“The Earth is in need of a good lawyer.”
April 22, 2019 1:25 PM   Subscribe

Polly Higgins, lawyer who fought for recognition of 'ecocide', dies aged 50. Campaigner and barrister attempted to create a law to criminalise ecological damage. "Polly Higgins, one of the most inspiring figures in the green movement, has died aged 50. Higgins, a British barrister, led a decade-long campaign for 'ecocide' to be recognised as a crime against humanity. She sold her house and gave up a high-paying job so she could dedicate herself to attempting to create a law that would make corporate executives and government ministers criminally liable for the damage they do to ecosystems..." Higgins died yesterday of cancer. [Via]
... Such a legal instrument could be a powerful tool for conservationists, climate campaigners and activists trying to stop air and water pollution, but earlier proposals for this to be included in the Rome statute on international crimes against humanity were dropped in 1996.

Ten years ago Higgins set out to revive the idea. She wrote a book, Eradicating Ecocide, lobbied the United Nations law commission, organised mock trials and established a trust fund for “Earth protectors”. Although the law has yet to be recognised, momentum is growing as a result of the ongoing climate crisis and growing evidence that major companies lobbied against policies that could protect people from pollution and other environmental harm.

On her organisation’s website, Higgins lamented the continued absence of a law that she believed would change the world. “There is a missing responsibility to protect … What is required is an expansion of our collective duty of care to protect the natural living world and all life. International ecocide crime is a law to protect the Earth.”
'Her Work Will Live On': Climate Movement Mourns Loss of Ecocide Campaigner Polly Higgins. "'The Earth is in need of a good lawyer.' That thought would not leave me alone. It changed my life," said Higgins.
Lawyer and visionary thinker Polly Higgins, who campaigned for ecocide to be internationally recognized as a crime on par with genocide and war crimes, died Sunday at the age of 50.

She had been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer last month and given just weeks to live.

"There's a growing recognition that a lot of campaigning is not getting us where we need to go, and just saying fossil fuel extraction should stop is not enough. It has to be criminalized," Higgins said to DeSmogBlog last month.


"I was standing in court one day,” she told the Scotsman in 2012. "It was three years on in a long case, the last day in the Court of Appeal, and we were waiting for the judges to come back. I'd been giving voice to my client, who had been injured and harmed in the workplace, and I looked out the window and thought, 'The Earth is being injured and harmed as well and nothing is being done about it.'"

"I actually thought, 'The Earth is in need of a good lawyer.' That thought would not leave me alone. It changed my life," said Higgins.
Guardian columnist George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot) wrote an article about Higgins and her work a few weeks ago:

The destruction of the Earth is a crime. It should be prosecuted. Businesses should be liable for the harm they do. Polly Higgins has launched a push to make ecocide an international crime

Here is what Higgins told Monbiot after learning she had cancer:
“If this is my time to go,” she told me, “my legal team will continue undeterred. But there are millions who care so much and feel so powerless about the future, and I would love to see them begin to understand the power of this one, simple law to protect the Earth – to realise it’s possible, even straightforward. I wish I could live to see a million Earth Protectors standing for it – because I believe they will.”
DeSmog article on Higgins, April 16th, 2019: Polly Higgins — Meet the Lawyer Taking on Big Oil’s ‘Crimes Against Humanity’
Polly Higgins is a woman on the hunt. And you get the sense that, after decades of working towards holding powerful polluters to account, her prey may finally be in sight.

“When you're looking at any crime, you're looking at who are your suspects,” she tells me in a soft Scottish accent that belies the hard truths she regularly delivers. “Within a corporate context, you're looking at CEOs and directors. Within a state context, it is ministers and Heads of State.”

“They're the ones where final responsibility rests for making the decisions that can adversely impact many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and indeed — in the case of climate crime — billions of people.”

Climate activism is surging, with the school strikers chastising older generations for failing them, and Extinction Rebellion hitting headlines with its creative direct actions in the name of “climate justice”.

But Higgins has her own, more institutional approach to what she agrees is a looming climate crisis: making it illegal to deliberately destroy the environment. She is calling for the International Criminal Court in the Hague to recognise ‘ecocide’ as a crime against humanity, alongside genocide and war crimes.
DeSmog video interview with Higgins, April 16th, 2019:The Crime of Ecocide
Polly Higgins is an international lawyer advising on creating an international law of ‘ecocide’, defined as the extensive damage, destruction to, or loss of ecosystems. Existing law doesn’t stop ecological harm, and corporations are able to commit ecological and climate atrocities with impunity. An ecocide law could be used to bring criminal proceedings against individual senior corporate or national officials and hold them to account.

