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David Suzuki: Demanding Economic Growth on a Finite Planet Robs Future Generations

NOAA-NASA-GOES Project / Michael Benson, Kinetikon Pictures

Aug. 2 was Earth Overshoot Day. Unlike Earth Day or Canada Day, it's not a time to celebrate. As the Earth Overshoot Day website explains, it marks the time when "we will have used more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year." That is the definition of unsustainable and means we're using up the biological capital that should be our children's legacy. We would require 1.7 Earths to meet our current annual demands sustainably.

It doesn't have to be this way. "Our planet is finite, but human possibilities are not. Living within the means of one planet is technologically possible, financially beneficial, and our only chance for a prosperous future," said Mathis Wackernagel, CEO of the Global Footprint Network, an international research organization that uses UN statistics and other sources to calculate when overshoot day falls every year. This year marks the earliest overshoot date yet.


(Wackernagel was a student of University of British Columbia ecologist William Rees. They popularized the footprint concept in their 1996 book, Our Ecological Footprint. Andrew Simms of the U.K.'s New Economics Foundation conceived Earth Overshoot Day, partnering with the Global Footprint Network in 2006 on the first campaign, and with conservation organization World Wildlife Fund starting in 2007).

According to the website, overfishing, overharvesting forests and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural sinks like forests can sequester are among the ways we overshoot Earth's capacity. The consequences are serious. "Impacts of ecological overspending are apparent already in soil erosion, desertification, reduced cropland productivity, overgrazing, deforestation, rapid species extinction, fisheries collapse and increased carbon concentration in the atmosphere," it notes. "Natural capital constraints also pose a threat to economic performance and economic stability."

Climate change is the most serious result. The Global Footprint Network says our carbon footprint makes up 60 percent of our total ecological footprint, and it's increasing rapidly. Basing its calculations on "the land area required to sequester carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning and cement production," the network says our carbon footprint has more than doubled since 1970.

The network also offers a mobile-friendly personal footprint calculator. Be warned: If you live in North America, your footprint will likely be much higher than 1.7 Earths, no matter how ecologically aware you consider yourself. We use far more energy and other resources than people in many parts of the world.

The site includes a range of solutions in four areas: food, cities, population and energy. In North America, reducing the carbon footprint by using less energy—especially fossil fuels—is major, but so is changing food habits. Food demand makes up 26 percent of the global footprint. Because raising animals for food requires far more resources and creates more emissions than growing plants, reducing the amount of meat and animal products we eat decreases our footprint. According to Oregon State University researchers, if Americans ate beans instead of beef, the U.S. could meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions goals, even if the country did little else and if people continued to eat other animal products.

Food waste is another major problem. One-third of the food produced worldwide is wasted or lost—as much as 40 percent in the U.S.

Population is an obvious concern. More people require more space and resources. Strategies to stabilize population growth also have social benefits. "Educating girls and providing access to safe, affordable and effective family planning" and "empowering women" are essential to reducing population growth and result in better economic development and health outcomes.

Because humans are increasingly urban dwellers—with 70 to 80 percent expected to live in cities by 2050—things like "energy-efficient buildings, integrated zoning, compact cities and effective options for people-powered and public transportation" are crucial to reducing our footprint.

Some have criticized the Earth overshoot concept, arguing it's not accurate or that it underestimates resource overuse. Wackernagel admits the calculations are only as good as the available data, but argues that it remains a useful way to put our unsustainable ways in perspective.

Demanding constant economic growth on a finite planet with limited ability to renew resources is a recipe for overshoot. We can and must do more to reduce our growing impact on the only home we have.

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The unanimous verdict was announced Tuesday in San Francisco in the first federal case to be brought against Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, alleging that repeated use of the company's glyphosate-containing weedkiller caused the plaintiff's cancer. Seventy-year-old Edwin Hardeman of Santa Rosa, California said he used Roundup for almost 30 years on his properties before developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

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Judge Vince Chhabria has split Hardeman's trial into two phases. The first, decided Tuesday, focused exclusively on whether or not Roundup use caused the plaintiff's cancer. The second, to begin Wednesday, will assess if Bayer is liable for damages.

"We are disappointed with the jury's initial decision, but we continue to believe firmly that the science confirms glyphosate-based herbicides do not cause cancer," Bayer spokesman Dan Childs said in a statement reported by The Guardian. "We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto's conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman's cancer."

Some legal experts said that Chhabria's decision to split the trial was beneficial to Bayer, Reuters reported. The company had complained that the jury in Johnson's case had been distracted by the lawyers' claims that Monsanto had sought to mislead scientists and the public about Roundup's safety.

However, a remark made by Chhabria during the trial and reported by The Guardian was blatantly critical of the company.

"Although the evidence that Roundup causes cancer is quite equivocal, there is strong evidence from which a jury could conclude that Monsanto does not particularly care whether its product is in fact giving people cancer, focusing instead on manipulating public opinion and undermining anyone who raises genuine and legitimate concerns about the issue," he said.

Many regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have ruled that glyphosate is safe for humans, but the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer found it was "probably carcinogenic to humans" in 2015. A university study earlier this year found that glyphosate use increased cancer risk by as much as 41 percent.

Hardeman's lawyers Jennifer Moore and Aimee Wagstaff said they would now reveal Monsanto's efforts to mislead the public about the safety of its product.

"Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup," they wrote in a statement reported by The Guardian.

Hardeman's case is considered a "bellwether" trial for the more than 760 glyphosate cases Chhabria is hearing. In total, there are around 11,200 such lawsuits pending in the U.S., according to Reuters.

University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias told Reuters that Tuesday's decision showed that the verdict in Johnson's case was not "an aberration," and could possibly predict how future juries in the thousands of pending cases would respond.