Barry Commoner – Scientist and Environmental Champion

Have you ever heard any of these expressions?

  1. Everything Is Connected to Everything Else
  2. Everything Must Go Somewhere
  3. Nature Knows Best
  4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Chances are you have heard at least one of these before, but have you ever wondered where they came from?

Well, they are the four informal laws of ecology that were created by a man named Barry Commoner.  These rules became so famous in the 70s, that they were put on t-shirts and are now part of popular culture.

So who is Barry Commoner?

I must admit, I had never heard of him until recently.  I was at a waste management conference and was reading the paper, when I came across an obituary regarding this very interesting and amazing man who is known as the founder of modern ecology.  So I thought I would share some of his story.

Barry was a leader among a generation of scientist-activists that recognized the toxic consequences of America’s post WWII technological boom. He also was one of the first to initiate the debate over the public’s right to understand environmental risks and make decisions about them — he fought to make environmentalism a people’s political cause.

He was one of the most provocative environmental champions of our time, and we lost him on September 30, 2012 in New York at the age of 95.  

Barry was such an advocate for the environmental movement it is difficult to summarize all of his achievements.  Here’s a short recap of his important triumphs and passionate causes.

  • His work on radioactive fallout led to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. This included analyzing concentrations of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope, in the baby teeth of thousands of children.
  • He became the face of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, when Time Magazine put him on the cover and called him the Paul Revere of Ecology. Barry Commoner on Time Magazine Cover for First Earth DayThis same issue of Time noted President Richard Nixon saying in his State of the Union address, “The great question of the ’70s is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land and to our water?” And he followed through: Among other initiatives, the Environmental Protection Agency was established in December 1970.
  • He was a dynamic speaker and author through the 60s & 70s, relating to a wide range of environmental and social issues, and ran for president in 1980.
  • His concern was not simply ecology, but a fundamental principle of social justice, in which everything was indeed connected to everything else.  He believed that environmental pollution, war and inequality needed to be addressed as related issues.
  • His most famous books include Closing the Circle and Making Peace with the Planet.
  • His main target was “systems of production” in industry, agriculture, energy and transportation that focused on profits and progress, with little regard for the consequences including greenhouses gases, non-biodegradable materials, synthetic fertilizers and toxic wastes.

Barry Commoner -  Activist

He believed that the future of the planet depended on industries learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up, and believed that scientists could not merely invent some new process or product and then wash their hands of the moral responsibility for its side effects. What a novel idea!

And now we have all learned a little bit about a remarkable man who was logical and intelligent enough to foresee what would be sacrificed in the name of progress. A man who is considered by many to be one of the greatest environmentalists of the 20th century.

To quote the man himself:

“When you fully understand the situation, it is worse than you think” 

“Sooner or later, wittingly or unwittingly, we must pay for every intrusion on the natural environment”

About Andrea Graham

I currently work in the Waste Management Services division for Halton Region as the Administration Technician. This involves data management and analysis, and financial administration of the waste collection and processing contracts. I am determined to travel the world, and you may see me scooting around town on my Vespa.
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