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#548 - Origins of Environmental Ideas, 27-May-1997

Where did the grass-roots environmental movement come from? Most people
would say it began with action by citizens in the late 1970s and early
1980s --and of course they would be partly right. But the world was
prepared for grass-roots environmentalism because of certain IDEAS, and
to a surprising degree those ideas originated with one person --a
scientist in St. Louis, Missouri, named Barry Commoner.

Commoner was born May 28, 1917, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of a Russian
immigrant tailor. In 1933 he entered Columbia University, then Harvard,
earning a Ph.D. in cellular biology in 1941. During World War II he
served in the Naval Air Force. In 1947 he took a faculty position with
Washington University in St. Louis where he soon distinguished himself
as an exceptionally creative and insightful researcher, studying
viruses and elusive "free radicals" in living tissues.

Commoner continued to publish work on proteins and free radicals for 20
years, but in the early 1950s, something happened that caught his
attention and turned his interest to larger questions. On the morning
of April 25th, 1953, a nuclear bomb was exploded at the Nevada Test
Site. Thirty-six hours later, an intense rain storm occurred in the
city of Troy, New York, 2300 miles distant from the Nevada Test Site,
and radiation counters at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) began
recording atomic fallout three times as high as natural background
radiation.[1] Radioactive debris falling out onto Troy became an
important news event and suddenly the public began to understand that
you didn't have to live near the Nevada Test Site to get yourself
irradiated by atomic bomb tests.

That event started Barry Commoner thinking in a new direction --a
direction that would eventually lead to the present grass-roots
environmental movement.

When Commoner tried to learn more about atomic fallout in 1953, he
found that much of the information was secret --classified so by the
U.S. government. This made it impossible for academic scientists to
examine the data --a violation of the principles of science.

As Commoner expressed it, science can only work when scientists can
communicate freely their data and their interpretations of the data.
"We need to recall," he wrote in SCIENCE magazine in 1958, "that the
development of a scientific truth is a direct outcome of the degree of
communication which normally exists in science. As individuals,
scientists are no less fallible that any other reasonably cautious
people. What we call a scientific truth emerges from investigators'
insistence on free publication of their own observations. This permits
the rest of the scientific community to check the data and evaluate the
interpretations, so that eventually a commonly held body of facts and
ideas comes into being. Any failure to communicate information to the
entire scientific community hampers the attainment of a common
understanding."[2] The heart of science is open communication, so
secrecy --whether imposed by government or by private corporations --is
antithetical to science.

Commoner restated many times his view that the scientific method rests
squarely on open communication: "Scientists are, individually, no more
truthful than anyone else. Nevertheless, science IS a way of getting at
the truth, and scientists --most of them --practice their craft in
truthful ways. Why? The reason is that science gets at the truth
through open discourse. Scientists learn how to practice science
truthfully by making their mistakes in public. This permits their
colleagues to correct mistaken information and modify faulty
conclusions. This is the meaning of open publication of scientific
results; it is the essential way in which science approaches the

The issue of atomic fallout occupied Commoner for a dozen years. While
studying it, he derived many of the principles of environmental
protection that now form the unspoken basis for grass-roots

For example, he clearly established the principle that, in a democracy,
scientists have no more right to make decisions than anyone else. Today
grass-roots activists might express this as "It's your world. Don't
leave it to the experts." Commoner said the same thing 40 years ago:
decisions with major social consequences must not be left to experts.
On the contrary, Commoner said, experts have an obligation to inform
the public about the scientific facts and then let the public decide:

"Anyone who attempts to determine whether or not the biological hazards
of world-wide fallout can be justified by necessity must somehow weigh
a number of human lives against deliberate action to achieve a desired
military or political advantage. Such decisions have been made before--
for example, by military commanders--but never in the history of
humanity has such a judgment involved literally every individual now
living and expected for some generations to live on the earth."[2]

He went on to ask, who should make such judgments, which require a
determination of the value of human life: scientific experts or elected
political representatives?[2]

Commoner pointed out that scientists have no special competence in
matters of moral judgment. Further, he said "scientists must take pains
to disclaim any special moral wisdom" on the issue of continued above-
ground nuclear testing. Scientists should speak on the issue, if they
have relevant information to convey, but their expertise does not
confer upon them any special capacity to draw moral conclusions from
their data. When it comes to balancing citizens' lives against military
goals, a scientist is just one more citizen making a moral judgment --
his or her scientific expertise does not enter into the moral equation.

He said, "[W]e must not allow this issue [nuclear testing], by default,
to rest in the hands of the scientists alone. A question of this
gravity cannot be handed over for decision to any group less inclusive
than our entire citizenry."[2]

Indeed, it is "self-evident," Commoner argued in 1958, that "the public
must be given enough information about the need for testing and the
hazards of fallout to permit every citizen to decide for himself
whether nuclear tests should go on or be stopped."[2]

Commoner put his ideas into practice: he helped organize scientists and
citizens into the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI).
They started a newsletter called NUCLEAR INFORMATION, which evolved
into a magazine with the important (and telling) title, SCIENTIST AND

Commoner, and his fellow scientists at CNI in St. Louis, formed a
working alliance with many local citizens. Commoner's work studying
atomic fallout had convinced him that fallout represented a biological
hazard to humans. However, the U.S. government insisted that fallout
was benign. For example, President Eisenhower in 1956 said, "The
continuance of the present rate of H-bomb testing[,] by the most sober
and responsible scientific judgment... does not imperil the health of

The Committee for Nuclear Information began collecting baby teeth and
sending them to a lab for analysis of radioactivity. The goal was to
show that strontium-90, one of the main components of fallout from A-
bomb testing, was building up in humans. They succeeded. Eight years
later, the official U.S. position on atomic fallout had changed
completely. In a televised address, in 1964, President Johnson said,
"The deadly products of atomic explosions were poisoning our soil and
our food and the milk our children drank and the air we all breathe....
Radioactive poisons were beginning to threaten the safety of people
throughout the world. They were a growing menace to the health of every
unborn child."[4] In fact in 1963, President Kennedy had signed an
international treaty phasing out above-ground testing of nuclear
weapons. It was a triumph of citizen action, with scientists helping
bring critical facts to light.

Commoner often acknowledged the important role of an active citizenry:
"Nor is the collaboration between scientist and citizen a one-way
street. Citizens have contributed significantly to what scientists now
know about fallout. Through the St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey, the
children of that city have contributed, as of now, some 150,000 teeth
to the cause of scientific knowledge about fallout.... By such means,
and through hard work and financial support many citizens have become
partners in the scientific effort to elucidate the fallout problem."[5]

From this story, we can learn that Commoner pioneered another aspect of
modern thinking about the environment. He did not call for less atomic
testing. He called for an END to atomic testing. His training as a
biologist convinced him that human intrusions into the global biosphere
would have unsuspected consequences:

"Moreover, whenever the biological system exposed to a possibly toxic
agent is very large and complex, the probability that any increase in
contamination will lead to a new point of attack somewhere in this
intricate system cannot be ignored. Finally, the toxic effects of many
organic pollutants, like those of radiation, may appear only after a
delay of many years. For these reasons, it is prudent to regard any
addition of a potentially toxic substance to the biosphere as capable
of producing a total biological effect which is roughly proportional to
its concentration in the biosphere," he wrote.[5]

Thus the only way to prevent environmental damage from toxics would be
to exclude them from the environment completely. Today we call it
POLLUTION PREVENTION. Barry Commoner argued for it, and provided the
rationale for it, nearly 40 years ago.

Discussing the role of scientists in controversies involving nuclear
fallout, nuclear war, or "environmental contamination in general," a
committee chaired by Barry Commoner wrote in 1965, "In a number of
instances, individual scientists, independent scientific committees,
and scientific advisory groups to the government have stated that a
particular hazard is 'negligible,' or 'acceptable' or 'unacceptable'--
without making it clear that the conclusion is NOT A SCIENTIFIC
CONCLUSION, BUT A SOCIAL JUDGMENT. [Substitute the word 'risk' for
'hazard' in that last sentence and notice the modern ring that it takes
on.--P.M.] Nevertheless, it is natural that the public should assume
that such pronouncements are scientific conclusions. Since such
conclusions, put forward by individual scientists, or by groups of
scientists, are often contradictory, a question which commonly arises
among the public is, 'How do we know which scientists are telling the

Thus in 1965 Commoner and his colleagues warned us that risk
assessments are political in nature, not merely scientific, and that
many scientists overstep the bounds of scientific legitimacy and try to
impose their (or their employer's) political decisions and views upon
the public, using science as a screen.

These ideas seem entirely modern and universal because they are deeply
held today (based on experience) by grass-roots environmentalists
everywhere. But really these ideas only sound modern and universal.
They are at least 35 years old, and they came to us through the hard
work of one man of extraordinary vision --Barry Commoner.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Herbert M. Clark, "The Occurrence of Unusually High-Level
Radioactive Rainout in the Area of Troy, N.Y.," SCIENCE Vol. 119 (May
7, 1954), pgs. 619-622.

[2] Barry Commoner, "The Fallout Problem," SCIENCE Vol. 127, No. 3305
(May 2, 1958), pgs. 1023-1026.

[3] Barry Commoner, "Toward a Humane Science" Reed College SALLYPORT
(August, 1970), pg. 7.

[4] Quoted in Barry Commoner, "The Myth of Omnipotence," ENVIRONMENT
Vol. 11, No. 2 (March 1969), pgs. 8-13, 26-28.

[5] Barry Commoner, "Fallout and Water Pollution--Parallel Cases,"
SCIENTIST AND CITIZEN Vol. 7, No. 2 (December 1964), pgs. 2-7.

[6] AAAS Committee on Science in the Promotion of Human Welfare, "The
Integrity of Science" AMERICAN SCIENTIST Vol. 53 (1965), pgs. 174-198.

Descriptor terms: barry commoner; risk assessment; nuclear war;
fallout; radiation; strontium 90; troy, ny; science; pollution
prevention; risk assessment; history of environentalism;

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