SHORT TAKES


November 6, 2012

Barry Commoner, Connected

Barry Commoner died on September 30 at age 95. His passing shouldn't go unmarked, as he was one of the architects of what has become the dominant ideological movement on American college campuses:  sustainability. Commoner, a professor of biology and a third party candidate in 1980 for President of the United States, was the chief perpetrator of the so-called first law of ecology, "Everything is connected to everything else." 

The unity of all things goes back at least to the ancient Greek Parmenides and probably to our intrepid ancestors who descended deep into French caves to paint images of galloping bison.

But in Commoner's hands, "Everything is connected to everything else," became a weapon, a  slingshot to put rocks through the windows of modern civilization. The  "law" gave an air of scientific authority to remote worries. The death of a snail darter in a river in Tennessee might herald some unimagined catastrophe elsewhere in the food chain.  

By Commoner's logic, there is no "reasonable" limit to how many degrees of separation should be traced between purported cause and conjectural effect. If we are now faced with governors and mayors of big cities who discern the elusive footprints of global warming in a late season hurricane, their uncanny knowledge of meteorology owes more than a little to Professor Commoner. He's the guy who taught us to err on the side of wild surmise. 

Well before his rise in the 1960s as the main heir to Rachel Carson's chemicals-are-scary form of environmentalism, Commoner had been an activist against open-air nuclear testing. He helped conduct a study showing the presence of the isotope strontium 90 in baby's teeth, which showed that radioactive fallout was indeed finding its way into our bodies. It may have been difficult to gauge to what degree this amount of strontium 90 was actually harmful, but it proved fairly easy to alarm the public.

The dangers of science multiplied by the heedlessness of free market capitalism became Commoner's great theme. He spun it out in a series of books, beginning with one I had to read in high school, Science and Survival (1966). The Closing Circle (1971) is an indictment of modern technology. The Poverty of Power (1976) continues a theme from Science and Survival in which Commoner used the laws of thermodynamics to give an air of finality to his policy preferences. In Poverty, we learn that the very laws of the universe dictate that solar power is our only alternative. 

In a more sober age, Commoner would have been recognized as a crackpot. In our age, he was a celebrity. Time put him on its cover in 1970. He garnered awards and at least eleven honorary degrees. The New York Times noted his death with a major obituary that only here and there touched on his extremism. The Times obit observes, "Although the rules were plain enough, the thinking behind them required leaps of faith." The obit also notices Commoner's long infatuation with Marxism and his prefiguring of the sustainability movement by crowding the environmental ark with the bestiary of a leftist political zoo: 


"Like some other left-leaning dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem."


My favorite detail is that out of his concern for the environment, Commoner's shirts were always wrinkled--ironing being a superfluous waste of energy.  It must have gladdened his heart in later years to see colleges banning bottled water and creating tray-less cafeterias to save the resources needed to wash away spilled soup. 

Much as I regard Commoner as a source of intellectual and cultural mischief, I must praise him for one thing, and not a small one.  He early on set himself in direct opposition to the other great exaggerator and doom-monger environmentalist of his time, Paul Ehrlich.  Ehrlich saw (and presumably still sees, although these days he is on about global warming) overpopulation as the root environmental problem and preached the need for coercive government control as the only solution.  Commoner fought back on both fronts.  Ehrlich's father, incidentally, was a shirt salesman.  Everything is connected to everything else.

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