'Paul Revere Of Ecology' Sounded Alarms On Pollution

Scientist Barry Commoner, a pioneer in environmental activism, died Sunday. Melissa Block speaks with Michael Egan, environmental historian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and author of the book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The late environmentalist Barry Commoner came up with four laws of ecology: everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Barry Commoner died on Sunday at age 95 in Manhattan. In 1970, Time magazine put him on the cover calling him the Paul Revere of ecology. Commoner sounded the alarm about radioactive fallout, lead poisoning, air and water pollution, pesticides, you name it. Here he is speaking on WHYY's Fresh Air in 1990.

DR. BARRY COMMONER: I'm 72 years old, and I well remember when I was a teenager eating food. And that food was produced with no pesticides and no nitrogen fertilizer.

(LAUGHTER)

COMMONER: In other words, it can be done.

BLOCK: Barry Commoner even ran for president in 1980 on his own Citizens' Party line.

Environmental historian Michael Egan says Commoner ranks among the most important American environmentalists. He interviewed him many times for his book "Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival." And Professor Egan joins me now. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL EGAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And why would you say Barry Commoner is so important? What are the hallmarks of his work?

EGAN: Well, I think there is, on the one hand, the very natural fact that he covered so many different aspects of what we now consider to be environmentalism at a point where they weren't really part of the larger environmental rhetoric.

But I think the bigger contribution has a lot to do with the practice and the method with which he did that, which had to do with inventing effectively a science information movement. A movement of political active scientists anxious to make sure that their expertise and information made it to the public so that public conversations could be had about the risks inherent in nuclear fallouts or in various pesticides or lead poisoning.

BLOCK: And one thing that's so interesting about Barry Commoner is that he threaded together his environmental issues with big issues of social and economic justice. He called the interconnection the red thread.

EGAN: Yeah, absolutely. I don't think he ever necessarily saw himself strictly as an environmentalist. He saw this as sort of a part of a much larger conversation about social justice, which included civil rights, which included women's equality. He was a big peace advocate. And for Commoner, these all went together very naturally. It wasn't as though these were distinct counts but all part of a much larger progressive banner.

BLOCK: Some of Barry Commoner's earliest work, back in the late 1950s involved the study of baby teeth, baby teeth sent in from tens of thousands of children. They were trying to document levels of radioactive strontium-90. What did they find?

EGAN: Yeah. The exercise was designed to sort of start a local grassroots movement, if you like, to generate interest and concern about above-ground nuclear weapons testing and the concomitant nuclear fallout. Basically, they collected these teeth. Strontium-90 is similar to calcium in ways that it goes through or is absorbed into the body. There was concern that through drinking breast milk, babies were especially susceptible.

The results ultimately showed that, indeed, the generation of children being born immediately after World War II had much higher levels of strontium-90 in their teeth than in children born previously. And in a lot of ways, this is what sort of precipitated the movement towards the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty that signed by John F. Kennedy.

BLOCK: Professor Egan, you stayed in touch with Barry Commoner after your book. You saw him as recently as last month. What was his life like in his 90s?

EGAN: Well, he was working hard. He was at work on a new book on the origins of life. Up until very recently, he was going into the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, his office in Flushing, New York. He was going in sort of four or five times a week.

BLOCK: So very active.

EGAN: And very focused, yeah.

BLOCK: Well, Michael Egan, thanks so much for talking with us and sharing your memories of Barry Commoner.

EGAN: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Michael Egan is an environment historian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His book is "Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism." Barry Commoner died on Sunday. He was 95.

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