Polly Higgins feature

Polly Higgins talk

Polly Higgins featureWhile representing in court a man who had been badly injured, Polly looked out of the window and reflected on how we are damaging the earth, and thought a thought that changed her life: “the earth is in need of a good lawyer”. She continued considering what needs to be put in place. Humans have human rights, what if the earth had rights too? The whole body of existing environmental law isn’t working – look at the Amazon. She discovered that many people were thinking like her, including millions of indigenous people.

Homicide against people, genocide against population, we need a new language to describe what is happening against the earth – ecocide. Can we make ecocide into a crime? Three months of research later, Polly realised the answer was yes, ecocide could be the fifth crime against peace alongside crimes against humanity, war crimes, geocide, and crimes of aggression. All are crimes against life and the sanctity of life. What is happening in the Congo is a sad example of the spiral of resource depletion and war. The law of ecocide should act as a disruptor to this spiral.

A definition of 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 that territory has been severely diminished.”

There are two types of ecocide: human-caused, and naturally-caused ecocide due to events such as tsunami. The law can be framed on nations to give assistance when something like this occurs – a legal duty of care. It won’t be possible for other nations to tell the Maldives there is nothing they can do about climate change and rising sea levels. Ultimately, we are in this together.

In international law, there is a principle of superior responsibility, which places responsibility on heads of state and business leaders whose decisions affect millions of other people.

The earth could be viewed as an inert thing, and we then put a price tag on it and abuse it – the ambit of property law. The earth could also be viewed as a living being, and we would think in terms of stewardship.

There is a parallel with the fight against slavery and the slave trade 200 years ago, viewed as a necessity preventing economies from collapsing. 200 companies then said they would work it out using market forces, but instead the UK government listened to the campaigners and the changes to law were made. With a period of transition, none of the companies went out of business. Today there are 3,000 companies arguing that fossil fuels like the Athabasca tar sands are a necessity.

It is currently the law of corporations to put profits first, and maximise returns to share-holders. Ecocide is about prioritising people and planet above profit, and a recognition that we can open the door to a conflict-free world where life and innovation flourishes.

Martin Luther King once said that when our laws align themselves to equality and justice then we will have peace in our world. Ecocide as a law will allow us to align ourselves with natural justice.