Fear, Hope and Ending Ecocide

Fear plays a pivotal (and often dangerous) role in the relationship between humans and nature. Take a bunch of fears – of the other, death and the unknown – pour into a tall glass, throw in some control issues and strange ideas around money, progress and value and you’ve got yourself a potent cocktail with the potential to raze bushland for high rise development.

Its happening, its happened, it will happen some more. We’re in the age of the Anthropocene, where for the first time ever, humans are the primary influence on the world’s geology and ecosystems. We’d be an ice age, if it weren’t so darn hot.

What to do, what to do, what to do… On the highest level, it’s simple. Stop being dicks. Stop destroying rainforest ecosystems for hamburgers, stop building coal mines that compromise coral reefs, stop clearing trees for highways. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. There’s a myriad of intertwined threads comprising the tapestry of the dysfunctional relationship between humans and nature, and there’s not enough space to unpick them all here. What I would like to explore, however, is one big idea with the potential to globally redefine human interactions with the natural world – Creating an internationally recognised law of ecocide.

The term ecocide was first used in the 1970s. It’s loosely defined as an act causing widespread, long lasting or severe environmental harm. Some examples of human actions that could potentially count as ecocide include the damage caused to the Great Barrier Reef by coal and gas infrastructure, bee colony collapse due to chemical usage, and the wide scale destruction caused by the use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.

Scottish lawyer and activist Polly Higgins is one of the leading proponents of a law of ecocide. She realised in 2007 whilst defending a man injured at work, that the Earth too had been injured, but that there was no one to defend it. “The Earth is in need of a good lawyer’, she suggests in a TedX talk Ecocide, the 5th Crime Against Peace in 2012.  She’s dedicated the last decade of her life to exploring what it would mean if ecocide were included as the fifth international Crime Against Peace; alongside Genocide, Crimes against Humanity, Crimes of Aggression and War Crimes.  In 2010 she proposed that the International Law Commission modify the Rome Statute to include Ecocide.

The impact of this is potentially huge. Polly speaks of the current cycle we exist within – it starts with resource depletion, then conflict, war, damage and destruction, and ends with ecocide. Then it starts over. Again and again. “We can halt it in its tracks,” she says. “Its not about slowing the cycle down, its about stopping it. Its about creating a law that stops the spiral.”

An international law on ecocide would impose increased responsibilities on heads of state, CEOs and people in positions to make decisions that affect millions of people. “By imposing a duty of care on those people we actually create a framework on which we can make decisions based on prioritising people and planet first. It’s about closing the door to dangerous industrial activity,” Polly says.

In addition to making large scale destruction of natural ecosystems illegal, an international law on ecocide would reframe the way we see the natural world.

The current paradigm suggests the Earth is a commodity and has a value for us to exploit, thank you very much. We all know where this is going to end, don’t we? It’s like a failed short term relationship – it was great, we went to places we never dreamed, but now its over. One of us is a wreck and the other feels dirty.

There’s another kind of relationship we can have with the Earth and it’s embedded within the framework of ecocide dialogue. It’s a relationship focused on respect and understanding of the interconnectedness of all life on earth. It’s about humans as guardians of the earth, not owners.

A law of ecocide could, according to Polly, “realign the scales of justice”.

Of course, the big money people dismiss initiatives like a law of ecocide as anti-profit, bad for business, impossible even. I want to believe its not. Because the alternative is looking pretty grim. “This is not about closing down big industry,” Polly says. “A company has a legal duty to maximise profits to its shareholders. That used to serve us well, but we didn’t think about the consequences. A law of ecocide would impose a piece of legislation that allows us to look to the consequences, a think before you act provision.”

This an attractive proposition to me. I’ve been feeling pretty scared of humans lately, and terrified for the rest of life on Earth. There’s little hope to be found within news reports, and disengagement stemming from feelings of helplessness is an easy trap to fall into. The movement supporting an internationally recognised law on ecocide is one of hope and positivity, and it’s implications could be huge.

It’s about time we had a very serious, legally binding, global conversation about the way we see ourselves and our place on Earth.

It’s now or never.

Find out more about eradicating ecocide / Watch Polly Higgins’ Ted Talk