Polly’s group, Ecological Defence Integrity, launched an independent investigation last year into the activities of Shell. They are one of the top fossil fuel companies, whose own climate scientists alerted them decades ago of the danger of their activities and the relationship with climate collapse. They continued their activities, along with other oil industries, despite the knowledge they had of the harm they were causing.
TED Talk, November 2015: From Ecocide to Ecolibrium: The Great Turning
Harming nature does not only qualify as an eco-crime, it is often a leadership crime, a corporate crime, and/or a crime against peace. Whereas our world has been particularly concerned with the crimes inflicted on human beings, Polly Higgins has devoted her life to putting on trial those who make decisions that lead to significant harm to nature and communities.

Whereas our world has been particularly concerned with the crimes inflicted on human beings, Polly Higgins has devoted her life to putting on trial those who make decisions that lead to significant harm to nature and communities. Harming nature does not only qualify as an eco-crime, it is often a leadership crime, a corporate crime, and/or a crime against peace.
Websites: Polly Higgins

Earth Law

Eradicating Ecocide

Earth Protectors (formerly Mission LifeForce)
posted by homunculus (30 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
posted by lazaruslong at 1:33 PM on April 22

posted by lalochezia at 1:47 PM on April 22

posted by Secret Sparrow at 2:07 PM on April 22

posted by darkstar at 2:09 PM on April 22

posted by pjsky at 2:19 PM on April 22

posted by bonobothegreat at 2:44 PM on April 22

posted by tobascodagama at 2:45 PM on April 22

posted by RolandOfEld at 3:02 PM on April 22

posted by Katjusa Roquette at 3:44 PM on April 22

Jason Hickel: Better Technology Isn’t The Solution To Ecological Collapse: We cannot innovate our way out of planetary disaster. We need to ditch our addiction to GDP growth
It would be hard to overstate the impact of these results. Right now, our only plan for dealing with the ecological emergency that’s staring us in the face is to hope that tech innovation and green growth will mitigate the coming disaster. Yes, we’re going to need all the wizardry we can get–but that alone is not going to be enough. The only real option is in fact much simpler and more obvious: We need to start consuming less.

The tricky bit is that our existing economic operating system–capitalism–has a design flaw at its core. It requires that we produce and consume more and more stuff each year. If we don’t, then firms collapse and people lose their jobs and livelihoods. So it’s time to make room for new systems to emerge–systems that don’t require endless exponential growth just to stay afloat. This is where we need to focus our creative energy, rather than clinging to the false hope of “green growth” fantasies.

There are lots of ways to get there. We could start by ditching GDP as an indicator of success in favor of a more balanced measure like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which accounts for negative “externalities” like pollution and material depletion. We could roll out a new money system that doesn’t pump our system full of interest-bearing debt. And we could start thinking about putting caps on material use, so that we never extract more than the Earth can regenerate.

The old generation of innovators believed that tech would allow us to subdue nature and bend it to our will. Our generation is waking up to a more hopeful truth: that our survival depends not on domination, but on harmony.
None of the capitalists and captains of industry who profit from or rely on the fossil fuel industry are going to willingly give up GDP growth and the way of life they enjoy now. But making ecocide a real prosecutable crime for which they can be held liable might change that, since the same behavior they profit from would have potentially criminal consequences. In fact I think it's probably the only way to motivate them to start cutting back.
posted by homunculus at 3:47 PM on April 22 [7 favorites]

(BTW, considering that right up to the end Higgins was thinking about how her work would continue undeterred, I think it's fine to post about the fight against climate change in this obit thread. I strongly suspect that's how she would have wanted it, fwiw.)
posted by homunculus at 3:48 PM on April 22 [3 favorites]

posted by asperity at 5:32 PM on April 22

Video: A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Naomi Klein in The Intercept: A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The Intercept launche[d] ... a seven-minute film narrated by the congresswoman and illustrated by Molly Crabapple. Set a couple of decades from now, it’s a flat-out rejection of the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, it offers a thought experiment: What if we decided not to drive off the climate cliff? What if we chose to radically change course and save both our habitat and ourselves? What if we actually pulled off a Green New Deal? What would the future look like then?


The media debates that paint the Green New Deal as either impossibly impractical or a recipe for tyranny just reinforce the sense of futility. But here’s the good news: The old New Deal faced almost precisely the same kind of opposition — and it didn’t stop it for a minute.
Democracy Now: “We Can Be Whatever We Have the Courage to See”: Molly Crabapple’s Art Breathes Life Into Green New Deal

I want to believe! But as above, I fear that without the legal threat of an ecocide law and its consequences, the forces of greed and complacency are going to prevent a real Green New Deal from happening. Fossil fuel and resource extraction that destroy the environment have to be criminalized for it to succeed. But I've been wrong before and I hope I am now.
posted by homunculus at 6:18 PM on April 22 [1 favorite]

"Apotheosis of this Earth" - Karel Husa (1970)

