Ecocide: the fifth crime against peace

Saffia Farr talks to lawyer Polly Higgins, who asks us all to “pollinate” and leave a positive legacy for our children

Polly Higgins’ proposed definition for ecocide: the extensive damage to, destruction of 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 or will be severely diminished.

I first read about Polly Higgins in Resurgence and Permaculture. I was inspired by her ideas and solutions to our environmental problems: create a law of ecocide, make damaging the environment a crime, ensure heads of states and corporations are legally bound to put the welfare of people and planet above profit and therefore change the assumption that the Earth is a resource to exploit to a duty to protect our planet which overrides all else. If this is done, then all the problems we are grappling with will be solved, at source. Instead of clearing up pollution, time, human energy and resources could be put into green, creative solutions to sustainable life. Put like this, I say to Polly, it all seems so simple. So why hasn’t it happened?

“It has to be when civilisations are ready. We reach tipping points; we say ‘no more’. We reached that with genocide, with slavery, with apartheid. Now I believe we are reaching it with ecocide. This is a legacy issue: what sort of Earth do we want to leave our children? Do we want to be life-affirming or life-destroying? We have to move away from the assumption that we own the Earth, that we can use resources as we wish. Parents will understand this. Parents don’t own their children, but they have a duty to care for them. This is about stewardship and trusteeship; we should all be stewards of the Earth.”

The proposal is that the Law of Ecocide be ratified by the United Nations and become the fifth international crime against peace, alongside crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of aggression and genocide. This would make it an international law that all would have to adhere to. Polly has spent years researching the law and setting out detailed proposals on how to make a law of Ecocide workable. She explains: “There are two aspects. On one side of the coin is the right to life, on the other side is the governance of those rights, so we make it a crime to take away that right to life. There are two aspects to ecocide: environmental ecocide, whereby actions are damaging the Earth and ecosystems, and cultural ecocide, whereby people’s right to life is affected. Both are illustrated by the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada, where massive areas of peatland and wetlands are being destroyed to expose the tar sands, and the First Nations Indigenous communities are threatened by rising levels of toxins in their fish and water.”

Reading about ecocide, I feel confused. Surely there are existing laws, including human rights laws, to stop such damaging practices? The reality is that there are not. Polly explains: “The problem is a causal link, proving that what is happening to you is as the result of the industrial process. With the Law of Ecocide, all you need to do is provide a contaminated soil sample and that proves the damage to the Earth. A law of ecocide would also stop the problem at source – instead of doing something that causes pollution or a loss of ecosystems and then paying a fine, companies would stop the polluting activity in the first place, because it would be a crime, for which individuals would be liable.”

“Can this really be done?” I ask hesitantly.

“Yes. History shows that such change of direction has been achieved. William Wilberforce is an inspiration in how he brought about the prohibition of slavery – rather than owners promising to treat slaves better, Wilberforce said no, they should not be slaves at all. And due to public pressure, laws were enacted that prohibited slavery. We need to do this with environmental destruction. At the moment, all we have are compromise laws, limitations on what companies can do. The problem is that if they exceed their limitations they just pay the fine and carry on, and this does not solve the problem of the irreversible destruction of our environment, which is leading to loss of ecosystems, plants and wildlife and to climate change.”

The clever thing about Polly’s work is that she is bringing businesses on board. She doesn’t say that profit is a problem, but that profit at the expense of our Earth is a problem. She again uses the example of the abolition of slavery – businesses fought against the idea, saying they could not operate without slaves; but they innovated and found new ways. Likewise with the Law of Ecocide, if we stop channelling pension funds into financing destructive projects, that money could be used to fund green energy and innovative solutions to our resources issues. Polly says: “It’s a complete switch; the first principle is that we are life-affirming, we will do no harm. We have the right not to be polluted, the right to the freedom of a healthy environment – that is our starting point.”

But this is trying to change the whole paradigm of how global business thinks and operates; changing the perspective of what is important, or unimportant, in the pursuit of profit. Although a simple premise, in practice this is a massive shift. I ask Polly if she ever feels overwhelmed. She smiles. “I have done. And when I have I’ve shouted to the skies ‘Help me!’ and help has always come.”

