Steve Haycox: Barry Commoner had a profound impact on Alaska

Steve Haycox

Of all the notable people who left us in 2012 -- the list is long, including Daniel Inouye, Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, George McGovern, Eric Hobsbawm, Jacques Barzun, Gore Vidal, Adrienne Rich, Maurice Sendak, Ray Bradbury, Dave Brubeck, both Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs -- perhaps none had a greater impact on Alaska than Barry Commoner. Known as the "Paul Revere of Ecology," Commoner was an academic scientist, a respected cellular biologist who led important research concerning the nature of viruses. But he had his greatest impact as an activist, explaining the idea of ecosystem.

At its simplest, the complex notion of ecosystem posits that all organic elements in a discrete environment are inter-related and act as a system. Because of their interrelationship, an impact, a disturbance, on any one element has a redounding affect on all the elements. The science of ecology was not new in the 1960s when Commoner began writing popularly about it. Frederic Clements had demonstrated inter-connected relationships among plants as early as 1905. Arthur Tansley, who refined Clements' work, coined the term ecosystem in 1935. By then the field of human ecology had developed, focusing on human-caused environmental impacts. But in popularizing the term, and the idea, Commoner helped to transform the older conservation movement, which emphasized habitat protection and multiple use of resources, into modern environmentalism, which placed conservation into the larger context of ecosystem, and emphasized the connection between human consumption and resource depletion.

Commoner's work on toxicity in cells after World War II led him to appreciate the relationship between environmental factors and human disease. In a pioneering study, he demonstrated the connection between growing concentrations of the atomic element strontium 90 in the teeth of children and the fallout from above-ground nuclear testing. That study is credited with helping produce the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty.

As Dan O'Neill pointed out in his 1994 expose of the Atomic Energy Commission's Project Chariot in Alaska in the 1950s, "The Firecracker Boys," it is remarkably ironic, given his contribution to the environmental movement that so impacted Alaska, that Commoner, as he often remarked, became convinced of the reality of ecosystem and the deleterious effects of post-war technology on the common environment -- and of the necessity of popularizing that reality -- from information he got from Alaska. William O. Pruitt, one of the University of Alaska researchers examining Project Chariot, recognized that Arctic lichens absorbed strontium 90, and that the caribou consumed by Inuit villagers fed on those lichens. Pruitt sent his findings to Commoner, who had recently helped organize an anti-nuclear group, the St. Louis Committee for Nuclear Information. Commoner later quipped that the Atomic Energy Commission made him an environmentalist.

Modern environmentalism developed over more than a decade, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. But the evolution from the Wilderness Act of 1964 to the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which led to the establishment of the EPA in 1970, was dramatic. In 1964 the national discussion was only about protecting wild lands; in 1969 it was about protecting everything, the whole environment, and consulting everyone who might have a remote interest in environmental impacts. That was because by then the notion that everything is connected had entered the national consciousness. Not just clean air and clean water, but intact forests and wild rivers, and eventually endangered species, were seen as everyone's concern because everyone was affected in some way by what happened to them.

The battles over the Alaska Pipeline, which culminated in 1973 with the Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act, and over the Alaska lands act, culminating in 1980, rested on the premise that Alaska is everybody's business, that wilderness in Alaska is as much in the interest of the people of Indiana as the people of Alaska. By then the western author Wallace Stegner had written that if we lose the last unmanipulated wild land in America to economic development, we lose something essential to being American and being human, a concept linked to the ecological idea. To many Alaskans' chagrin, the American people have accepted that argument, Commoner's and Stegner's argument, an understanding light years beyond simply protecting wildlife habitat. This is the Alaska Barry Commoner helped to create.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.


Steve Haycox
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