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Environmental Scientist Barry Commoner Dies at 95

One of the men I admired most in the early environmental movement, Dr. Barry Commoner, has died at 95 at his home in Brooklyn Heights, and I think the world experiences a great loss. He was an early champion of recycling, organic food and reducing fossil fuel use… and, of course, he took a firm stand against nuclear testing.

Commoner was trained as a biologist at Columbia and Harvard and combined scientific expertise and leftist zeal. His work on the global effects of radioactive fallout, which included documenting concentrations of strontium 90 in the baby teeth of thousands of children, contributed materially to the adoption of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

He was a popular speaker and author 1n the 1960s and ’70s, and even campaigned for president in 1980.

Time Magazine called Commoner the Paul Revere of Ecology on the first Earth Day in 1970.

His four informal rules of ecology were:

1. Everything Is Connected to Everything Else

2. Everything Must Go Somewhere

3. Nature Knows Best

4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.

Dr. Commoner’s was both concerned with ecology  and an ideal of social justice in which everything was indeed connected to everything else. Like some other leftist dissenters of his time, he believed that environmental pollution, war, and racial and sexual inequality needed to be addressed as related issues of a central problem.

Commoner insisted that the future of the planet depended on industry’s learning not to make messes in the first place, rather than on trying to clean them up after they were made. He thought scientists in the service of industry could not just create some new process or product and then remove themselves from a moral responsibility for the potential results. He was a lifelong opponent of nuclear power because of its radioactive waste and scorned the idea of pollution credit swaps because an industry would have to be fouling the environment in the first place to be rewarded by such a program.

He saw that social needs were tied up with environmental ones… for instance:

“I don’t believe in environmentalism as the solution to anything. What I believe is that environmentalism illuminates the things that need to be done to solve all of the problems together. For example, if you’re going to revise the productive system to make cars or anything else in such a way as to suit the environmental necessities, at the same time why not see to it that women earn as much as men for the same work?”

Harvard paleontologist Steven J. Gould’s summary of Barry Commoner’s work and achievements is clear:

“Although he has been branded by many as a maverick, I regard him as right and compassionate on nearly every major issue.”

Some Wednesday Night Science…

I’ve been looking at statistics which relate death rates to the type of power that is used (got into this without thinking while reading information on the 4 damaged nuclear reactors in Japan… and the knowledge that there are two more reactors, 5 & 6, which could be next).

To begin, however, we have to go over a unit of measurement. I’m not a science guy and am probably prone to mistakes… you real scientists and math wizards can correct me in the comments or by e-mail… so bear with me. Most of us are aware of the Kilowatt Hour (KWh). which is the basic unit of measure in our electric bills. To deal with the power/death ratio, however, we are going to need a bigger unit – power put out for a whole society is massive – and that unit is the Terawatt Hour (TWh), which equals 1,000,000,000 Kilowatt Hours.

Ok… if you’ve digested that, here’s a chart I picked up at

As you can see, death rates per TWh are much, much higher annually in world figures in the burn and smoke power sources. Look at solar, wind, hydro and, unfortunately, nuclear are quite low … the figure of deaths relating to “banqiao” under Hydro are quite high, but this relates to a one time occurance:

  • 1975 failure (in Typhoon Nina–Banqiao dam failure (Chinese history))
    Banqiao Dam

    Location of Banqiao Dam, China

    The Banqiao Dam had been built on the Ru River in the early 1950s as part of a flood-prevention and electricity-production program aimed at controlling the Huang He (Yellow River). At a height of 387 feet (118 metres) and with a storage capacity of some 17.4 billion cubic feet (492 million cubic metres), it was designed to withstand a “1,000-year” flood (i.e., a flood level expected…

As to the danger of nuclear promoting a lower death rate, it should be noted that the Japanese tragedy is not considered a “nuclear accident”, but the result of earthquake and tsunami damage.

Every day when I walk out in the sun and the breeze, I think that I am experiencing the great power supplies that are with us all and that, for the most part, we ignore. After all the years we have known about the problems with coal and oil…and beside pollution we are also involved in wars in the middle east which we probably wouldn’t be were it not for oil… and have known what could be done with sun and wind, I cringe. People are so stupid.