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Ecocide, the 5th Crime Against Peace: Polly Higgins at TEDxExeter

Ecocide, the 5th Crime Against Peace: Polly Higgins at TEDxExeter



Translator: Peter van de Ven
Reviewer: Tanya Cushman Seven years ago, I was standing
in the Royal Courts of Justice in London – I'm a barrister – and it was the very last day
of a long running case where I had been representing a man who had been very badly injured
and harmed in the workplace. I was his lawyer, and I was giving voice
on his behalf in court. There was a moment of silence while we waited for the judges
to come into the room, and at that moment,
I looked out of the window, and I got thinking. I looked out and I thought, you know, the Earth has also
been badly injured and harmed, and something needs to be done about that. My next thought actually changed my life. I thought, 'The Earth
is in need of a good lawyer.' (Laughter) Now, that was a thought
that didn't leave me alone. I went away and I thought about it, and I thought, well, you know,
'As a lawyer in court, where are the tools that I need
to represent the Earth in court?' And what I realised
was that they didn't exist. So I started thinking about this:
What do I need to put in place for this? What if the Earth had rights?
After all, we as humans have rights. The most important right of all,
of course, is our right to life. What if the Earth
had the right to life as well? I spoke to other lawyers about this. They said, 'Polly, you're mad.
Of course the earth doesn't have rights. And after all, there's a whole body
of environmental law out there. Why not just use that?' But I said, 'Well, there's a problem here. All this existing environmental law, it's not working; it can't be working! You just have to look at the Amazon
to see this is not working. We're looking at mass
damage and destruction that's escalating every day. Existing law is not stopping that.' So what I did was I looked around
to see who else was thinking like me, and what I discovered was that, in fact, there are many people thinking like me. Seven hundred and fifty million people
out there, to be exact. Three hundred and seventy million
of them are indigenous. They get the idea that the Earth
has the right to life. They get the idea
that life itself is sacred – not just human life, but all life. Also I discovered Buddhists
understood this way of thinking as well. That's another 380 million people. Seven hundred and fifty million people,
the size of Europe, already think like me. It's just that it's not
written down in law. But then I got thinking further
because of course, actually, with our human rights
and our right to life that's also governed on a one to one
by the crime of murder – or in America, it's called 'homicide' – when it's ourselves and our community,
it's called 'genocide'. And I was actually speaking
to a large audience a couple of years ago, back in 2009, about Earth rights, when someone in the audience said, 'You know, we need a new language to deal with this mass
damage and destruction that's happening of the Earth,
of our ecosystems.' And I thought, you know, you're right. It's like genocide; it's an ecocide! And it was one of those lightbulb moments; literally, I felt as if a light
had gone on above my head. And I thought, my God,
it should be a crime. Is that possible?
Could we make ecocide a crime? And I rushed home,
and I went off and I researched this. And three months later,
I came up for breath, and I realised that in fact, indeed,
not only could we make it a crime, but it is a missing,
fifth crime against peace. Now you'll see here in this slide,
what this sets out here are what are known as
the international crimes against peace. We already have crimes against humanity,
war crimes, genocide; they were put in place after World War II. And they act as umbrella laws;
they cover the whole of the world. They're kind of super laws;
they supersede everything else. All other laws
must come in line with them. Crimes of aggression –
that's the run-up to war – that was just put in place in 2010. And I say that, actually,
there's a fifth crime against peace here, and that is ecocide. What we have in existence already are laws that protect
the wellbeing of life. Actually, what they protect
is the sacredness of life itself. And I'm saying it's not just human life, but we expand our cycle of concern out and that it's the wellbeing of all life,
of all inhabitants who live in this earth. This is a diagram of what's happening
in the world at the moment. We have damage and destruction
on a mass scale playing out, which is what I call ecocide,
and I'll unpackage that term in a moment, but it's leading to, amongst other things, resource depletion, which leads to, amongst other things, conflict, which can then lead to war, which of course leads
to more damage and destruction, more resource depletion. In fact, what's happening
in the Congo at the moment is a very potent example of this cycle spiraling onwards and upwards,
faster and faster, conflict leading to more war,
to more damage and destruction, to more ecocide. And so it goes on spiraling
onwards and upwards. It's what Sir David King calls
'a century of resource wars'. That's what we're looking at. I think there's another way
that we can turn this around. We can actually halt it in its tracks. This is not about slowing down this cycle,
but it's actually stopping it. Intervening. And by creating a law that actually acts
as a disruptor to that spiral as it spirals onwards and upwards, and that's what a law of ecocide can do. This is the beginning
of the legal proposal that I submitted into the United Nations. Ecocide is a crime when we cause extensive destruction,
damage to or loss of ecosystems. Now, every word here is legally weighted. But possibly the most important word here
is that word 'inhabitants' – you'll see it's not just people,
but we're talking about inhabitants. And of course, that's a recognition
that if we look at any given territory, it's not just human beings
that live there, but there are other species as well. It's also a recognition
of the interconnectedness of life itself. Ultimately, destroy the Earth
that we stand on, and we destroy our ability
to live in peaceful enjoyment. Now, there are two types of ecocide here. Human-caused ecocide. And human-caused ecocide is when we see and we're able to ascertain that as a result of our actions, we're causing mass damage and destruction. And in fact, we heard earlier today about how, in human-caused terms, we're also creating injury in other ways – increasing of greenhouse gasses, that's one outcome of causing
mass damage and destruction. I have, in fact, just recently
submitted to all governments a concept paper
on how we can use this law to close the door
to dangerous industrial activity that is causing human ecocide,
human-caused ecocide. But there is another type of ecocide
that I wish to talk about today, and that is naturally occurring ecocide. That's when we see
tsunamis, floods, rising sea levels, anything that causes
mass ecosystem collapse. And we can create an international law that doesn't just govern
corporate activity, but more importantly, that imposes
a legal duty of care on all nations to give us systems
when something like this occurs. Because at the moment, we have the likes of the Maldives
standing up and saying, 'Help us! We're looking at going underwater
with rising sea levels within the next decade.' And governments are saying,
'Nothing we can do.' In fact, what they're saying is actually, 'We don't have a legal duty of care
to give assistance.' By creating a law of ecocide,
we can impose a legal duty of care so that all nations come together
and preempt this. After all, there are
54 Small Island States that are looking at rising sea levels. And not just 54 Small Island States,
other countries as well, Bangladesh, are looking at not just floods,
rising sea levels, but also they have a triple whammy
because they have melting ice as well. By imposing a legal
duty of care on nations, the dialogue can begin to take place where we decide, 'What are we going to do to give help?' And that is very important,
that we can move forward together in this. Because, ultimately,
at the end of the day, even if they are
the other side of the world, we are in this together. But it goes further than that. In international criminal law, we have a principle
called 'superior responsibility'. Yes, this is about taking responsibility, but more than that, it's about imposing
superior responsibility upon those who – if you imagine like a triangle –
sit at the top of the triangle, those in a position
of command and control. Now, that means
heads of states, ministers. It also means chief executives,
directors, heads of banks – those who are in a position
to make decisions that can adversely impact
on many million peoples underneath. And by imposing a legal duty of care
upon those individuals, we actually create a framework
upon which we can make decisions that are based on prioritizing
people and planet first. And that's about closing the door
to the dangerous industrial activity. What this comes down to is
two different ways of viewing the Earth. View the Earth as an inert thing, and what we do
is we put a price tag on it. We impose a value on it. What we do is we buy it,
we sell it, we use it, we abuse it, we commoditise it. That's all governed
by the law of property. However, there is another way
of viewing the Earth, and that's about viewing the Earth
as a living being. And when we do that,
it comes from a very different place. In fact, it shifts dramatically
how we look into the long term. Because once we see ourselves
as trustees, as guardians, we start taking responsibility
for future generations. And this is about realigning
the scales of justice. Just now, they're out of kilter,
they're out of balance. I believe we can do that;
we can rebalance that. In fact, we have done this
once before in history, and I'd like to take you back 200 years. Two hundred years ago,
William Wilberforce, who was the parliamentarian
here in Britain who took up the mantle
for the abolition of slavery, when he stood up and said, 'Morally, slavery is wrong;
we must stop this', what he met with
was a barrage of objections. Big industry said, 'You can't do that,
because it's a necessity. The public demand it, and what's more, our economies will collapse
