The Role of Science in American Environmentalism

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.

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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?

ME: Go back and read his earlier work, like The Closing Circle or Making Peace with the Planet, and while some of the numbers may be a little dated, his intentions and arguments still hold currency.

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.

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Im curious to know more. So, why was Commoner so influential with environmentalists (if he indeed was) but not necessarily the scientists? You might say, well why do you think he wasnt successful? To that, Id say: well, because everytime I get into a discussion about current environment/health/social problems related to science and science-based industry, I basically get the Ehrlich line spit back at me, not the Commoner line. So, what was it that made Ehrlich more successful with the scientists than Commoner?

Related: maybe you could offer some perspective on why these debates rage on, in almost identical form, but simply with new actors (e.g., Condorcet vs. Malthus; Commoner vs. Ehrlich; Sen vs. the scientific establishment). And why is it that that the latter group always seems to win?

Great questions, and I only really have unsatisfactory answers. Understand first that Commoner was/is an old-school lefty, and that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Ehrlich was/is a mainstream liberal. In that sense, Paul Ehrlich and his population position (from which he seems to have backed off a little in recent years) had more popular appeal and still does. Ehrlich also had the support of the mainstream and older conservation movement. He was exceptionally popular with the Sierra Club and other traditionally white and middle-class organizations. For his part, Commoner worked outside this mainstream in poor and minority communities. In short, Condorcet, Commoner, and Sen are the radicals.

Another way to look at this is to tackle their respective messages. Ehrlich's population position claimed that controlling population growth would control pollution issues. Simple as that. It's kind of like the latest workout craze on TV. Ten minutes, twice a month, and we'll have abs/buns/pecs/thighs of steel. Or, better yet, take one pill a day and it will burn the fat for you. It's the easy way to get fit. And, of course, it doesn't work, so we all have basements full of gimmicky workout equipment that we gave up on when the next sure-thing showed up on late-night TV. In contrast, Commoner's take involved making time for regular exercise, cutting fatty foods out of your diet, and sticking with it for a long time. So, Ehrlich says: "let's cut immigration and the number of babies we have. And let's encourage the rest of the world to follow our lead. Fewer people make less pollution." That's a lot easier than listening to Commoner, who says: "we need to radically alter the way we produce things and we need to have greater control over industries that pollute. Population and pollution are not proportionally representative." That involves a lot more work at the onset. We prefer the easier path. Too, whether or not we buy Commoner's approach, it suggests a high level of culpability among developed world producers and consumers, and that's never a popular line of argument, especially among scientists and engineers responsible for facilitating the path we have followed.

After all that, though, I think it's important to remember that population has had very little to do with pollution. I talk a lot about this in the book, that the way we pollute matters more than the number of people doing it. Ehrlich has a point--and sounds persuasive--insofar as more people tends to mean more cars on the road, etc., but the important dynamic is not the number of cars, but rather the fact that they're SUVs that burn and emit more pollutants (complete with higher tax incentives than the smaller car), when more people could be driving electric cars or cycling or taking more efficient public transit if these options were available with less of an impact. More people create more waste, but only because we still don't take recycling very seriously and everything we buy comes with twenty times more packaging than it really requires.

Finally, I think Commoner is still pretty influential among scientists. He had a strong reputation as a lab researcher (he won the AAAS's Newcomb Cleveland award in 1953). If Commoner's career is frowned upon by scientists, it's because he extended the peer review on environmental issues. Ehrlich rode his authority as a scientist to persuade people that population was a concern; Commoner claimed scientists had no moral authority to make social decisions for the public. One promoted the expertise of the scientific establishment; the other questioned it. And Commoner seemed to enjoy confrontation; he engaged in what he called "principled arrogance," the idea that backing down was inappropriate if you knew you were right (think about Muhammad Ali's "it ain't bragging if it's true" and apply it to scientific controversy). So he made a number of adversaries among scientific colleagues by sticking to his guns.

In light of this discussion, I thought it would be useful to point to an interview with Commoner that references Egan's book and a symposium at ASA this summer, here. Commoner talks about nuclear power, DDT, and his failed presidential bid of 1980...

