The World’s Fair sits down with Michael Egan, author of Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (MIT Press, 2007), Assistant Professor of History at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and sometime Bonepony fan.
This is the first in a probable series of “Author Meets Bloggers” posts, where we talk to authors about their new work. Read below for Part I. Chime in with questions as they arise – for the author, for other readers, for your id.
THE WORLD’S FAIR: Here’s a hard-hitting starter: what’s your book about?
MICHAEL EGAN: I guess the book is trying to do two things at once. On the one hand, it’s a career biography of Barry Commoner or, more properly, a history of his social and scientific activism. Very few people have looked carefully at his influence on science and environmentalism. On the other, I try to use Commoner as a lens to look at the history of American environmentalism since World War II. From this perspective, we see the social connection between environment, health, and peace, and we also understand how environment goods and environmental bads are distributed inequitably across race, class, and gender.
TWF: Why should folks know more about Barry Commoner?
ME: Commoner is one of the most important environmentalists in American history. He should be in any top five list of American environmental leaders, up there with Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Alice Hamilton. It may be heretical to say it, but I think he’s a more important figure in American environmentalism than Rachel Carson, if only because of the range of issues he addressed and the methods he brought to his activism. Over his career, Commoner worked on nuclear fallout, pesticides, water contamination, air pollution, toxic metals, the petrochemical industry, population, energy and nuclear power, urban waste disposal, dioxin, recycling, and all manner of other environmental issues. To Commoner, these were not individual problems but rather parts of the same problem: American production choices were flawed. We developed synthetic chemicals because they were cheap without thinking about their health and environmental consequences. As a result, big petrochemical companies got rich by externalizing the real costs of their products. We pick up the tab for the dirty skies and waters, not the polluters. Commoner pointed this out and worked with a number of community and labor groups on community and occupational health problems. I think he understood–much earlier than most–that environmental problems were really social problems and needed to be recognized as such.
TWF: What was so significant about his work?
Commoner’s influence on the production and consumption of science is also pretty important. He argued throughout his career that scientists had a social responsibility to the citizenry that supported them. He resisted the notion that scientists should be cloistered in labs. During the 1950s, fallout from aboveground nuclear weapons testing raised a number of health concerns. Commoner rightly pointed out that scientists understood these hazards better than anyone and that they had a responsibility to the public to provide them with accessible information. In so doing, he invented the science information movement. Commoner reasoned that scientists and policymakers did not possess any special moral authority to dictate risk to the public, so he made a point of providing accessible scientific information to enable the average citizen to weigh in. In a period of Cold War conformity, that’s a pretty revolutionary idea, but he was able to couch it in the rhetoric of democracy, because public participation is a crucial democratic idea.
TWF:What has been his legacy?
ME: That’s a tough one. Part of me wants to say he got the whole environmental message right much earlier and more comprehensively than anyone else. He did, and that’s pretty important. Having said that, his message is still relevant in 2007, which is to say that not enough people really listened. In terms of practical legacy, I think his science information movement is alive and well. The North American public is more knowledgeable about environmental issues–and in a sophisticated way–than previous generations. Al Gore’s film is a neat example of Commoner’s science information movement in practice. Of course, it’s strategically laced with all kinds of persuasive rhetoric and imagery, but at its heart, what makes it tick is the suggestion that he is simply offering irrefutable facts. We trust him, because he claims to be letting us decide based on the evidence. That’s what Commoner did. It’s a very clever method of empowering people.
In my book, I credit Commoner with remaking American environmentalism. I suggest he introduced a new apparatus for environmental protest, by insisting upon the importance of dissent in a period of political conformity and scientific consensus, through his science information movement, and in his focus on public participation in risk assessment.
Part II is here.