On May 30, 1997, Barry Commoner celebrated his 80th birthday by giving a pivotal address at a symposium in his honor at New York's Cooper Union and by celebrating with some of his most prominent colleagues. Beginning with his opposition to nuclear weapons in the 1950s, Commoner has been an outspoken, sometimes radical motivator of change on such environmental issues as energy conservation, pesticide use, waste management and control of toxic chemicals. He also founded the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems (CBNS), which has disseminated information on topics ranging from dioxin to waste recycling and the economics of renewable resources. In 1981 Commoner moved CBNS from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., to Queens College in Flushing, N.Y., where the team he directs continues its research in conservation and ecological science.
Scientific American contributing writer Alan Hall spoke with Commoner at his birthday celebration at the Seaman's Church Institute in New York City. In this interview, Commoner discusses his vision of the past, present and future imperatives of the environmental movement.
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Happy birthday, Dr. Commoner. You became a powerful voice for protecting the environment years before most of us ever heard the words "environmentalist" or "green." What led you to become an environmental activist?
BARRY COMMONER: My entry into the environmental arena was through the issue that so dramatically--and destructively--demonstrates the link between science and social action: nuclear weapons. The weapons were conceived and created by a small band of physicists and chemists; they remain a cataclysmic threat to the whole of human society and the natural environment.
World War II had hardly ended when--not satisfied with the wartime bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Japan--the U.S. and the Soviet Union began testing new and nastier ones, creating enormous amounts of radioactivity that spread through the air worldwide, descending as fallout. Many atomic scientists, alarmed by the consequences of their wartime work, protested. But the tests continued and were even expanded.
The tests were done in secret, marked only by Atomic Energy Commission announcements that the emitted radiation was confined to the test area and, in any case, "harmless." This convenient conclusion reflected the AEC's assumption that the radioactive debris would remain aloft in the stratosphere for years, allowing time for much of the radioactivity to decay.
SA: We now know that those assumptions were very wrong indeed. How could that have happened?
BC: The AEC had at its command an army of highly skilled scientists. Although they knew how to design and build nuclear bombs, it somehow it escaped their notice that rainfall washes suspended material out of the air, or that children drink milk and concentrate iodine in their growing thyroids. I believe that the main reason for the AEC's failure is less complex than a cover-up but equally devastating. The AEC scientists were so narrowly focused on arming the United States for nuclear war that they failed to perceive facts--even widely known ones--that were outside their limited field of vision.
SA: So how did the truth about the dangers of weapons testing finally come out?
BC: After 1954, when some of the secret reports were declassified, independent scientists were able to further analyze the fallout data that AEC scientists had developed but had failed to understand.
The new analyses confirmed that they had grossly underestimated the dangers: E.B. Lewis, a geneticist at Caltech [the California Institute of Technology], showed that iodine 131, a major fallout component, was likely to cause thyroid tumors in children; Linus Pauling, the noted chemist, added carbon 14 to the roster of fallout hazards; Norman Bauer, a chemist at Utah State University, and E.W. Pfeiffer, a University of Montana zoologist, showed that there were high local fallout concentrations near, but outside, the Nevada test site; Erville Graham, a Canadian botanist, showed that the extraordinary capacity of lichens to absorb fallout directly from the air greatly amplified the hazard to native peoples in the Arctic.