Composers Datebook: Husa's "Apotheosis of This Earth"
Today is Earth Day—an annual event started in 1970 by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin as an environmental teach-in. Senator Nelson wasn't the only one concerned back then, either: the Czech-born composer Karel Husa had noticed dead fish floating on a lake located near a power plant. "The plant was producing hot thermal pollution which in turn killed all those fish," Husa recalled. "In addition, I noticed more beer cans in the water and algae in greater quantities." A wind band commission provided Husa with an opportunity to create a work he called "Apotheosis of This Earth." In explaining its title, Husa wrote: "Man's brutal possession and misuse of nature's beauty—if continued at today's reckless speed—can only lead to catastrophe. The composer hopes that the destruction of this beautiful earth can be stopped, so that the tragedy of destruction—musically projected here in the second movement—and the desolation of its aftermath—the "postscript" of this work—can exist only as fantasy, never to become reality." "Apotheosis of this Earth" was commissioned by the Michigan School Band and Orchestral Association, and its premiere performance took place on April 1, 1970, with Husa himself conducting the University of Michigan Symphony Band at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. It proved a powerful piece of music. "As the Postscript finished," recalled the composer, "I saw that the students in the band were somehow moved—there were even some tears."
More details here.
posted by homunculus at 7:35 PM on April 22

posted by Mister Bijou at 7:58 PM on April 22

posted by homunculus at 8:05 PM on April 22

From the intro of Fisher v. Lowe (No. 60732 [Mich. CA] 69 A.B.A.):
We thought that we would never see
A suit to compensate a tree.
A suit whose claim in tort is prest
Upon a mangled tree's behest;
A tree whose battered trunk was prest
Against a Chevy's crumpled crest;
A tree that faces each new day
With bark and limb in disarray;
A tree that may forever bear
A lasting need for tender care.
Flora lovers though we three,
We must uphold the court's decree.
(The court ultimately decided against the tree)

Also of interest here is Christopher D. Stone's famous essay, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Stone (!) makes the argument that natural objects have rights/values independent of the value ascribed to them by humans through an analogy with other entities that were historically denied rights, e.g., children, women, slaves, and calls for a "widening of the circle" of those deserving moral consideration. Other entities, like corporations, states, estates, infants [or] incompetents, cannot speak but are afforded legal representation in court, so why not rocks, rivers and trees?

In his book The Shape of the Signifier, literary critic Walter Benn Michaels argues that the deep-ecological defence of nature as a subject is "more a defence of nature as an identity--of nature as a culture--than it is a defence of nature as a person" (123):

What's problematic about [the deep ecological view of the Earth as a subject], of course, is that it's difficult to conceive of the personification of the earth as anything other than a form of pathetic fallacy, which is to say not only that we will have a hard time understanding "brooks" that "babble in the courts / seeking damages for torts" (that's why they need lawyers to speak for them) but also that we will have a hard time assessing what will count for them as damages. Because persons have interests (whether or not they can express them), they can be compensated for damage done to them. But rivers and rocks have no interests; you can't compensate a river for its diminished flow (due, say, to damming) by paying it off. So if the law is to protect a river, it can only do so, Stone thinks, by appealing to what he calls its "right" to "intactness" (54) and thus protecting not its personhood but its "river hood" (62). And it is this respect not for the river's interests or feelings (since the whole problem is that it doesn't have any) but for its identity--its right to be the river it is-- that links the deep-ecological conception of nature to the multicultural concept of culture. For the sense that identity is intrinsically valuable, a sense expressed in our feelings of loss when, say, one culture is assimilated by another, relies as little on the attributes of personhood as Stone's right to intactness. Persons can be compensated for the loss of their culture. In fact, assimilation can be described as nothing but a structure of compensation--you only stop speaking your old language if you find there is some advantage to be gained by speaking your new one. So when we nonetheless deplore the loss of the old culture, the old language, we are deploring not the hard that has been done to a person or persons (there is no harm) but the harm that has been done to an identity. It is, in other words, because cultures are as uncompensable as rivers that protecting them can only take the form of preserving them, and if we believe that cultures are intrinsically valuable, we will also be ready to believe that rivers and rocks are.
posted by wjfitzy at 9:34 PM on April 22 [5 favorites]

posted by Lesser Spotted Potoroo at 4:11 AM on April 23

Resource extraction responsible for half world’s carbon emissions: Extraction also causes 80% of biodiversity loss, according to comprehensive UN study

Via Jason Hickel‏ who says: "Extraction is rising faster than GDP (so much for decoupling!), causing 50% of emissions and 80% of biodiversity loss. Clean energy isn't enough. We need to scale down resource use too."

50% of carbon emissions and 80% of biodiversity loss sounds like ecocide to me.
posted by homunculus at 9:24 AM on April 23

Last time CO2 levels were this high, sea levels were 60 feet higher and Antarctica had trees: Study finds the Earth's climate is highly sensitive to "relatively small variations in atmospheric CO2."
Current CO2 levels of 410 parts per million (ppm) were last seen on Earth three million years ago, according to the most detailed reconstruction of the Earth’s climate by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and published in Science Advances.

