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Environment & ethics

Guy’s news: Glyphosate part 2 (following on from last week)

Guy Singh-Watson in a field of cardoons

Gunpowder, nuclear bombs, PCBs, DDT, burning fossil fuels, antibiotics fed to animals as growth promoters, factory farming and overconsumption of meat, overfishing, deforestation… If we can, and someone can benefit from it, we will. Can we ever learn to balance public benefit against as-yet-unquantified public and environmental risk, and then implement the necessary global restraints? Will we ever put wisdom ahead of cleverness and greed? I heard a philosopher asking why, given our infinite universe, we have not found any sign of intelligent life on other planets. He argued that intelligent life would inevitably destroy itself, and would therefore be gone in a blink of geological time. Is it inevitable that our incredible powers of innovation combined with our voracious appetites will destroy humanity, taking most other life on this planet with us?

Coming back down to earth, I spent the morning wrestling with the perennial weeds that threaten to engulf some trees we planted last spring. The only effective organic way to control them is exhaustive cultivation: tilling the area three or four times, at two weekly intervals. It takes time, fuel, and beats the life out of the soil, depleting organic matter and releasing CO2. Is that better for me and for the environment than applying 0.5g/m2 of glyphosate? Actually I doubt it, especially as it would only take two applications, just around the trees (10% of the area), in a two-hundred-year cycle. But this would be a tiny fraction of the glyphosate used globally. Most is used to make large-scale arable farming a bit easier, particularly as a pre-harvest desiccant of grain crops that will be harvested just two or three weeks later and are often destined for human consumption (the reason why most of us have glyphosate in our urine). Given the small benefit to a small number of people, and the risk to so many and to our planet, this seems an example of failure to balance risk and benefit.

How can such a balance be achieved? For now, I have more faith in fear than in wisdom. Last week I mentioned the legal challenge being put up by Client Earth. A customer has brought to my attention the attempts of an international group of lawyers to designate ecocide as an international crime arbitered by international courts, as with war crimes. Learn more at eradicatingecocide.com.

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