Ecocide: A legal green high?

Section of the Brazil rainforest which has suffered deforestation

At the heart of its official negotiations, the Rio+20 summit is all about looking for political agreements that will improve the lot of society, particularly the poorest, and of nature.

Politics isn't necessarily the best course, nor politicians the best people to plot such a course, to judge by the glacial, boulder-strewn pace of talks here in Rio.

The science is clear on so many of the issues, and ministers acknowledge it - but they see many other factors too, which is why the political response on issues such as climate change often lags way behind the science.

If politics can't get on with it, what about the law?

In 1996, lawyer Mark Gray had a simple vision: make ecocide (destroying nature) a crime.

Well, you might say, any country can do that - and many countries have, in various degrees. Depending on where you live, lighting bush fires, stealing birds' eggs, dumping old motor oil in streams and building on the habitat of a protected newt can all land you in court.

But other nations don't have such laws. Also, activities that harm the natural world sometimes take place beyond national boundaries, such as exploitative high-seas fishing - and some of the worst are performed by companies belonging to one state but operating in the territory of another.

Spanish fishing boat escorted by Spanish civil guard boat Certain fishing practices could harm the environment

Hence a move several years back by UK barrister Polly Higgins to make ecocide one of the five international "crimes against peace", joining war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression.

The Eradicating Ecocide movement isn't talking about slap-on-the-wrist punishments for law-breaking.

Last year they mounted a "trial" trial - a demonstration, if you will - where two CEOs of fictional Canadian tar sands companies faced a court staffed by real lawyers, a real judge and a real jury.

Aerial view of the Syncrude tar sands mine in Alberta A tar sands mine in Canada

One was "sentenced" to four years in jail.

As well as bosses of misbehaving corporations, the movement believes ministers and heads-of-government that commit or allow ecocide should also stand trial.

And cases could be brought on behalf of inhabitants, whether human or another species.

The Eradicating Ecocide notion has gained some backing - from environmental activists of course, but also, I'm told, some governments, though I'm not aware of any that have gone public with it yet.

The chances of gaining support from all governments would appear to be infinitesimally small, especially given that a number have chosen not to put themselves under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the body that can hear cases brought under the four existing crimes against peace.

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It's ironic that we're talking about lawyers saving the environment from lawyers”

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But maybe that doesn't really matter. The main aim is to prevent ecocidal events from occurring in the first place; and if you have a corporation, say, that operates in many countries, some that are parties and some that aren't, it's going to have to adhere to the standards of those that are.

Given where I came into this article, there's an irony here in that we're talking about lawyers saving the environment from lawyers.

Most countries employ lawyers as negotiators in these UN processes, and that's partly why they get so bogged down.

Working out the legal definition of a tree in the Kyoto Protocol took years.

Yet in the court arena, the law has the capacity to cut through these very same knots. If your neighbour cuts down what any normal person would call a tree that's standing on your side of the fence, he/she can face punishment, with no arguments about the legal definition of said tree.

So what would a normal person put under the heading of ecocide?

The word gained an airing across the world 40 years ago, at the first UN environment summit in Stockholm, when Sweden's Prime Minister Olof Palme levelled the charge against the US over its use of defoliant chemicals during the war in Vietnam.

In Polly Higgins' vision, ecocidal acts during war are not the main target - they'd be covered under some of the other crimes of peace.

The main concern is what happens during normal times.

Oil leak in Bakio caused by sunken tanker Prestige The law could cover massive oil leaks

So the law would presumably cover something like a massive oil leak caused by slack or actively risk-taking management, for example.

Would fishing or hunting a species to near-extinction count? What about:

  • the careless introduction of alien species that out-compete native ones
  • a mine that pollutes its homeland
  • over-enthusiastic use of pesticides that removes insect life from a tranche of land
  • the diversion of a river for irrigation that drains wetlands and their spider inhabitants?

Clearly there are some difficult issues here.

If a company digs a massive mine, for example, there's going to be significant ecological damage in the area. But with will and the right approach, it can be restored after the mine closes.

So would the initial dig qualify as ecocide for the damage it does?

It'll be interesting to see how far the Eradicating Ecocide idea goes in the next few years.

One senses inevitable resistance ahead from a number of very important countries. And dealing with that would be a matter of politics; which in the environmental arena, as we're seeing here in Rio, is often a long and messy business.

A new environmental summit is about to take place in Brazil, 20 years after 172 nations gathered in Rio, for the Earth summit. To find out more about the issues facing the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, see below.

  • What is the Rio summit about?
Population chatrt
  • The Rio summit will focus on efforts to reduce poverty, while protecting the environment. This task is made harder as the world's population is expected to rise steeply in the years ahead.
  • The planet's population could be 15 billion people by 2100. Wealth is also expected to rise but its effect on the environment is unclear.
  • In the past, more people, with more wealth has meant increased consumption.
  • Since the last Rio summit in 1992, the
    number of people on Earth has gone up by
  • 22%
  • Seafood consumption has gone up by
  • Meat by
  • The average person eats 43 kg of meat a year. In 1992 it was 34 kg.
  • Source: UNEP, 2011. Figures relate to 2007
  • While food consumption is rising, there are still large numbers of people who are undernourished.
  • It is one of the UN's many development goals to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger by 2015.
  • How able is the planet to meet increasing demand?
  • In 1960, a little over half the planet's land, forests and
    fisheries were needed to meet human consumption.
  • By the late 1970s, consumption was equal to one planet.
  • By the first years of this century, one-and-a-half planets
    were needed to meet consumption.