Talking to Polly is inspiring. Reading her books Eradicating Ecocide and Earth Is Our Business, I felt overwhelmed by the enormity of such a paradigm shift and helpless about what I could do against the power forces of global corporations and country leaders. But Polly is not focusing so much on the end goal as on the momentum of what is happening every day. “It’s like a snowball that’s building. Our job is to get the message out there and let others do with it what inspires them. We say we are scattering seeds: some will land on fertile ground and will grow, others will not. But there is such support for what we are proposing, and that is important. It’s about the power of the people. I believe that this is an idea whose time has come – it’s gaining traction. When I look back at what we have achieved in the last year, it’s amazing. I think young people are key; they have been brought up thinking about the Earth in a new way, so it’s not such a shift of thinking for them.

Already I’ve noticed a change: when I first started talking about ecocide people thought I was mad; now people understand and it’s getting easier every day due to the level of engagement. We are creating initiatives, creating jobs – it’s exciting.”

Yes, it is exciting. Can you imagine a world where acres of rainforest are not being ripped up every day, where toxic waste is not dumped in the sea with nobody talking about it? “The problem is that this has become the norm,” Polly says, “but I feel the time has come to draw the line, to say, ‘no more’. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Making the decision to be ethical is hard – it takes more time. You decide to shop at the farmers’ market rather than the supermarket, to support an organic farmer rather than buying something flown in from Kenya – that can be a difficult choice. And the money we invest in high-street banks and pensions is being spent on projects that are destroying the Earth. What can we as consumers do about that? We have difficult choices to make, but there are alternatives.”

When I ask Polly what JUNO readers can do to help she gives me a wonderful reply: “Pollinate, be like the bees. If what you’re reading makes your heart sing, then spread the word, tell everyone about it, be creative in whatever ways inspire you. We can change the history of civilisation, but it’s all about people power.”

And actually, all it needs is one head of state to table an amendment to the Rome Statute, just one. The amendment would then need 81 signatories to become law and change the whole way we view our Earth, to become stewards, not polluters. It doesn’t sound much but tabling that one amendment will take bold, moral and courageous leadership, to make the start, to leave that legacy.

And this is where people power can help. In January 2013 the European Citizens’ Initiative to End Ecocide in Europe was launched. If 1 million citizens sign, the European Commission will have to carefully examine the proposal, ecocide will be discussed in the European Parliament, and that may be all the momentum that is needed for someone to table that amendment. When I voted, 14,173 had done so before me. By the time I’d finished, it was 14,178. It made me feel more positive that in that short space of time I and four others had made our voices heard. “Use your finger and press the ‘vote’ button,” Polly says with another smile. “The power is vested in each of us – that’s all it takes.”

Wherever you are in the world, there are many ways you can make your voice heard. Join Wish20, a wish that ecocide be law by 2020. It’s a way to show you support the global citizens’ initiative that maps the growing support for the Law of Ecocide and gives world leaders the mandate to make it an international crime. You will be ‘mapped’, showing the visual support for the movement around the world.

In our conversation, Polly used the word ‘enabling’ a lot. I like that word: it feels positive against the backdrop of mega corporations and powerful lobbyists. The work Polly and the Ecocide team are doing will enable people to see how this idea can happen, will enable leaders to act, will create enabling conditions and spaces, a place where that one leader feels safe to table that amendment. Polly is both inspiring and humble. Eradicating ecocide, she says, will “change the history of civilisation” – but she reiterates that this movement is not just about her: “Someone said to me recently that this global movement is like a flock of geese. I am at the front, carving the way where we’ve not been before, and that’s hard and I can feel alone; when I look around me I can’t see anyone. But actually, right there behind me are lots and lots of other geese, all flying along with me, enabled by the slipstream.”

What to do if you feel inspired:

Pollinate – spread the word in whatever ways inspire you

Vote – if you are an EU citizen, sign the European Citizens’ Initiative at

Join Wish20 and map your support –


Eradicating Ecocide: Exposing the Corporate and Political Practices Destroying the Planet and Proposing the Laws Needed to Eradicate Ecocide by Polly Higgins, Shepheard-Walwyn

Earth Is Our Business: Changing the Rules of the Game by Polly Higgins, Shepheard-Walwyn – described by Polly as an information portal. There is lots on here to inform and inspire. – where you can sign up to the European Citizens’ Initiative. It has a fantastic short video explaining what is meant by ending ecocide.

Mountains image by Alastair Humphreys:

First published in Issue 32 (Summer 2013) of JUNO:

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