New Internationalist

Stopping the Juggernaut

Issue 437

Polly Higgins has gone from being a high-flying London barrister to an environmental campaigner. She’s on a mission to get extensive ecological destruction recognized as the crime of ecocide which could be tried in the International Criminal Court.

You conceptualize ecocide as an international ‘crime against peace’, like genocide and war. Why?

Current climate negotiations don’t address our damage, destruction and pollution of the planet. They tackle only the symptom, focusing on reducing excess greenhouse gas emissions. This is akin to holding a baby that’s vomiting and instead of trying to get the child to stop vomiting, we are seeking to reduce it (phased carbon reduction plans), trading the excess (‘carbon trading’) or trying to shovel it underneath the carpet and calling it carbon capture and storage. We are actually trying to make money out of the damage rather than putting in place systems to stop it at source. It seemed to me that this was about understanding how we value life – not just human life but all life. By imposing a monetary value on the symptom, we commoditize it and trade it. If we continue to do that, we’re not going to have peace. Peace is unachievable while the rules of the game continue to protect commercial expropriation of the planet for profit rather than the planet itself.

The problem is we’ve built up a body of law that protects corporate interests and sacrifices the interests of the wider community and of nature. The scales of justice are completely out of kilter. We need to rebalance the equation now and change the rules of the game. We’re leaving our fate in the hands of very few – the heads of governments and of corporations.

Proposed legal definition of ecocide

Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to 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 severely diminished.

National environmental regulations suffer from sloppy enforcement. How would making ecocide a crime that could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court be any different?

We have a whole raft of legislation that is often put in place after the event and yet allows the pollution to continue. Pollution permits are an example of this: pollution continues, albeit at a reduced rate, but if caught a fine is imposed. Many companies simply continue as normal, factor the fine in as an externality and bank on not being caught. This is compromise law – it doesn’t work and it doesn’t impose a responsibility on the corporation.

A corporation is a fictional person in law. Now, the problem with a fictional person is that it’s a piece of paper. You can’t imprison a piece of paper, so we use fines.

But if we put environmental destruction in the context of crime, then it can only be levied against individuals. So automatically you are putting the head of a corporation at risk of going to prison. That sends out a different message altogether.

The head of the Royal Bank of Scotland (which was bailed out by the British government last year to the tune of over $137 billion) was asked in its AGM in April: ‘Why are you using millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to invest in damaging and destructive projects and ventures?’ His response was: ‘Well, it’s not a crime!’ Where an international crime of ecocide exists, that CEO would be in a very different position. He’d say: ‘Look we are not going to finance this activity; it’s criminal, I could go to prison.’

It turns everything around on a pinhead and it means that innovation would immediately flow in a different direction, happening very, very fast. You have your CEO saying: ‘How are we going to make our profits, if we can’t make them through dirty energy? We are going to have to demand subsidies for clean energy. We’re going to have to retrain everyone quick. We’re only going to get finance for the clean stuff.’ They would be demanding governments support them and it would trigger a rapid shift to the clean energy revolution that we so desperately require.

You’ve been asked to make representations to the United Nations and ecocide is being considered in that forum.

We’ve got a juggernaut that’s careering to the edge of destruction of the planet and there are a few people on the outside pulling up the tracks and there are a few people on the inside shouting stop. It really is about halting the train dead in its tracks and getting it to change direction – fast.

I see the UN as a world committee where just 197 people sit. That is, every head of member state. We only need to persuade two-thirds of them to come on board with this idea to make it a reality. They are the people who can make this happen. It requires bravery from our leaders, and we need to let them know we want them to take this brave step.

I’m asking everyone to stand up and be counted: let’s make it happen! Be a participant in co-creating the new world and call on your leader demanding that ecocide be made a crime. We can do this, but the call will need to come from many, many people. It’s about being courageous and standing up for what you believe in even when other people denounce you. People are already responding by joining our campaign.

We all make ecologically harmful consumer choices, sometimes without a second thought. Couldn’t corporations cite demand as their justification for carrying out environmentally destructive activities?

This is a common but misplaced refrain. 200 years ago William Wilberforce (the British politician who fought for the abolition of slavery) understood that there was no point going around the six million people who had slaves saying, ‘Could you use your slave a little less?’ That’s the equivalent of energy efficiency. Slaves were after all a form of energy, human energy. He knew there were three things that needed to be done: pull the subsidies; put in laws to prohibit it; and put in new subsidies so that the 300 companies then involved in slave trading could reinvent their fields. He didn’t want to put the companies out of business, he wanted the companies to be part of the solution.

Wilberforce was hit with various arguments including: the people demand it, we can’t stop slavery, it’s a necessity, it’ll lead to loss of jobs, the economy will collapse. They even made proposals to limit the number of slaves and ask everyone to use their slaves a bit better and suggested a form of cap and trade, where they would limit the number and do some auctioning between the companies – those that had an excess at the end of the year and couldn’t sell them off.

We have to be radical. Prior to slavery being abolished it was de rigueur to have a black person in chains in your household. Within one year, it was utterly unacceptable.

Amazingly, these are all the solutions offered by corporations today that are taken seriously. Two hundred years ago they were laughed out of court. There was a recognition we had to abolish that which was wrong. We’re in the same position again.

We have to be radical. Prior to slavery being abolished it was de rigueur to have a black person in chains in your household. Within one year, it was utterly unacceptable. That’s not to say slavery doesn’t still exist in muted forms. But at least we have the tools to deal with it.

Photo by: Mr Bill under a CC Licence
Photo by: Mr Bill under a CC Licence

I am proposing we extend existing Crimes Against Peace beyond the protection of human life to all life. We need legal tools to impose responsibilities and obligations on those who are causing the destruction.

It comes down to 3,000 corporations today and 3,000 CEOs. It only needs 197 people to sit down, two-thirds of them to agree, to stop those 3,000 people making bad decisions. On a numbers game, it’s a no brainer. In 2008, an estimated $2.2 trillion of destruction was caused by those 3,000 corporations, in 2009 it was $4 trillion. This level of escalation of ecocide cannot continue without leading to conflict and ultimately war.

We’re all interconnected, interdependent. Lose the planet and we lose our habitat and means of survival. We have a vested interest in retaining the intrinsic wholeness of our planet. Laws, such as the law of ecocide, can be a strong bridge to get us there.

Polly Higgins spoke to Dinyar Godrej.

Her book Eradicating Ecocide: Laws and Governance to Prevent the Destruction of our Planet (Shepheard-Walwyn) is just out.
Catch up with the campaign at www.thisisecocide.com

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