    This deficit can only be met by the depletion of renewable
    resources and increased pollution.
Global resource consumption
  • Consumption isn't equal. North Americans and Europeans consume far more resources than are available solely within their borders.
Living planet index
  • As human populations increase, the number and diversity of birds
    and animals is falling.
  • Decreasing biodiversity undermines the planet's ability to sustain humanity. Its reductions typically affect the poorest the most. These issues are right at the heart of the Rio talks.
Chart showing stress on each system
  • Some argue that the planet has limits to the stress its different systems can undergo, beyond which a stable future cannot be guaranteed.
  • This graphic from the scientist and sustainability expert Johan Rockström suggests those limits have already been broken for climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle.
Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    The lawyers must be rubbing their hands in glee over this stupid idea. The green looneys will be filling lawsuits left right and centre against every car manufacturer, oil company and mining industry and as usual the public will end up paying the bill for it. The rest of the world will just ignore the legislation and carry on destroying their environment regardless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    112Entropic man

    Interesting quote. Thanks.

    I can't find the original report but have found your quote with this included:

    'with a diversified diet similar to those of North America and Western Europe (hence including meat)'

    so it would be quite reasonable diets.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    111 contd.
    "The minimum amount of agricultural land necessary for sustainable food security 0.5 of a hectare per person. [FAO, 1993]" That's about half a rugby pitch.

    The FAO also estimates the world's total agricultural land is 62 million sq. km. (that's 6.2 billion hectares).

    At half a hectare each, that's enough land to support 12.4 billion people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    #108 thefrogstar

    Just for fun.

    The Earth's land surface area is 150 million square kilometres. With a present world population of 7 billion, that's about 50 people per square km.

    If each person were allowed 1 square metre there would be room for 1 million people per sq. km. Worldwide that's standing room for 150 thousand billion people.

    Pity its about food supply, not lebensraum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    "I've fallen sleep flying over empty lands [often frozen!].
    I wake up, hours later, and they're still there, and still empty."

    Unfortunately they are uninhabited because they are mostly uninhabitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    "There are some pretty good laws, fixed and permanent - the universal laws of physics."

    Have you heard this bit of doggeral?

    "There are millions of laws legislators have spoken
    A handful the Creator sent
    The former are being continually broken
    The latter can't even be bent"

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    On the "over population" theme:
    Every time I've flown direct from London to the West Coast of the USA, I'm struck by the sheer size of the North American continent.

    I've fallen sleep flying over empty lands [often frozen!].
    I wake up, hours later, and they're still there, and still empty.

    Remind me, how big is Russia is again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    @97 yes it is nice. It was nice when McIntyre did the same favour for Mann, except Mann didn't thank him.

    Amazing how peer reviewed papers get published and then amateurs point out the problems with the papers isn't it?

    But thanks for the acknowledgement

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    #47 Entropic,
    I have not said "conspiracy". I'm only obsessing about the poor use of science to justify what appear to be predetermined objectives.

    Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit is forcing [in Joelle Gergis' case] a proper scrutiny of the science. If it wasn't for the creditable intervention of David Karoly et al, she would still "not be entertaining any further correspondence on the matter."

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Economy fist, Environment second. Let's get our priorities straight, I'm all for saving the whales and the petunias, but not at the expense of our children having food on the table.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    There are some pretty good laws, fixed and permanent - the universal laws of physics.

    We cannot change them, however much we try to ignore them.

    Sooner or later we will be forced to obey.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    100.Entropic man

    #96 Cariboo
    " The human race just has to revert to it's original modus operandi. That of a cave dwelling hunter gatherer. "

    Just one problem. The Earth could support about 100 million hunter gatherers. What shall we do with the other people, some 6,900,000,000 of them?
    Less than 100 million I think, cave real estate would be the limiting factor.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    @94 Entropic man

    It is a huge worry that having looked at the figures big business sees opportunities to make money from the impending disaster.

    Sod the environment, the economy is everything. It has to keep growing, the market is expading, bigger profits are there to be made.

    Get out there and make some dosh and don't spare the horses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    100.Entropic man
    What shall we do with the other people, some 6,900,000,000 of them?
    You should ask that question of the people who blame all the worlds ills on overpopulation. I am not in a position to play God, but sometimes.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    #96 Cariboo
    " The human race just has to revert to it's original modus operandi. That of a cave dwelling hunter gatherer. "

    Just one problem. The Earth could support about 100 million hunter gatherers. What shall we do with the other people, some 6,900,000,000 of them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Malnutrition and food insecurity are truly dreadful problems. But global food production is more than adequate.

    The Guardian 12 May 2011:

    'One-third of the world's food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted each year, according to a study released on Wednesday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation'

    One third!

    Plus distribution inequality.

    We do produce enough for 9 billion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    repair and reuse rather
    In order to supply goods at a price people like, most stuff is impossible to repair and largely junk that that does not lend its self to re use. A 100 years ago things were different, you could buy something once and repair it so it lasted a lifetime (and you could put it in your will).

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.


    Nice to see Gergis et al and Climate Audit working together to identify a flaw in their 2012 paper, and to see the paper's lead author thanking the website for its help.
    This intelligent cooperation between the two sides of the climate change debate is much to be preferred to the usual bickering.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Environmental damage is easy to mitigate to an absolute minimum. The human race just has to revert to it's original modus operandi. That of a cave dwelling hunter gatherer. If you desire something more, environmental damage will occur. Minimizing the total environmental impact (rather than the local) is the only viable option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    It is about time we recognised that we are not the most important or intelligent creatures on the planet. If we were we would stop destroying things. About time we tarted to shop locally for local goods, repair and reuse rather than have to have the newest and think about what we use, eat and waste.


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