Barry Commoner: America's Controversial Environmentalist

A Plowboy Interview with Barry Commoner, a leader in America's original environmental movement, who argues that environmentalism has failed because it has focused on unenforced regulatory controls rather than prevention.

| March/April 1990

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    Ecologist Barry Commoner argues that the environmental control strategy doesn't work—instead, prevention is the only way to help.
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    The first full modern flowering of American environmentalism occurred early in 1970, becoming an "official" social issue by rating cover space on Time. Unfortunately, the environmental reality is still "half-and-half."

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The first Earth Day was like a big party; the 20 years since, like the day after. We've still got headaches, as Barry Commoner, an elder of America's environmental movement, reminds us. He is still strong. Still urgent.  

On February 2, 1970, Time magazine chose to devote its cover story to "Environment: Nixon's New Issue." Ecologist Barry Commoner, hailed as the Paul Revere of "the emerging science of survival," stared out at the reader against a background half lush, half despoiled. Inside, the eight-page feature detailed our growing ecological problems, recommended a few possible solutions, and then, almost as an aside, it mentioned an upcoming "nationwide teach-in."

The trouble with rereading that article, 20 years after the original Earth Day, is that, all in all, it
doesn't sound dated. Despite the momentum generated on that birth date of the national environmental movement, despite the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts, despite the establishment and promising start of the Environmental Protection Agency, and despite all the carefully scheduled deadlines for reducing pollution, the nest has not gotten cleaner. The old pollution problems weren't eliminated—and new ones have been added.  

Barry Commoner has changed, though. He no longer rides horseback, Revere-like, swinging a lantern and crying a warning. Instead, he now looks back over the environmental road we've all traveled in the past two decades. Searching out the instances in which we've been successful, he compares them to our failures and points out a way to redirect our course so that when Earth Day III comes around (2010; not that far away), we may not have to start over—for yet a third time.  

You may disagree with Commoner's controversial analysis, but you can't knock his credentials. Since he first tackled the strontium 90 dangers of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1953, he has been meeting environmental issues head-on, full-time, and scientifically, as director of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College in New York. CBNS has tackled the economics of nuclear power, the feasibility of organic farming, the ecology of urban rats, the contamination of mother's milk by pesticides, and more. The group's current emphasis is on waste disposal: recycling versus incineration. A project of theirs on Long Island, for example, recycled 84% of household trash, a rate that could eliminate the need for incinerators ("dioxin factories," Commoner calls them) and the cost would be 35% that of incineration.  

Assistant Editor Pat Stone interviewed Dr. Commoner in the small CBNS library. In a courteous but no-nonsense conversation, Commoner spoke with the vision of one who can see both the trees and the forest.  

Dr. Commoner, in your recent writings, from Greenpeace magazine to the New Yorker, you repeatedly claim that the environmental movement has failed. Why?  

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