if we get rid of slavery.' Well, those 300 companies
that were involved in slavery, they came up with different ideas. They said, 'Leave it to us to sort out,
our voluntary mechanisms: we will self-regulate this. Too many laws already. (Laughter) What's more, we'll limit the numbers
if push comes to shove. In fact, we can leave it
to market forces to work this out. Create a cap-and-trade
system, if you like.' Now, the interesting thing is that the British parliament
said no to all of those proposals. And indeed, two days
before William Wilberforce died, laws were passed, which created ripples
right across the world in ending slavery. Now, if we look to today, what we're seeing
is actually a very similar picture. What's changed here is the picture. This is of the Athabasca tar sands, in Canada. Now, when I first saw these pictures, my heart stopped,
it stopped me in my tracks. I looked at what was going on there,
and I said, 'Really, this is a crime.' Now, what we've seen today is that
industry is saying exactly the same thing. The difference is that, in fact,
we have tried those solutions, and we've discovered they haven't worked. Now, one of the successes
that came out of slavery was the fact that it was managed,
there was a transition period. Not one of those companies
went out of business. And William Wilberforce
was governed by something that I am also very governed by. This is not about
closing down big industry. This is about making
the problem into the solution. In fact, not one of those 300 companies went out of business
after the abolition of slavery. Some of them went on
to trade in tea in China. They were given subsidies. Some of them actually
became the polices of the seas. William Wilberforce said,
'Three crucial things have to happen: You pull the subsidies,
you outlaw the problem, and you create new subsidies
in the other direction.' And that's precisely
what we're needing to do today. But it's more than that. It actually goes back
into the annals of time, of something that's known
as the Sacred Trust of Civilization. Now, this is a concept
that goes back in written documents, as far as I could find,
to the 16th century, and it has been enshrined
in the United Nations Charter, which is our first successful
international legal document, put in place after World War II. What that says is that members of the United Nations
have a duty, a legal duty, to put the interest of the inhabitants – it's that word again, 'inhabitants' – as number one, the primary duty
that we have, duty of care, and that we accept as a sacred trust. Trust! So this is about us being
trustees, stewards, guardians and that we have an obligation to promote to the utmost
the wellbeing of the inhabitants. It's a health and wellbeing provision; it's about putting
people and planet first. A law of ecocide gives this section
in the United Nations Charter legal validity. And that's very important. Because an international law of ecocide
is a crime against humanity, but it's more than that: it's a crime against Nature,
it's a crime against future generations. Ultimately, most importantly,
it's a crime against peace. This is about prioritizing
people and planet over and above profit, but also a recognition
that when we do that, when we open the door
to a conflict-free world, we can create innovation
in a very different direction, that actually gives us abundance
in many, many ways. Now, I'm not anti-profit, not at all.
In fact, I'm very pro it. But what I am doing is I am closing the door
to that which causes life destruction, and I'm opening the door
to that which affirms life itself. So this takes me back to seven years ago, when I started with one
very powerful thought and how it's really led me on a journey
and continues to do so. It's not just about proposing
an international law of ecocide, but in fact, it's also beginning
to lead me along a journey of examining, What is it that we need here? Leadership, an adaptive leadership;
we have fast-changing times. It's also led to a book,
Eradicating Ecocide, that sets out this law and explains why law, in fact,
has caused the problem. Did you know this? It is the law of corporations
to put profit first. A company has a legal duty to maximize
its profits to its shareholders. Now that used to serve us well. But unfortunately,
we didn't look to the consequences. A law of ecocide would supersede this
and pose a piece of legislation that, in fact, allows us to look
to the consequences. A 'think before you act' provision that acts as a great turnkey. In conclusion, I just want to say this: Martin Luther King once said that when our laws align themselves to equality and justice, then we will have
true peace in this world. When our laws align themselves
with a higher understanding, then we will have
that true quality in justice. Ecocide is a law that allows us
to align ourselves with natural justice. And I believe that in my life that that is something worthy
of actually giving my life to to make happen. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. Rest well, Polly. I was at your funeral today and the amount of people will stay ingrained in my mind, that picture of pureness. We'll miss you.

