Barry Commoner

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Barry Commoner (Comenar)

Birthdate: (95)
Death: September 30, 2012 (95)
Immediate Family:

Son of Isaac (Isador) Comenar and Gussie Commoner
Husband of <private> Feiner
Ex-husband of <private> Gordon
Father of <private> Commoner and <private> Commoner
Brother of Florence Mandel

Managed by: Adam Robert Brown
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Barry Commoner

Barry Commoner (May 28, 1917 – September 30, 2012) was an American biologist, college professor, and politician. He ran for president of the United States in the 1980 U.S. presidential election on the Citizens Party ticket. He served as editor of Science Illustrated magazine.

Early life

Commoner was born in Brooklyn, New York on May 28, 1917. He received his bachelor's degree in zoology from Columbia University (1937) and his master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard University (1938, 1941)."

Career in academia

After serving as a lieutenant in the United States Navy during World War II, Commoner moved to St. Louis where he 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".

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. For example, he argued that polluting products (like detergents or synthetic textiles) should be replaced with natural products (like soap or cotton and wool). This book was one of the first to bring the idea of sustainability to a mass audience. 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.

Commoner published another bestseller in 1976, The Poverty of Power. 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." 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. Towards the book's end, Commoner suggested 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.

Political activism

In 1980, Commoner 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. His candidacy for President on the Citizens Party ticket won 233,052 votes (0.27% of the total).

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 at the time of his death was a senior scientist at the aforementioned educational institution.

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.

Personal life

Commoner and first wife, the former Gloria Gordon, a St. Louis psychologist, married after his service in WW II. They had two children, Frederic and Lucy Commoner, and all three survive him, as does a granddaughter. Following a divorce, in 1980 he married Lisa Feiner, whom he had met in the course of her work as a public-TV producer.

Death and legacy

Commoner died on September 30, 2012 in Manhattan.

He was a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.


Books Science and Survival (1966), New York : Viking

The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology (1971), New York : Knopf
The Poverty of Power: Energy and the Economic Crisis (1976), New York : Random House
The Politics of Energy (1979), New York : Knopf
Making Peace With the Planet (1990), New York : Pantheon
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Barry Commoner's Timeline

May 28, 1917
September 30, 2012
Age 95