TED Conversations

Polly Higgins

Lawyer, Eradicating Ecocide Global Initiative

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Make Ecocide a crime

Ecocide is happening very day; mass damage and destruction or loss of ecosystems. Thing is, it is not illegal to do this. Law has caused this problem by putting profit before people and planet.

We can change this, so that business can be a force for life-affirming profits, rather than life-destroying activities that prevent us living in peace enjoyment of our Earth.

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    R H 30+

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    May 6 2013: Carbon credits are a way of 'valuing' the cost of pollution and charging offenders, or earning credit for energy conservation. Rather than criminality, do you see the possibility that economics could revolutionize ecological sustainability initiatives by calculating the value of the impact of a specific 'ecocide' under consideration and making that a component of cost?
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      May 6 2013: Are there not such policies already in some places?
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    May 6 2013: Another problem would be that ecocide would be INCREDIBLY hard to prosecute. Is it the company? The consumers? The government? Humanity? Is it partially my fault so am I helping someone break the law? What's the proportional punishment for "ecocide"? What does "ecocide" actually entail? How to we determine the degrees of Ecocide? I'm not a lawyer like you are, and I'm sure some of these questions can in fact be answered, but I think there's just no way of writing a law for this.
  • Jun 5 2013: I indeed do agree the time to do something is now, tomorrow may be too late. However this is a global problem which requires a global solution, no single local parliament nor congress by itself can pass a law with enough jurisdiction to really attack the problem effectively. If you make ecocide a crime in the UK and fail to do the same in Rwanda you might well be just moving the problem from one place to the other, so it requires the agreement of all governments of earth. You also cannot put regular police officers to enforce this kind of laws, you need a specialized police with special taring, skills and equipment, but being realistic very few governments on earth have the financial power to support such police, so what you need is a global institution with jurisdiction on every single spot on the planet, and with enough power to apply the law on each and every country on earth, even if that means overriding (or passing over) local law.

    You should also take in to account the economic differences among countries, in the US and Europe enterprises of all sizes have easier access to credits than those in the rest of the world, so for small entrepreneurs in the US and Europe the process of replacing obsolete polluting machinery for eco-friendly new technology would be faster easier and smoother than in the rest of the world.

    Another point that you should consider: In most poor countries people don't pollute the environment because they don't care, they do it because the don't know other way to survive and they lack opportunities to change their life style, so "punish the polluters" might be a little bit too unfair for those people.

    If you really mean to solve the problem effectively and definitively, your law must make education and easy access to credits a part of the equation, and focus more on creating opportunities than in punishment.
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    May 20 2013: In response to all of the comments, I can see a common thread here; the understanding that to do harm to the Earth does not work. For me, I can see it every day - be it the unintended consequences of the use of pesticides, mono-crops, oil extraction or nuclear - yet for some reason we have not yet reached a point where we stand up and say 'no more'. This cycle of abuse is one that we are all unwittingly playing a part in. All of our major industries are governed by law that puts profit before people and planet. A law of Ecocide puts in place an over-riding principle of 'First do no harm' - when that is put in place, the opportunity to create a better world begins.
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    May 9 2013: I'm just hypothesising here so please bear with me.

    I think Ecocide and the mass destruction of ecosystems will continue to remain legal as long as economies, businesses and politics are run on an expanding global scale.

    I suspect that a general principle applies here - that the bigger an entity is, the more greedy and less functional it becomes in order to sustain itself. This is partly because the environment on which it once depended, can no longer support it - and furthermore, the harder it will fall when that point is reached. It's possible that we are entering that final stage right now.

    Ecocide could never become a crime at such huge scales, because there is too much of a presumption towards economic growth - and for that kind of growth, we must 'exploit' rather than 'revere' the environment that gives life.

    Scaling down economies, businesses and politics to a local scale I think would run concurrently with a deeper respect for the environment that supports it. It would therefore be much easier and more appropriate to legislate for Ecocide to be a crime, not least because that crime directly affects neighbouring people with close community ties.
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    May 9 2013: except we have no idea what harms the environment and what does not, and the last thing we want is politicians decide it.

    as an example, the EU decided to play nice guy, and ban a certain insecticide that might be linked to the decline of bee populations. i suppose the patent holder is american, and the actual reason is economic warfare, but let's just put that aside for the moment. so hungary, a member of the EU, was forced to comply with that policy. except we have no decline in our bee populations. the bees around here are fine. also, using that stuff here won't kill the bees anywhere else. so what is the exact logic of that decision? this is politicians protecting life.

    so nice as it sounds, the proposed solution has no chance of working.
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    May 9 2013: Gosh - great comments. thankyou all. In response:

    RH - re costing: crime does not cost harm. For instance, if you are harmed by someone cutting your arm off, you are not given a bit of money. What happens is that under criminal law we imprison those who have caused the harm. This is because in and of itself it is wrong to cause harm - not something you can simply buy your way out of.

    Fritzie - sadly not. At the moment most law only goes so far as to fine, but often a fine is too little too late. It also means that you can destroy, just at a price if and when caught.

    Michael - re prosecution. How this would work is that an international crime, when passed must be enforced at a national level. Most countries have no problem prosecuting crime, eg theft etc. The persons who could be prosecuted for this crime are those who are in what is known as 'positions of superior responsibility' - those who have made adverse decisions (or failed to prevent) that have or will cause Ecocide. Ecocide is a crime of what is known as 'strict liability' - ie you do not need intent for the crime to be established. Thus the sentencing starts at a lower level, and then raises where knowledge or intent is also established.

    Ecocide is essentially mass damage and destruction - you can read the full definition and all the draft legislation on http://www.eradicatingecocide.com.

    Brian - or we can start from a fundamental over-riding principle: 'first do no harm.'
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    May 7 2013: .
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    Yes!
    Do make it crime!
    It kills all humankind eventually.

    Make invalid (harmful) happiness crime, too!
    Invalid happiness is the driving force of most ecocide.
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    May 6 2013: I have a possible solution to this problem please see my IDEA. http://bit.ly/YqAtAh there it is.
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    May 6 2013: In some countires private persons, not only business, get fines for not recycling so it is starting, I think. Follow the best example.
  • May 5 2013: I agree ecocide should be a crime.

    But humans still have to take from nature in order to survive. So we need to do a balancing act. First we need to answer these questions: How much land should humans occupy, how much pollution can we release, how many species can we endanger? Then we need to create a whole new occupation: sustainability enforcement.

    What are your thoughts?