Their in-depth analysis of plant fossils and sediments reveal that such CO2 levels were last seen in the late Pliocene Epoch, a time when there were no ice sheets covering either Greenland or West Antarctica, and much of the East Antarctic ice sheet was gone. Temperatures were up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer globally, at least double that at the poles, and sea levels were some 20 meters (65 feet) higher.

“This is an amazing discovery,” Jane Francis, director of the British Antarctic Survey, told The UK Guardian. “They found fossil leaves of southern beech. I call them the last forests of Antarctica.”

While the discovery is remarkable, it’s implications are dire. “Twenty metres of sea level rise would have a major impact on our all our coastal cities,” Francis warned.
How the warming Arctic is creating a worldwide transformation
In headlines around the world, the melting of the polar regions is often seen in terms of geopolitics and a scramble for resources. Greenland is filled with rare-earth minerals essential for cell phones and solar technology. Huge pools of natural gas and oil sit under the Arctic Ocean. There’s a rush to claim this rich territory, as with the Russian Federation’s symbolic planting of a flag on the sea floor at the North Pole in 2007. The thawing of lands once frozen shut by the extreme climate is prompting Russia, the United States, Canada, and Norway to deploy more military to their northernmost posts to declare and defend borders. “A Melting Arctic Could Spell a New Cold War,” Time tells us. National Geographic runs “Scenes from the new Cold War unfolding at the top of the world.”

But climate change, unlike territorial battles, cannot be neatly drawn and settled. It does not wear a uniform or plant flags. It is something far eerier: a worldwide transformation very much visible at the local level up here, felt by every living thing.

In Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm says it’s “like watching a nuclear explosion in slow motion.”
posted by homunculus at 12:25 PM on April 23

The Earth Is Just as Alive as You Are: Scientists once ridiculed the idea of a living planet. Not anymore.
One of the many obstacles to reckoning with global warming is the stubborn notion that humans are not powerful enough to affect the entire planet. “I don’t believe it,” President Trump said in response to one of his administration’s reports on anthropogenic climate change. In truth, we are far from the only creatures with such power, nor are we the first species to devastate the global ecosystem. The history of life on Earth is the history of life remaking Earth.

Faced with this preponderance of evidence, it is time to revive an idea that was once roundly mocked: the Gaia hypothesis. Conceived by the British chemist James Lovelock in the early 1970s and later developed with the American biologist Lynn Margulis, the Gaia hypothesis proposes that all the living and nonliving elements of Earth are “parts and partners of a vast being who in her entirety has the power to maintain our planet as a fit and comfortable habitat for life.”

Although this bold idea found an enthusiastic audience among the general public, many scientists criticized and ridiculed it. “I would prefer that the Gaia hypothesis be restricted to its natural habitat of station bookstalls, rather than polluting works of serious scholarship,” the evolutionary biologist Graham Bell wrote in 1987. The microbiologist John Postgate was especially vehement: “Gaia — the Great Earth Mother! The planetary organism!” he wrote in New Scientist. “Am I the only biologist to suffer a nasty twitch, a feeling of unreality, when the media invite me yet again to take it seriously?”

Over time, however, scientific opposition to Gaia waned. In his early writing, Dr. Lovelock occasionally granted Gaia too much agency, which encouraged the misperception that the living Earth was yearning for some optimal state. But the essence of his hypothesis — the idea that life transforms and in many cases regulates the planet — proved prescient and profoundly true. We and all living creatures are not just inhabitants of Earth, we are Earth — an outgrowth of its physical structure and an engine of its global cycles. Although some scientists still recoil at the mention of Gaia, these truths have become part of mainstream science.
Twitter thread by author Ferris Jabr: "For the @nytimes Sunday Review I wrote about the power of living creatures to transform and regulate the planet, the legacy of the Gaia hypothesis, and the idea that Earth itself is a giant living entity..."

If the scientific community were to recognize the Earth as a living organism, it would strengthen the case and the imperative for making ecocide a law, imo.
posted by homunculus at 1:02 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Amazing post. Thanks so much.


posted by allthinky at 6:18 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Amazing post. Thanks so much.

You're welcome, and thank you too. I've been an admirer of Polly Higgins and her work for a while, but I hadn't kept up the last few weeks and wasn't aware she had cancer until I found out she'd died. At 50! Fuck. And fuck cancer.
posted by homunculus at 7:14 PM on April 23

“Is It Time For Animals to Lawyer Up?” on CBC’s Ideas
posted by wjfitzy at 4:48 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

« Older The Crack Monster: the mystery of Sesame Street's...   |   It was the best of timelines, it was the worst of... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments