Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner
Barry Commoner
Born May 28, 1917 (1917-05-28) (age 94)
Brooklyn, New York, United States
Education Columbia University
Harvard University
Occupation Biologist
Religion Judaism
Parents Russian Immigrants

Barry Commoner (born May 28, 1917) is an American biologist, college professor, and eco-socialist. He ran for president of the United States in the 1980 US presidential election on the Citizens Party ticket. He was also editor of Science Illustrated magazine.



Commoner was born in Brooklyn. He received his bachelor's degree in zoology from Columbia University (1937) and his master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University (1938, 1941)."[1] After serving as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II, he moved to St. Louis where became a professor of plant physiology at Washington University. He taught there for 34 years and during this period, in 1966, he founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems to study "the science of the total environment".[citation needed]

In the late 1950s, Commoner became well-known for his opposition to nuclear testing. He went on to write several books about the negative ecological effects of above-ground nuclear testing. In 1970 he received the International Humanist Award from the International Humanist and Ethical Union.

In his 1971 book The Closing Circle, a bestseller, Commoner suggested that the American economy should be restructured to conform to the unbending laws of ecology.[2] For example, he argued that polluting products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) should be replaced with natural products (like soap or cotton and wool).[2] This book was one of the first to bring the idea of sustainability to a mass audience.[2] Commoner suggested a left-wing, eco-socialist response to the limits to growth thesis, postulating that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures. He had a long running debate with Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb and his followers, arguing that they were too focused on overpopulation as the source of environmental problems, and that their proposed solutions were politically unacceptable because of the coercion that they implied, and because the cost would fall disproportionately on the poor. He believed that technological, and above all social development would lead to a natural decrease in both population growth and environmental damage.[3]

Commoner published another bestseller in 1976, The Poverty of Power.[2] In that book, he addressed the "Three Es" that were plaguing the United States in the 1970s: "First there was the threat to environmental survival; then there was the apparent shortage of energy; and now there is the unexpected decline of the economy."[4] He argued that the three issues were interconnected: the industries that used the most energy had the highest negative impact on the environment; the focus on non-renewable resources as sources of energy meant that those resources were growing scarce, thus pushing up the price of energy and hurting the economy.[2] Towards the book's end, Commoner suggests that the problem of the Three Es is caused by the capitalistic system and can only be solved by replacing it with some sort of socialism.[2]

In 1980, he founded the Citizens Party to serve as a vehicle for his ecological message, and he ran for President of the United States in the 1980 US Election. His official running mate was La Donna Harris, Native-American wife of Fred Harris, the former Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, although she was replaced on the ballot in Ohio by Wretha Hanson.[5][6] His candidacy for President on the Citizens Party ticket won 233,052 votes (0.27% of the total).[7] After his unsuccessful bid, Commoner returned to New York City, and moved the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems to Queens College. He stepped down from that post in 2000, and is now a senior scientist at Queens. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Commoner criticized Ronald Reagan and George Bush for regulating pollution and not preventing it.

Four Laws of Ecology

One of Commoner's lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971. The four laws are:

1. Everything is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.

2. Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.

3. Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system.”

4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.


  • Science and Survival. New York : Viking, 1966.
  • The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York : Knopf, 1971.
  • The Poverty of Power: Energy and the Economic Crisis. New York : Random House, 1976.
  • The Politics of Energy. New York : Knopf, 1979.
  • Making Peace With the Planet. New York : Pantheon, 1990.

See also


  1. ^ "Barry Commoner, C250: Columbia Celebrates Columbians Ahead of their Time.". Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f Philip Herrera, "Learning the Three Es", Time, May 31, 1976
  3. ^ Barry Commoner (May 1972). "A Bulletin Dialogue: on "The Closing Circle" - Response". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: 17–56. "Population control (as distinct from voluntary, self-initiated control of fertility), no matter how disguised, involves some measure of political repression, and would burden the poor nations with the social cost of a situation - overpopulation - which is the current outcome of their previous exploitation, as colonies, by the wealthy nations." 
  4. ^ Barry Commoner, The Poverty of Power (1976), p. 1.
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ [2](PDF)
  7. ^ 1980 Presidential General Election Results, US Elections Atlas
  • Contemporary Authors. Detroit : Gale, 2000.
  • Who's Who in America. Chicago : Marquis, 2004.

External links

Party political offices
Preceded by
Citizens Party Presidential candidate
1980 (lost)
Succeeded by
Sonia Johnson

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  • Barry Commoner — est un biologiste américain né le 28 mai 1917. Il a participé à l’élection présidentielle américaine en 1980 pour le Parti des citoyens. Commoner est né à Brooklyn. Il fait ses études jusqu au bachelor à l Université Columbia, puis obtient son… …   Wikipédia en Français

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  • Commoner, Barry — (n. 28 may. 1917, Brooklyn, N.Y., EE.UU.). Biólogo y pedagogo estadounidense. Estudió en la Universidad de Harvard y enseñó en la Universidad de Washington y en la de Queens. A partir del decenio de 1950, sus advertencias acerca de las amenazas… …   Enciclopedia Universal

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