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Barry Commoner & His Life

barry commoner

Barry Commoner & His Life

Early Life:

Barry Commoner was a renowned American biologist, politician, and professor. Barry was born on May 28, 1917, in the city of Brooklyn, New York. He is considered one of the most successful and leading ecologists of the modern environmental world. Being the director of the Center for Biology of Natural Systems and its Critical Genetics Project, Barry worked hard to maintain a safe and healthy environment. He also participated in the 1980 U.S. presidential action. His work of radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

In 1937, Barry joined Columbia University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Zoology. After completing his bachelor’s, Barry went on to do Master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.

Barry also served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II. When World War II ended, Commoner left the U.S Navy and moved to St. Louis, Missouri. There, he started working as an associate editor for a magazine called Science Illustrated from 1946 to 1947. In 1947, Barry became a very good professor of plant physiology at Washington University. He taught there for approximately 34 years and during this period, he was able to establish the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems. This centre was established to study the science of the environment. In 1961, Barry was on the founding editorial board of the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

How did Barry Commoner fight against nuclear testing?

Barry was one of the main figures who opposed nuclear weapon testing. He was the main person of the team that conducted a survey called “Baby Tooth Survey”. This group was successful in showing the negative impact of nuclear testing on children. They successfully demonstrated that Strontium 90 would be present in the teeth of children if there was nuclear fallout.

Barry Commoner and the Environment:

Barry Commoner always viewed environmental issues and crises as a result of an intrinsically flawed social and economic system. He believed that technology, government priorities, and greed led to the destruction of the environment and many researchers and activists agree on this. Barry believed that scientific information must be given out to the general public so that the public could ask questions. He further said that citizens deserve to know the health hazards associated with the latest technologies. He was successful in connecting these environmental issues to social and economic systems. He insisted that environmental issues lead to poverty, racism, injustice, and war.

Barry was the man who cared about the hazardous consequences resulting from nuclear power. He was the one who argued that these hazards hurt mostly minorities and poor people as they live near dangerous chemical plants.

DDT and its consequences

The journey of protecting the environment for Barry started from his time in the Navy. While serving in the Navy, he was instructed to spray DDT on insects that spread disease among soldiers. When his team and he sprayed, they saw that DDT killed tons of fish on the beach along with insects. He realized that taking action to preserve the ecosystem can trigger reactions elsewhere. After the war, many scientists including Barry became worried about the consequences of nuclear fallout. They believed that it was their responsibility to explain the aftermaths of nuclear fallout.

In 1958, Barry along with other scientists formed a committee for nuclear information. Their aim was to educate the public about the negative impacts of nuclear power. They insisted to form an agreement to stop the testing of nuclear bombs. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy finally proposed the “Nuclear Test Ban Treaty”.

Barry had an experience with DDT before so he proposed that new chemicals or technologies must not be introduced until the harm and risk of those chemicals and technologies are known. They should be improved once they are declared safe for the public. Barry also researched detergents and pesticides and concluded that natural products such as soap and cotton must be used instead of them as they pollute the environment.

The progressive era brought about great change to the United States. Since the industrial revolution, the country grew in population, and as a result, as well as other countries as well as as it became a global superpower. The advancement in society was what many people agreed on, but not everyone agreed.

Many people were unhappy with the change and the inequality that followed. Many people were worried that the population was too large to support the planet’s natural resources, that the world is running out of resources, and that the efforts to go green are not well supported by the political establishment. Barry Commoner was one of these people.

In the 1970s, Barry became anxious about the population. He said that third-world countries with huge populations are responsible for ecological problems as they deplete natural resources rapidly. Although third world countries were depleting natural resources Barry believed that rich nations were primarily responsible for ecological problems because they dominate the world and control resources.

Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle”:

Barry wrote a book named “The Closing Circle”, in which he explained why the government, consumers, and companies need to be in sync with the four laws of ecology (everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch). This book helped in giving the idea of sustainability. Barry explained that nature is no waste and countries must look for ways to introduce and utilize alternative forms of energy like solar and wind.

Barry Commoner’s “The Poverty of Power”

In 1976, Barry wrote, “The Poverty of Power”, in which he introduced the concept of “Three Es” (threat to environmental survival, shortage of energy, and problems such as inequality and unemployment) related to the economy. He described that industries that are using the most energy are actually damaging the environment more. Barry was a sensible man; he never blamed the consumers for buying products that are not environmentally friendly nor did he blame the workers who produce these products. He knew that big companies and their political allies are involved in dominating society and making decisions that are best for their own purposes.

Barry worked hard to create a sustainable environment but while giving an interview in 2007 to The New York Times, he warned that environmental pollution is not a curable disease. He believed that it can only be protected if the harmful chemicals and products are stopped at the point of production. In the interview, the 90-year-old Barry Commoner said: “I think that most of the ‘greening’ that we see so much of now has failed to look back on arguments such as my own—that action has to be taken on what’s produced and how it’s produced. That’s unfortunate, but I’m an eternal optimist, and I think eventually people will come around.”

Due to Barry’s work and continuous efforts for protecting the environment, many Americans were impressed and accepted his ideas about workplace hazards, recycling, efficient use of non-renewable sources, and nuclear power plants.

In 1979, Barry formed a party named “The Citizens Party”, hoping it would gain popularity like the Green Party in Europe. The next year, he ran his party in presidential elections. Unfortunately, he received 1% of the national vote. Most third parties in the U.S. received few votes just like the Citizens Party. After losing the elections, Barry did not run for the elections again but he worked as an advisor for Jesse Jackson’s Democratic Party presidential campaigns in the 1980s.

Barry Commoner’s Death

Barry Commoner died on September 30, 2012, in the city of Manhattan, New York. He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. To honour Barry Commoner, the Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Queens College was renamed The Barry Commoner Center for Health and the Environment in 2014. He was a pioneer in the environmental movement and was a great inspiration to many who loved and respected the planet.


In conclusion, Barry Commoner helped lay the foundations for environmentalism. On the one hand, the environmental movement benefited greatly from his ideas and political activism. On the other hand, however, his view of the world that humanity could not and should not interfere with natural processes, along with his condemnation of the atom bomb and his interest in urban life and human health, made him a key figure in the environment protection.

His books not only opened eyes but made people realize that we all have a part in making the world a better place. The most important thing that he taught me is that there is a lot that we can do to improve our environment and to stop harming it. We can all take small steps to lessen the impact on nature and to cut down on the greenhouse gases that we release into the air.

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