The Century of Eric Hobsbawm and Barry Commoner

Over the past 24 hours, Eric Hobsbawm and Barry Commoner died, each at the age of 95.  Hobsbawm and Commoner were structuring influences on the fields of (respectively) social history and environmental studies.  Both men engaged communities outside of the classroom.  Hobsbawm was perhaps the most enduring face of Communism in Great Britain for decades, as well as (with E.P. Thompson) the great historian of the British working class.  Commoner was one of the most tenacious environmental activists of the past half century and even ran for president in 1980.

Both men leave behind work that continues to inform the work countless scholars and activists perform today — not least my own.  Hobsbawm’s The Invention of Tradition is a book environmental activists would do well to read, as he discusses how cultural norms are created and produce powerful buffers against change.  Commoner’s focus on the dangers of pollution to human and environmental health (as he discussed in The Closing Circle) is an obvious influence on those of us in the history of waste and pollution (and evident in entry upon entry of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage).

Both men earned great obituaries, as searches for their names this week will confirm.  I’ll quote a few choice bits from the New York Times on each man.

On Hobsbawm:

Mr. Hobsbawm and his colleagues in the Historians’ Study Group of the Communist Party established labor history as an important field of study and in 1952 created an influential journal, Past and Present, as a home base.

The rich dividends from this new approach to writing history were apparent in works like “Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries” (1959), “Laboring Men: Studies in the History of Labor” (1964) and “Industry and Empire,” the companion volume to Christopher Hill’s “Reformation to Industrial Revolution.”

During this period, Mr. Hobsbawm also wrote jazz criticism for The New Statesman and Nation under the pseudonym Francis Newton, a sly reference to the jazz trumpeter Frankie Newton, an avowed Communist. His jazz writing led to a book, “The Jazz Scene,” published in 1959.

On Commoner:

Dr. Commoner’s diagnoses and prescriptions sometimes put him at odds with other environmental leaders. He is rightly remembered as an important figure in the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, a nationwide teach-in conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and he himself regarded the observance as historically important. But Earth Day also illustrated the growing factionalization of a movement in which “environmentalism” could mean anything from ending the Vietnam War to growing one’s own cabbages, and a number of singular, easily grasped agendas were competing for attention and money.

This was the context for the rift between Dr. Commoner and advocates of population control, who saw environmental degradation as a byproduct of overpopulation and who had become a force on the strength of Paul R. Ehrlich’s huge best seller “The Population Bomb.” Conservationist groups like the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation were strong supporters of Dr. Ehrlich’s views.

Dr. Commoner took aim at the “neo-Malthusians.” On a scientific panel discussion with Dr. Ehrlich in December 1970, he said it was “a cop-out of the worst kind” to say that “none of our pollution problems can be solved without getting at population first.”

He elaborated in his best-known book, “The Closing Circle,” published the next year. Reducing population, he wrote, was “equivalent to attempting to save a leaking ship by lightening the load and forcing passengers overboard.”

“One is constrained to ask if there isn’t something radically wrong with the ship.”

Five years shy of a century, Eric Hobsbawm and Barry Commoner produced work that will long survive them and be instructive to people not yet born. Both men were concerned with the consequences of expression and behavior, and I’ll close this entry with one more quote from Commoner’s obituary:

Dr. Commoner practiced what he preached. In his personal habits he was as frugal as a Yankee farmer, and as common-sensical. He drove or took taxis if the route by public transit took him far out of his way. On the other hand, he saw no need to waste electricity by ironing his shirts.

And when a Times writer once asked his Queens College office to mail some material, it arrived in an old brown envelope with the crossed-out return address of the botany department at Washington University — a place where he had last worked 19 years earlier.

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