


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