The following blog post is from Charlotte Brody, BlueGreen Alliance Associate Director, Health Initiatives.
Planet Earth’s Lifeguard. The Paul Revere of Ecology. After Rachel Carson, America’s most prominent environmentalist. The tributes to Barry Commoner, who died on Sunday at the age of 95, feature a fine variety of laudatory phrases. I want to add my own.
Proponent of silo demolition. Not the metal silos that hold corn but the mental silos that keep us so focused on one issue that we cannot see the connections that would help us effectively address the issue on which we are so focused.
In his 1971 book, Barry Commoner proposed that the four laws of ecology are:
Everything is connected to everything else;
Everything must go somewhere;
Nature knows best; and
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
In his life, Barry observed those four laws in the practice of science and politics. During World War II, Commoner was part of the U.S. Naval Air Corps effort to solve the problem of insects on American troops-landing beaches by aerial bombardment with the pesticide DDT. Barry recognized that while DDT did temporarily solve the insect problem, it also created the outside the silo problem of dead and decaying fish and birds which lead to more insects.
After World War II, Barry Commoner came home and began to teach at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. When evidence began to show that radioactive fallout from atomic testing was getting into our nation’s milk supply, Commoner de-siloed scientific research methods by engaging children and parents in the collection of baby teeth that could be tested for the presence of radioactive Strontium 90. That research and the education of the public that followed were major factors in governments around the world ending atmospheric nuclear testing.
Commoner’s legacy of environmental leadership began with nuclear fallout and went on to tackle the problems of water and air pollution; toxic chemicals and pesticides; occupational disease; and waste incineration and the solutions of organic farming, recycling, sustainability and clean energy. But his experience with each of these issues lead him to propose the demolishing of the silos that separate the movements for civil rights, sexual equality, organized labor, and environmentalism. “If they would only get together, they could remake the country,” Barry said in a 2006 Last Word video interview with the New York Times.
In that interview, Commoner explained what a de-siloed movement could remake:
The thoughtless way in which we decide what we are going to produce and how to produce it. Thoughtless in the sense that all we are interested in is getting the thing produced without thinking about how its done and what impact that has not simply on getting the product but on our lives, our health, the welfare of poor people, the environment as a whole.
Barry Commoner. 1917 to 2012. Opponent of mental silos and proponent of a clean and just manufacturing policy for the United States.