Interview: can changing the law save the planet?

Ahead of the launch of her new book, Earth is Our Business, Polly Higgins speaks to Michael Pooler about her mission to have ‘ecocide’ recognised as an international crime

April 21, 2012
6 min read

With her measured tone and eloquence it is little surprise that Polly Higgins has a background as a barrister. But for an environmentalist, more surprising is her former line of work – corporate law. “I was representing companies and employees and wondered ‘why is it that good people think it completely normal to make money out of destroying the earth?’” she recounts. “This really was strange for me. It was when I realized that the law was to put profit first.”

For the past ten years Polly has campaigned to have ecocide recognised by the UN as the fifth ‘crime against peace’. This would place it on a par with genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. Defined as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of an ecosystem that results in inhabitants losing their peaceful enjoyment of the territory’, our planet abounds with examples of human-caused ecocide – from the BP Mexican Gulf oil spill to shale gas ‘fracking’ exploration taking place in Lancashire.

Best way forward

Where political and economic initiatives like the Kyoto Protocol and COP15 accords have failed spectacularly, in her 2010 book Eradicating Ecocide Polly argued that employing international legal instruments is now our best way forward.

The idea is simple: create an international law, applying to all governments, companies and individuals, that prohibits ecologically destructive industrial practices. This would apply equally to damaging local ecosystems as to emissions contributing to climate change. Rather than imposing fines – which can be easily calculated by large businesses as ‘externality’ costs and offset against profits – crucially, the law would attatch criminal sanctions to individuals.

She explains how it would function: “If you make policies that allow the destruction to go on then you will have to answer in an international court of law and the offence is sanctionable by being put in prison. The minimum [custodial] sentence under international law is two year and it would apply to ministers, CEOs and investors. This is about individuals taking responsibility.”

“A corporation at the end of the day is just a piece of paper – human beings commit crimes, not fictional entities, so you can’t hide behind the corporate veil.”

As with other international crimes, the law would fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. However there are obvious limitations. Environmental claims often take years to reach trial and in cases of genocide the ICC only applies its justice retrospectively, offering scant consolation to victims. And so far, the justice it dispenses has been uneven: while Milosevic and Taylor have appeared in the dock, we are yet to see Blair and Bush.

Restorative justice

Telling me that “ultimately locking up people is unsatisfactory”, Polly outlines her vision of a ‘restorative justice’ model for ecocide. Moving away from adversarial courtroom encounters and the deprivation of liberty, this progressive philosophy encourages conciliation and dialogue between parties in order to right wrongs – insofar as possible.

“This means accepting your guilt,” Polly says. “It could be anything from the company working with the community to restore and ameliorate the area. It’s certainly more than just giving a community money; it’s about how can we make good the damage and destruction we have done.”

But questions arise when we arrive at the intractable tension that always surfaces when environmental protection comes up against economics.

No business as usual

Polly says that it is not time for “business as usual”. Yet surely, I ask her, outlawing harmful processes on which industrial production relies would precipitate a collapse in manufacturing, mass job losses and a nosedive in living standards?

“There are certain times in history when we say the moral has to trump the economic. We did it with the abolition of slavery, even though all our economies ran on it. We did it again with the civil rights movement and the ending of apartheid, because a lot of people made a lot of money out of that.”

Despite climate change slipping down the political agenda since economic slowdown began, she thinks her proposals will prove popular, telling me it will be the “biggest job creation scheme in the history of civilization and a vote-winner for governments”.

Green conversion

In order for a smooth transition, Polly’s blueprint involves a five-year amnesty period alongside subsidies to help companies make the conversion to renewable and non-polluting technologies. While currently few businesses are willing to take the plunge into environmental sustainability for fear of it harming profitability, she believes that the disincentive of criminality will act as a lever, forcing corporations to change their method of planning from one based on “risk analysis” (focused on losing opportunities and advantages to competitors) to “consequence analysis” (looking at the impact on the environment outside of the business itself). Investment in the ‘green economy’ will inevitably flow as a result of the criminalisation of financing destructive practice, leading to “innovative and resilient growth in a very different direction”.

Getting corporations on board is one of the central themes of Polly’s new book, The Earth Is Our Business. She explains why, unlike many environmentalists, she doesn’t take an anti-business approach: “These companies have great infrastructure, they just need to turn around very fast. The beauty is that corporations work very well with legislation and their wheels turn quickly. So give them the assistance they need.”

Contradictions

This position distinguishes her from the more radical end of the green movement, where the expansionary and accumulative nature of capitalism itself is posited as the cause of environmental degradation.

But like other liberal reforms to tackle climate change, the logic relies on businesses voluntarily turning towards benign industries in the hope that they will adequately provide for human needs. At the same time, it skirts uneasily around the edges of the contradiction between an economic system based on infinite growth and a planet of limited resources.

At things stand, it is hard to see why any company or nation would willingly give up lucrative extraction industries. Corporate lobbying notoriously helped to derail COP15, while rogue nations like the USA refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol – leading to the suspicion that both states and corporations would do their utmost to prevent ecocide reaching the UN’s statute books.

But Polly is adamant and her faith unshakeable: “Just as our right to life needs to be protected, so does the earth’s right to life. It works when you say that I prohibit [environmental destruction]. You don’t get a permit allocation for genocide.”


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

In Pictures: The World Transformed
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry

Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram


101