Dr. Commoner was among the first scientists to take his findings into the public sphere and draw attention to what he considered a looming environmental disaster. His background as a scientist lent credence to his ideas, but throughout his career he coupled his scientific findings with a call to political action and even ran for president in 1980 on the ticket of the Citizens Party.
In the 1950s, Dr. Commoner was sounding alarms about the environmental consequences of industrial pollution, modern technology and the testing of nuclear weapons. He was among the first scientists to step out of the laboratory and declare that scientists had a moral obligation to keep the public informed about the dangers posed by advances in science and technology.
He challenged the petroleum industry and, long before it became politically fashionable, touted solar power as the long-term solution to the world’s energy problems.
A biologist by training, Dr. Commoner showed that traces of radioactive materials could be found in the teeth of thousands of children. With Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, he circulated a petition in the 1950s calling for an end of atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. More than 11,000 scientists signed the petition.
He was credited with creating the momentum that led to the passage of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963.
Along with “Silent Spring” author Rachel Carson, Sierra Club leader David Brower and scientist-author Aldo Leopold, Dr. Commoner is considered one of the primary founders of the modern environmental movement.
Time magazine put Dr. Commoner on its cover in 1970, saying he “has probably done more than any other U.S. scientist to speak out and awaken a sense of urgency about the declining quality of life.”
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader unequivocally describes Dr. Commoner as “the greatest environmentalist of the 20th century.”
“Nobody did what he did,” Nader said Tuesday in an interview. “He was a scientist, a best-selling author, a brilliant writer whose books are still read today. He ran for president. There was a tremendous variety to his efforts. When I say he’s the greatest environmentalist, it isn’t even close.”
A longtime professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Commoner was one of the country’s most visible public intellectuals during the 1960s and 1970s. His books sold hundreds of thousands of copies, he often appeared on television talk shows, and listeners flocked to his lectures throughout the country.
In one of his best-known books, “The Closing Circle” (1971), Dr. Commoner linked ecological dangers to technological advances. He argued that environmental dangers always disproportionately affect poor people and that companies should be held responsible for creating clean industrial processes.