  2. Greed should be used as a motivator, for instance the destruction of micro Eco-systems in the rain-forests actually loses money, because all of the potential drugs that are being destroyed.

  3. One solution to a lot of the pollution will be the creation of "Enhanced Conductors", likely coming out of the Materials Genome Project, it has been projected that Graphene may be able to have for instance up to 100 to 1,000 times the conductivity of copper (depending what articles you read), of course cheap clean energy alone is not enough, energy efficiency will also be required.

  4. Olanzapine-Induced Edema causes Trauma in the Brain and Sedation, check out my G+ Post about Healthcare, Aryanism and Eugenics.

  5. So if I get it right, the only religion that supports the protection of the environment, is Buddhism?

  6. 'The earth has rights..''what a beautiful statement. Where attention goes, energy flows so please be for the right life of earth not against anything cause everything will flourish that gets are attention… Great job Polly!

  7. Brilliant and inspiring talk Femke – I have been similarly inspired by Polly but felt too busy to take action yet – your talk has inspired me to start today.I have emailed some brilliant barristers I work with in the hope that we can start a collaboration here in Adelaide and get to work. Thankyou.

  8. It's happening: http://upliftconnect.com/declaration-to-restore-mother-earth/
    although Polly may not be aware, and so I share the link!
    Bless you, Polly, and all you do…

  9. But ,  what about the poor client suing for industrial injuries ? While she's off dedicating her life to the fairies (that are the un enforcers btw) , aka daydreaming out of the window from The Royal Courts of Justice no less , there was some work needing doing ? Was the case lost or won ?

     The poor sod probably had to limp off with his one eye, sobbing away 🙁
    "There was no fee , but they never mentioned the lawyer would randomly consult fluffy bunnies in her briefcase , bbb boo hoo ! "

  10. Polly deserves all our support! Join her movement and see how you can support her
    use the http://www. ecocidelawforum.org to post up stuff there and share what you are doing to help support Ecocide Law. 
    I think the key thing is visibility – do use the Supporting Ecocide law icon (downloadable from http://eradicatingecocide.com) and/or make your own.

    For list of Rome Statute Parties – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/States_parties_to_the_Rome_Statute_of_the_International_Criminal_Court
    – I have also posted this up on the http://www. ecocidelawforum.org

    Thank you all for being a bridge out into your communities and networks – I shall set up another webinar date at the end of October and I hope we shall all have much to share about our bridge-building then:-) 

    Warmest best wishes,

    Polly

    Polly Higgins
    www.pollyhiggins.com

  11. Brehon Law has precendence over Common Law. Brehon Law respected the earth. It's no accident an Irish barister came up with this. This kind of thinking is in her genes.
     This isn't a radically new idea. It's been done in the past in Brehon Law, so it can work again. Google Brehon Law for an interesting talk from Pat Flannery.

  12. Get some vulture fund lawyers on YOUR side & then SUE, Polly.
    Those vulture lawyers know the system.

    A vulture fund is a private equity or hedge fund that invests in debt considered to be very weak or in imminent default. Investors in the fund profit by buying this debt at a discounted price on a secondary market and then SUEING the debtor for a larger amount than the purchasing price. Debtors can include companies, countries or individuals. The term is used to criticize the fund for strategically profiting off of debtors that are in financial distress.

  13. This represents a huge step backwards for the environmental movement. 

    You remember the joke about people showing up to international conferences saying "I represent the planet": Polly Higgins is that person, for real. 

    She claims to be working on the analogy of representing the 'client' of the earth: well, the earth didn't choose her, she's the equivalent of an ambulance chaser, and the earth would do well to find a better lawyer. 

    The quality of analysis is so poor as to be embarrassing: it's a crass restatement of law, ethics, rights, in ways that privilege her and ignore all the actual hard work going on international law, over decades, to wind back damage to the environment. 

    Why on earth is this considered a contribution, not a preening, absurd distraction? Why not spend time on turning any of the UN environmental declarations (e.g. Rio, Jo'burg, Rio, A21) into law, or better implementing ANY of the conventions that are being ignored after so much work, chiefly UNFCCC; or a legal block to unscientific economics. 

    This is  – to coin a cliché – King Canute with No Clothes. She is taking up lots of oxygen to to create a crime against ecoystems, and if this gets close to negotiation it will take 15 years, close to ratifying in any form 30 years, close to implementation in any small-but-real version, in 40-50 years.

    So frustrated with the fragmentation of the movement that puts this on a pedestal. Bring back the quality of Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, et al. Shocking. 

  14. Hooray! A ray of hope! I hope that this way of thinking becomes the norm in the very near future. When I saw the film "The Corporation" several years ago, I came away feeling more optimistic, as it showed there weren't many villains, but companies lacking the legal framework which would allow them to be socially responsible, rather than psychopaths. I thought "oh, we just need some good lawyers to redraft the guidelines". She has turned up. I'd also like to say a huge thank you to Polly Higgins

  15. Brilliant thinker. Brilliant activist. My hero and an absolute inspiration. ECOCIDE can be stopped.

  16. ecocide encouraging the sale of tobacco? the factories? , water treatment plants, cars etc. that emit co2 and other toxins on the climate and water waste? or just come a couple of policemen to fine me while I smoke a cigar at the beach, Although i use ashtray and i am responsible to the environment? in that over this? why many "groups" smelled money and became corrupt behind a curtain of smoke and the planet keep beeing distroyed with all us over it

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