Have you heard of ecocide?
Global Initiative Eradicating Ecocide – chaired and founded by international barrister Polly Higgins – defines ecocide as:
The extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.
A very important turn of phrase here is inhabitants – the term includes animals as well as people, thus protecting biodiversity.
Polly Higgins succinctly remarks in her TED talk that “the Earth is desperately in need of a good lawyer” and that’s exactly the role she’s been fulfilling these past few years. And yet she isn’t the first to see this need. Actually, the term ecocide has been used (if not properly defined until recently) since at least 1970. After year’s of drafting, the international law against ecocide almost made it into the Rome Statute. With mass global support, it was included in the document right up until the last minute. For some mysterious reason, it was removed from the final draft with only a watered down trace sitting in another section. It is a war crime to consciously cause extensive, long term and severe damage to your opponent’s local environment. Even this is often not enforced. Contrary to the drafting of the Crimes Against Peace, the destruction of ecosystems is completely legal during peacetime.
In fact, not only is it legal, it’s what our global economy currently depends on.
The Centre for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE) fully support the drive to make Ecocide the 5th Crime Against Peace, as it was meant to be when the document was put together in 1996. They say that:
With strict enforcement, businesses would make the necessary adjustments to comply with the new legal framework. If accompanied by subsidies to facilitate the transition to a new business model, the law of ecocide prevention has the potential to trigger a transition to a different sort of economy — one that operates in harmony with the ecosystem.
(Womack, Lelkes and Merz, 2013, steadystate.org).
It’s certainly a very inspiring possibility. If ecocide – the destruction or severe damage of ecosystems – was made illegal, then corporations would be forced to clean up their act, and innovation would be drawn towards clean technologies, minimizing waste, resource efficiency and habitat restoration. It’s true that corporations often manage to operate above the law, but as an international Crime Against Peace, ecocide would trump national law and decision makers responsible for causing ecocide, like CEOs, would be put on trial in the International Court of Law. They would be held personally responsible. ‘Environmental externalities’ would cease to be an excuse for widespread destruction leading to vast profits.
So how can such a thing be done?
The existing 4 Crimes Against Peace are genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity. The governing document is the Rome Statute. For the Statute to be edited, one head of state has to call for amendment, and then a further 80 heads of state have to agree. If this happens, then there will be a 5 year transition period before the new Crime Against Peace is enshrined in law. This is meant to give corporations and governments time to adjust to the coming change and restructure their practises so they sit within the new law.
In 2010, Polly Higgins presented a draft of the law against ecocide to the United Nations. Since then she has been working tirelessly to raise the profile and garner support throughout the international community. 81 heads of state is a big challenge, but it is possible and within reach, especially as many nations are sick of being ravaged by environmental destruction – including the effects of climate change.
Many public figures have endorsed the law of ecocide, including heads of NGOs, politicians and lawyers. What we really need of course is political support, but raising public awareness and support is great too, as it can influence democratic leaders.
I’m really inspired by this work, as I agree with CASSE that it has the potential to kickstart a sustainable economy. If you think it’s a good idea, then please check out Eradicating Ecocide’s extensive list of things you can do to help. Many of the actions are easy and simple, such as signing this petition on Avaaz. Please take a look.
The Earth desperately needs strong legal protection.
A sustainable economy will continue to be an unfeasible pipe dream while environmental destruction is legal and fines are negligible.
When it becomes illegal and uneconomic, a sustainable economy will be inevitable.