Ecocide: naming an unspeakable crime

– by Bruce Mason –

Calling out the perpetrators of climate change is certainly top-of-mind these days, but when speaking truth to power, it’s best to choose your words most carefully. Be precise, passionate, but not necessarily polite. Or suffer the consequences.

We find ourselves at a climate precipice, perhaps little more than a decade away from a full-blown Anthropocene, which threatens mass extinctions including our own species. It is equally as obvious – or should be – that this clear and present danger is largely the work of 100 or so multinational corporations who collectively contribute about 70 percent of the pollution now profoundly (and possibly irreversibly) impacting the earth’s atmosphere.

For decades, the vast majority of us have happily played along, protected by a smokescreen of ignorance, fear and denial. Recently, though, the word “ecocide” is being substituted for the numerous and diabolical ways humans produce greenhouse gases. And it works. It re-focuses conversations and resonates with the urgent need to mobilize the resources necessary for restitution. And it serves notice to the elite one percent that they must cease their unprecedented criminal activity so the rest of us can get out of harm’s way. For justice to be seen as well as done.

More and more, “ecocide” is finding it’s way into the global vocabulary. It speaks to the younger generation who are becoming increasingly freaked out and active. It could emerge as Word of the Year for 2019, due in part to recent comments – all of which have gone viral – by American journalist David Wallace-Wells, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, and Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins.

“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” was how Wallace-Wells began a horrifying 2017 article in New York Magazine, the most-read in the history of the publication. In a more recent, equally terrifying book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, Wallace-Wells went on to illustrate a hitherto unseen near-future filled with famine, flood, fire, political chaos, economic collapse, and a sun that cooks us.

Among the eye-popping statistics he presents is the revelation that we’ve done more environmental damage since 1992 (the year UN established its Framework Convention on Climate Change) than we did in the millennia that preceded it. Furthermore, if we do not immediately and radically change course, 150 million people will die – the equivalent of 25 Holocausts, or twice the number of deaths in World War II – by the end of the century, from air pollution alone.

“Taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bull-shit in my opinion,” Rutger Bregman told participants who had flown in 1,500 private jets to last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I hear people talking the language of participation, justice, equality and transparency but almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share,” he continued. “It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.” (Note: a must-see Bregman interview after his speech at Davos is posted on YouTube.)

Polly Higgins, a lawyer with one client, Mother Earth, says that ecocide crime is an idea whose time has come. “It is the missing international law to re-balance the greatest injustice of our time.” Existing corporate duties prioritize profit, she argues. This has long-term, adverse consequences that are legal, despite causing extensive damage, destruction and loss of ecosystems. As a result, dangerous industrial activity continues unabated and the impacts remain unaddressed. Higgins predicts that criminalizing ecocide would impose a legal duty on governments to care and protect the public from dangerous industrial practices.

Higgins is the founding co-director of Ecological Defence Integrity and author of three books including Eradicating Ecocide which earned the People’s Book Prize in 2011. A documentary about her work, Advocate for the Earth, can be viewed online.

In April 2010 she proposed to the UN Law Commission an amendment to the Rome Statute to include a law against Ecocide. In 2018, she identified two Royal Dutch Shell CEOs and the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy as principal suspects in an independent preliminary examination into the potential crime of Climate Ecocide. Her purpose was to determine whether there is sufficient evidence both to establish a crime of ecocide and to justify its adoption as an atrocity alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression.

“The fact that ecocide occurs during peacetime does not make it any less of an atrocity, or any less of a crime,” says Higgins. “We live in an age where the consequences of dangerous industrial activity are long-term, trans-boundary and can be felt on the other side of the world. Hurricanes will not wait whilst we endlessly vacillate over agreements which cannot be enforced,” she adds. “I have a choice: to protect our Earth or to let it be destroyed. For me it is unconscionable to walk away.”

Hear, hear.

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