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Lawyer Burns Himself to Death to Protest Environmental Destruction
A nationally known civil rights lawyer and environmental advocate died after setting himself on fire in Brooklyn's Prospect Park on Saturday to protest environmental destruction.
David Buckel, 60, doused himself with an accelerant before starting a fire that ultimately killed him.
"I apologize to you for the mess," he wrote in a suicide note he left in a shopping cart near his body, the Daily News reported.
In an emailed copy of the note the New York Times received, he said: "Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result—my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves."
The Times further reported:
In his note, which was received by the Times at 5:55 a.m., Mr. Buckel discussed the difficulty of improving the world even for those who make vigorous efforts to do so.
Privilege, he said, was derived from the suffering of others.
"Many who drive their own lives to help others often realize that they do not change what causes the need for their help," Mr. Buckel wrote, adding that donating to organizations was not enough.
Noting that he was privileged with "good health to the final moment," Mr. Buckel said he wanted his death to lead to increased action. "Honorable purpose in life invites honorable purpose in death," he wrote.
Buckel was the lead attorney in Brandon v. County of Richardson, a lawsuit regarding Brandon Teena, a transgender man who was murdered in Nebraska. Teena's tragic story was the subject of the Oscar-winning 1999 film Boys Don't Cry, starring Hilary Swank.
The environmental activist was the senior organics recovery coordinator with the NYC Compost Project and worked as an Added Value member at the Red Hook Community Farm. In the video below, Buckel explains how to build a windrow to make rich compost for the local community.
Family and friends told the New York Times they were shocked by Buckel's death. They acknowledged he had become distraught over the national politics of climate change—"all that's going on with the Trump administration and the rollback by [Scott] Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency," his partner of nearly 34 years, Terry Kaelber told the newspaper.
Experts caution that the cause of suicide is unknown, but can include psychiatric illness, in particular, mood disorders.
A growing body of research shows that climate change is taking a significant toll on mental health, according to 2017 report from the American Psychological Association. The report finds that "ecoanxiety"—the feeling of impending environmental doom—is happening on a global scale.
Buckel also served as marriage project director at Lambda Legal, a national organization that fights for the civil rights of LGBT people. He was the strategist behind same-sex marriage cases in New Jersey and Iowa.
He "was all about justice, but he was also all about what it means to be human," Susan Sommer, a former Lambda Legal lawyer who is now the general counsel for the mayor's office of criminal justice in New York, told the Times.
"He was a very smart and methodical lawyer. He knew his craft and his trade and was strategic in how to build the blocks toward a sweeping victory," Sommer said.
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The initial cause of the fire was not yet known, but it has been driven by the strong wind and jumped the North Santiam River, The Salem Statesman Journal reported. As of Tuesday night, it threatened around 35 homes and 30 buildings, and was 20 percent contained.
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.
"Today's verdict reinforces what another jury found last year, and what scientists with the state of California and the World Health Organization have concluded: Glyphosate causes cancer in people," Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook said in a statement. "As similar lawsuits mount, the evidence will grow that Roundup is not safe, and that the company has tried to cover it up."
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.