How Can We Really Eradicate Ecocide? Polly Higgins' New Book Shows How International Law Will Help

Eleven years before the term genocide originated in 1944, the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin had attempted to make illegal the sort of mass killing perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire upon Armenians in the First World War. World War Two cemented the drive to criminalize genocide, even if it wouldn't be until 1951 that United Nations member states would incorporate the criminality of deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethic, racial, religious or national group. Big shifts in international law can happen.

What about the deliberate and systematic destruction of an ecosystem, so that its inhabitants, human and non-human alike, cannot enjoy its full functioning today and in the future? Such activities go on all the time, increasingly so as the scale of human activity bumps into the ecological carrying capacity of the planet. The most destructive of these activities are done by the fictional people known as corporations.

Couldn't such wholesale environmental destruction be called ecocide? And shouldn't such activities be considered a crime? In fact, shouldn't ecocide be considered the fifth crime against peace? That's what lawyer Polly Higgins proposes in her new book, Eradicating Ecocide. Higgins suggests the following definition for ecocide:
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 the that territory has been severely diminished.

And two categories: Ascertainable and non-ascertainable. The latter is the result of non-human activity or whose causes cannot be directly linked to it. The former is where liability of a legal person (actual person or corporation) can be determined.

Considering that we can't get the two biggest nations and greenhouse gas emitters in the world to agree on actually doing anything about climate change, getting the crime of ecocide enshrined into international law, let alone actually enforcing it, may seem far-fetched.

And I admit, sitting in the United States and reading about what Republicans would like to do to the EPA and seemingly every green initiative of the current administration, we are a long way off from even admitting that humans can cause significant damage to the planet.

But Higgins makes a very compelling case that society has made similarly large shifts in thinking just in the past 150 years, with the abolition of slavery.

Right up until the abolition of slavery in Great Britain in the 19th century, pretty much all of the 300 companies facilitating the slave trade fought against a ban on the grounds that the economy would collapse. Slaving was a necessity they said, and the public demanded it. They even proposed eerily similar solutions to the market-based solutions proposed today to stop carbon emissions: Caps on volume of slaves traded and auctioning rights between companies plus levying of fines for people who broke it.

In the centuries before abolition, few people even gave a second thought to slavery or the inherent rights that slavery violated, but as abolition gained traction and ultimately overcame industry objections--and none of the dire predictions about economic collapse put forth by slaving firms came to pass--a shift in consciousness occurred.

Granted, even to this day racial discrimination exists, but with very few exceptions, everyone agrees that actual slavery is wrong. 

To get to the point where the majority of people think ecocide is wrong is going to take a transition, which is where Higgins stands out, advocating several steps towards legal abolition of the sort of pollution we now see as commonplace.

She points out that within a year of slavery being made illegal, traders had switched to other commodities; and during World War Two the United States transitioned manufacturing from cars to airplanes with astounding rapidity. What it took was the political and cultural willpower to start the transition and encouraging the transition through significant financial support.

I admit that going into Eradicating Ecocide I was inclined to agree with Higgins--part out of personal inclination and part because nearly a year ago Polly and I sat down in Copenhagen for coffee to discuss the topic and she made a compelling case then--but just in the 200 pages presented here she does a great job examining both the historical situation which gave rise to corporate personhood and early attempts to stop pollution, more modern examples (many of which have been be well documented on TreeHugger, they being so current), and makes a good moral and logical argument that the only way we are going to truly stop ecocide is to make it a serious crime.

Published by Shepheard-Walwyn, Eradicating Ecocide has been available from the beginning of September in the UK, but it gets a US release on December 1. You can pre-order it on Amazon.com or I'm sure your local independent bookseller can get it for you as well. Should all those fail, direct order from the publisher at the link above is also an option.

More info: This is Ecocide
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More on Ecocide:
See Ecocide Writ Large: NASA Photo Shows Humungous Philippine Coal Mine From Space
Climate Change, Like Slavery, Needs a True Cultural Shift to Stop It
India's First Environmental Tribunal Opens - 'Anyone & Everyone' Can Bring Cases Before Court
Rich Nations Have Moral Duty to Compensate Bangladesh for Climate Change Damages

Tags: Book Reviews | Environmental Justice | United Nations