Stop Ecocide was set up by Jojo Mehta and the late Polly Higgins in 2017 to place boundaries on the destruction of nature through a comprehensive and groundbreaking legal framework. Here she explains why such a law acts as an insurance policy for all life on earth.
What is happening worldwide regarding the climate and ecological crisis is suddenly a household conversation. Within a year that landscape has changed, and the general population has realised that we are rapidly heading for a cliff edge. The changes that need to happen are simply not happening fast enough. We’re way behind the pledges made for the Paris Agreement. And most importantly, the root causes of the destruction of the environment are just continuing because they’re allowed to.
We call mass damage and destruction of the environment ecocide. That’s not a new word. It was initially coined in the 1970s to describe the damage caused by agent orange during the Vietnam war. And it was also part of the original drafting of the Rome statute for the international criminal court but never made the final cut.
Polly Higgins rediscovered the concept and brought it back into the discussion. She submitted an application to the international law commission on what ecocide should mean. It’s not about cutting down a tree on the village green. This is such extensive loss, damage or destruction [to nature] that inhabitants can no longer continue their daily business. We’re talking deforestation of the Amazon, overfishing of our seas, unrestricted fossil fuel extraction, devastating oil spills and deadly air pollution. If you can believe it, these things haven’t been forbidden and have no limits.
Corporate PR has done a fantastic job over the last 20 years in making everybody feel personally guilty for our situation
Just imagine how hard it would be to campaign for human rights if it was still permitted to kill or torture people. That piece regarding nature is missing; the ability to say this far and no further. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if it causes this much damage, it is not allowed. Plugging that hole is vital [in solving climate change] because it doesn’t matter how good your climate ambitions are if those destructive activities are allowed to continue legally.
As far as we’re concerned, establishing ecocide at the international criminal court alongside genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes shows it is a serious atrocity. That also means that similar to war crimes, you don’t necessarily prosecute the foot soldiers; you prosecute the controlling mind.
The first question I always get is, "aren’t we all contributing to the destruction of nature?" We do, and we all have a carbon footprint. It is fitting that we should take responsibility for that. But we mustn’t lose the wood for the trees.
Corporate PR has done a fantastic job over the last 20 years in making everybody feel personally guilty for our situation. But frankly, most people drive a fossil fuel car not because they choose to but because they can’t afford anything else or because other technologies have been held back. That’s not a result of consumer choice but a result of the options available to us as citizens. It’s government policy and industrial influence that has created this situation. So, when you’re looking at the bigger picture, you realise that it’s the concentrations of power who are making decisions and ecocide is aimed at those concentrations when they try to go in the wrong direction.
Everything is done in this cheap and dirty way
An international law of ecocide is a great enabler, and people are beginning to see the potential. In environmentalism, many issues have traditionally been siloed; "I’m working on this particular species loss, or air pollution issue, or indigenous community". Ecocide has the potential to pull all of that together because it’s not focused on what industry is doing but on how they’re doing it.
We all know that there will be resources that humanity will need, but right now, everything is done in this cheap and dirty way. An international law on ecocide acts as an insurance policy for all life on earth. Between now and next week, we don't know what horrific destructive practice someone could dream up. But if we know that activities beyond a certain level of damage are not allowed, then we have a form of safety.
Furthermore, putting in place this law shifts the relationship with nature. Our whole extractive, colonial culture is built on this idea of separation; we are this group who are better than you and can teach you and save you. Whereas indigenous wisdom has known for millennia (and is now blindingly obvious to the rest of us) that we are all connected and interdependent. What’s really interesting is that you can establish ecocide as a crime without having rights for nature. You simply say this much damage is criminal and add it to the system.
But this idea is alien to how we do law in dominant western cultures, which is all about humans and how we treat each other. Putting mass damage to nature on par with mass damage to people creates an equivalence. People will look at that and see that damaging nature is the same as damaging people. Then there is a shift that happens in people’s minds.
I often get asked where the biggest resistance is coming from. Interestingly, it’s less a case of specific people or corporations but more a case of economic mindsets. It’s the established financial relationships that government has with big business and the deeply entrenched economic assumptions. Things like GDP as a measurement of success. Or the idea that infinite growth is possible. Or that any kind of growth is desirable. It’s complete nonsense! But these ideas are so entrenched that there is a constant internal struggle with the system.
I spoke to MPs around the time of the October  rebellion, and there was this tendency to try and focus on particular projects in particular scenarios that can be fixed in a specific way very quickly. There is a real reluctance to do big picture thinking. This is something that the climate community the world over is having trouble with. It’s getting those within the corridors of power to pull back and look at the framework we operate in. For us, that is the biggest resistance; political short-termism and economic thinking.
What is proving to make a difference is actually the voice of the people. What happened in France is a perfect example. Macron makes decisions around fuel taxes that don’t go down well with the populace. You have the rise of the Gilets Jaunes, so the government says, ok, you tell us what to do about climate change. A citizen’s assembly is convened, and what came out top of the billing? A crime of ecocide. It was quite a moment and must have been for Macron because now he’s cornered and has to say something supportive and start to act. And that showed the power of what informed citizenry can do.
It’s also why, especially this year, as the conversation is accelerating, we aim for more people across a broader spectrum to understand ecocide. Firstly, as a word, but also the potential and achievability to criminalise it and the power that would therefore have. Once that conversation is big enough, governments know that serious action needs to be taken.
Every environmental campaign on the planet is going to benefit
We’re putting together a panel to put a workable, credible draft definition together to take forward at the international level. There have been some definitions in the past, but we need one suitable to fit into multiple statutes. That’s the next stage. It won’t be the final stage because all laws are discussed, tweaked and changed as various states have their penny’s worth. But we can put together a very authoritative and credible text to take forward.
On the political level, it’s about governments realising that this is a safe political decision and opportunity. At the international level, lots of governments are wary of acting individually due to their entrenched relationships and short-term electability. But if they say they support this, they get to look like leaders, like they’re doing something impactful in the environmental arena, but without actually having to do anything about it the next day. But eventually, enough states will come on board and then they can all move together with no one being penalised.
And on the public side, we need to expand the conversation. We’re reaching out to NGOs and influencers, almost anyone and everyone, to support an international law on ecocide. We’re not necessarily asking people to join our specific campaign, and we’re not in the business of converting anybody. But we want to inform the millions of people already in this space who think this is valuable but just haven’t heard about it. Every environmental campaign on the planet will benefit from ecocide being in international law. So, we’re encouraging people to include that one-liner just to say that they support making ecocide an international crime.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 28th July 2020