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Environmental pioneer Barry Commoner passes away

October 4, 2012
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Dr. Barry Commoner, the man dubbed by Time magazine as “the Paul Revere of Ecology” has died in Manhattan at the age of 95.

Commoner was as well known for his scientific accomplishments as he was for the activism he used to bring environmentalism into the public arena.  A Harvard- and Columbia-trained biologist, Commoner was a passionate – and early -- opponent of nuclear testing and a pioneer in the sustainability movement. He wrote extensively about the ecological effects of above-ground nuclear testing, and did groundbreaking work documenting levels of strontium 90 in the teeth of thousands of children – data which contributed to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty adopted in 1963. It would not be the last time Commoner affected public policy.

In 1966 he established the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Washington University in St. Louis in order to advance environmental science. A professor who taught at the university for more than three decades, Commoner also managed to find time for a range of other activities. In 1970 he received the International Humanist Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union. He published a bestseller in 1971 entitled, “The Closing Circle,” advocating the use of natural products versus the polluting products that were firmly and profitably entrenched in American consumerism. In “The Closing Circle” and another book Commoner wrote in 1976, “The Poverty of Power,” Commoner blamed capitalism for environmental damage, and argued for the adoption of a left-wing, ecologically-focused form of socialism.  

Commoner also ran for president of the United States on the Citizens Party ticket in 1980.

The “Three Es” stressing American society are as relevant today as when Commoner identified them more than 30 years ago: environmental survival, the energy shortage and economic decline. Commoner saw the three as being intertwined in a destructive manner, with industries using the most energy causing the most environmental damage and the economy being strained by the use of non-renewable energy sources that rise in cost as they are depleted.

Commoner was in the vanguard of scientists and activists raising public consciousness about environmental degradation. His picture was featured on Time magazine’s cover in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day (when the magazine gave him the Paul Revere moniker).

Commoner was a popular speaker for many years, particularly on college campuses.

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