June 4, 2007 The Pump Handle 0Comment

By David Michaels

The first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else.

-Barry Commoner

Tomorrow in New York City Barry Commoner’s friends are gathering to celebrate his 90th birthday. In 2007, Barry’s statement on ecology seems obvious if not trite, but that was not the case in 1966, when his landmark book Science and Survival was first published, or even in 1971, with the publication of his best-seller The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology.

Barry’s work has had a huge impact on several generations of scientists. Ten years ago, on the occasion of Barry’s 80th birthday, his colleagues at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, at CUNY’s Queens College, issued a brief summary of his work and his impact:

Since the 1950s, Barry Commoner has played a leading role in nearly every important phase of the environmental movement, including opposition to nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, the science information movement of the 1960s, the energy debates of the 1970s, as well as organic farming/pesticides, waste management/recycling and the toxic chemicals issues of the 1980s and 1990s. He realized that environmental debates were often shrouded in scientific jargon to deflect public scrutiny, and he championed the idea of empowering citizens by providing them with accurate and useful information. Time Magazine in its February 2, 1970, cover story called Barry Commoner the “Paul Revere of Ecology,” and said he is “…endowed with a rare combination of political savvy, scientific soundness and the ability to excite people with his ideas.” Twenty-seven years later, Commoner’s views are deeply engrained in the body politic. Schools from kindergarten through high school incorporate environmental concepts across the curriculum, and many provide teacher training in environmental topics. The Earth Times in its October 21, 1995, issue hailed him as one of the “100 Who Made a Difference” world-wide in the past 50 years, and called Commoner “the dean of the environmental movement, who has influenced two generations.”

Today, Barry is a spry 90 year old, still working as hard as ever. CBNS has grown into a premier occupational and environmental health research institutions. And Barry continues to make important contributions, both in science and policy.

In 1997, as part of that 80th birthday celebration, Scientific American published an interview with Barry, in which he talked about not only his scientific work, but the philosophy that inspired him, and inspires us:

We must remember that the human inhabitants of the earth’s ecosphere are engulfed in a global epidemic of poverty, hunger and despair. The grim statistics can be summarized in a simple image. As the earth spins through space, a view from above the North Pole would encompass most of the wealth of the world–most of its food, productive machines, doctors, engineers and teachers. A view from the opposite pole would encompass most of the world’s poor. The planet is split by a chasm that separates the North from the South, the rich from the poor. This global chasm must be bridged. This is the rational, logical outcome of the environmental experience.

If environmentalism is to be devoted to human welfare, there are reasons more powerful than the environmental ones. Simple morality dictates that the rich should share their productive capacity with the poor. And an even more compelling imperative is justice, for the poor half of the planet has been brought to that plight through the exploitation of its resources and its people by the imperial nations of the North.

We, who are environmental advocates, must find a way–for the sake of the planet and the people who live on it–to join a historic mission to end poverty wherever it exists. That is what is yet to be done.

Please join me in wishing Barry a happy birthday, and in thanking him for his huge contribution to making the world a better place.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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