Thanks for pointing out the interview. I think I highlights a lot of what Michael said in his comments. Michael, youre spot on, as usual. I especially like the analogy between these quick fixes and the 8 minutes abs. Theres this pervasive assumption that somehow we can have it all, with no real change necessary, and no real sacrifice to our everyday lives. This seems not only naïve but selfish.

It continues to surprise me, though, that folks (including lots of green scientists) have continued to follow the Ehrlich line rather than the Commoner one. So why is this? Surely there are a number of possible reasons, but inline with some of the stuff that Ive been working on/thinking about lately, it primarily seems to come down to a lack of awareness of the types of infrastructures precisely what Commoner seems to have been getting at in his work (at least as far as I can tell from my own readings and your messages). Its both the product and the mode of production that must be changed and thats just the start. Weve also got to consider why need that product in the first place. Whats been so terribly frustrating is the ways in which these win-win short-term solution scenarios have become so pervasive in nearly every corner.

But theres something else that I wonder if Michael might be able to comment on here: the role of scientific expertise. The Ehrlich/Commoner split seems to highlight this problem nicely. In recent years, as most the role of science in the federal agencies has come under increasing scrutiny, abuse, pressure, whathaveyou, the call from many places has been for removing the politics from science and letting scientists go about their business, speaking scientific truth to power. However, much of this debate has a basic assumption: that most scientists agree with one another and will come to the same conclusions about things. Yet, this is clearly not so in the Ehrlich-Commoner debates, and their successor debates. That is, Ehrlich and Commoner clearly have a lot in common with respect to their concerns, but they reach vastly different conclusions. So, maybe my question is: have these debates lead to some of the problems were seeing now since both of these figures were also quite activist in careers, or do their actions highlight something more fundamental about the relationships between science, politics, and activism?

I think you're right, Jody. One of the important qualities of Commoner's activism was his capacity for identifying larger systems and infrastructures. It wasn't enough to say that DDT was dangerous; he needed to determine why it was being produced in the first place. And these are the harder changes. It's always easier to build upon existing systems than to create original systems from scratch.

And I'm glad you raised the question of scientific expertise, because that's something I'm really quite interested in at the moment. In an interview in the early 1970s, Commoner said that he thought his scientific work was enough to have him inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, but that his activism kept him out. And I wonder about folks like Commoner and Ehrlich, and others like David Suzuki, whose reputations ride to one degree on their expertise, while they become household names not because they're very very smart but because they had a special facility for (and dedication to) communicating information beyond their respective scientific communities. Their being perceived as experts gave them a forum. Keep in mind, also, that Commoner, Ehrlich, and Suzuki were instrumental in putting ecology on the map, but none was actually trained as an ecologist. That's pretty interesting, and raises a whole host of new questions!

I think the importance of the Commoner-Ehrlich debate (early 1970s, disputing the centrality of population growth to the environmental crisis) is that it had considerable popular appeal, and it was confusing that scientists should disagree--and publicly. Not the first time, of course--I seem to recall that folks like Galileo and Darwin ran into similar kinds of problems--but the timing was crucial for the environmental movement. In the book, I talk about how the debate came at precisely the moment that the environmental movement had sprung into the mainstream. The debate got really ugly.

I should also stress that while the Commoner-Ehrlich, population vs. pollution debate is frequently the main reason people remember Commoner, it really isn't the apotheosis of his career or environmental work.

As a retired professor of global ecology and world environmental issues, I agree completely with Michael Egan's appreciation of the late Barry Commoner. Egan's great historical book about Barry Commoner and the remaking of American environmentalism, published in 2007, after his dissertation of 2004 (available online), is not only a very good biography of an important post-WWII U.S. critical scientist turned environmental biologist and activist, but also, according to me, an excellent historiographical assessment of the scientific and political context of radical environmentalism in the 1960s and the 1970s, when the science of ecology comes of age as a societal, national and international issue.

By Jacques Grinevald (not verified) on 12 Oct 2012 #permalink