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Celebrating Barry Commoner, Father of the Modern Environmental Movement


Celebrating Barry Commoner, Father of the Modern Environmental Movement

Peter Dreier

Described in 1970 by Time magazine as the “Paul Revere of ecology,” Commoner followed Rachel Carson as America’s most prominent modern environmentalist. But unlike Carson, Commoner viewed the environmental crisis as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed economic and social system.


Commoner was a huge influence on me. As an adolescent, i read The Closing Circle shortly after it was published, and i’ve never stopped seeing the ecology and the economy in those terms.

We must dis-empower corporations, and put the economy to work on behalf of humanity and the Earth, not a tiny class of looters and profiteers. We’ve reached the point of no ecological return.


Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Commoner’s birth and today is the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth. Both contributed to putting Murka on a more progressive trajectory.


Excellent article! Makes me nostalgic for those days when real change seemed possible, almost inevitable. The American people were more open to progressive change in those days, it seemed to me, once they understood that the ideas of those like Commoner made sense. Everyday people seemed to be generally more open-minded then on many things, and had a greater respect for science and scientists.

I started noticing attitudes hardening and becoming more partisan in the 1980’s, coinciding with the rise of right-wing religion’s increasing politicization, the demise of the Fairness Doctrine in media, and the well-funded rise and influence of right-wing “think tanks”. These trends have now become normal to most of those under 50. It’s almost impossible to have a rational conversation about environmental issues, climate change, fossil fuel consumption, war, peace, foreign policy, domestic policy, sane gun restrictions or anything else, when people make sure that they only communicate with other “true believers” as much as possible.

The words of Barry Commoner are more important now than ever before, The country largely ignores these things at its own peril. The same can be said for the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn and many others who shared their wisdom for the benefit of humanity.


Lester Brown should also be included in your list of voices that are being ignored or forgotten. The writings of JKG absolutely need to be resurrected.

When W was in office I wrote many letters to the editor of the local paper. Not because I wanted to see my name in print. Quite the contrary; in this very conservative, very religious, flag-waving region I wrote with quite some trepidation. I wrote because it was obvious to me that the media had become the mouthpiece of power - almost completely - and the only way to get a dissenting view in print for others to read and identify with, was to do it myself.

Maybe it’s time to continue that. This area went heavily for Trump. As I’ve related, this area is also “served” by a TV station that is part of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group right-wing propaganda machine. Friday evening on their FOX affiliated channel there was an all-out assault on “liberal media,” and (attitudes of) negativism about Trump, and the like. Also a heavy dose of fear-mongering, and “terrorist” labeling. It was truly chilling; a harbinger of things to come. This stuff is national, so I’m sure many here also saw the same thing.

Not to harangue, mock, or ridicule the many voters in this area who went for Trump, but to point out to those not irretrievably lost to the dark side (hate, fear, selfish greed, self-destructive tribalism (nationalism)) that his gain is our loss. Tough sell here though. Once a prosperous region, that prosperity rested on uncontrolled resource extraction (coal mining) and under regulated industrialism, and many here long to return to those days. No images of a native American elder shedding tears in front of a garbage filled estuary will sway the opportunity starved working class here this time.

Worked on a proposed project in NW Pittsburgh to develop another mega shopping center. Worst piece of ground for development I ever saw; impossible topography, and a large and important tributary to the Allegheny River ran through it. That ground was overlooked by a hilltop childhood home of Rachel Carson. As a bone thrown to environmental objections to this proposal, the developers offered to build a kiosk at the corner of acres of blacktop parking at a bend in that stream which they proposed to straighten horizontally and vertically and restrict within the confines of rip-rapped banks. They proposed to promote this kiosk as “The Rachel Carson Outdoor Experimental Laboratory.” An experiment in doublespeak and debased mockery. I believe that what was also visible from the front porch of Carson’s girlhood home (though I have never taken the tour to prove this to myself) was on institution called “Gulf Labs” where all sorts of nasty chemical brews were devised by that corporation and its affiliates. Don’t know if it’s still there, but there used to be a collection of contaminated containers (on those grounds) sitting just off the berm of the major highway. As it happened, another competing mega shopping center just north of there was developed instead, and all the national majors pulled out of this project. Thankfully. I left my profession (again) because I objected to this project, and as I understand it the firm I worked for was left with over $1m of unpaid fees by the investment consortium and Walmart.

It should also be noted that many of these mega centers are becoming hollowed-out white elephants, as this chapter of hyper-consumerism dies an ugly and debt-ridden death.


Thank you for sharing your celebration of “Commoner”. I don’t remember the name but have been in the movement back in the late 60’s as a young women with a new born and must of gotten some of my thinking from him and of course, Silent Spring.

It is so discouraging that the movement made many strides and wins and we have gone backward but do have many hard working people who are still trying to overcome chemicals and over population et al.