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The Power of International Law to Create the New World – An Interview with Polly Higgins

Editor’s Note: At time of writing, Polly is on a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand — check out dates and locations here.

Maddy Harland meets Polly Higgins, a barrister who is campaigning for the United Nations to adopt an additional crime against peace: Ecocide.

by Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine – inspiration for sustainable living

In my two decades working for Permaculture magazine I have met many fascinating and wonderful human beings but my recent meeting with the barrister and campaigner, Polly Higgins, was a turning point. She prompted a leap in my understanding of the power of law and our collective capacity to change the world overnight. I had heard of Polly’s campaigning work but I had not fully realised the far-reaching potential of international law. Polly deftly stretched my worldview. Bear with me if the subject of ecocide sounds grim… the outcome of these meetings was utterly inspirational.

What is Ecocide?

There are already four international Crimes Against Peace: Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes, and Crimes of Aggression. Polly says there is a missing 5th Crime Against Peace and that crime is Ecocide: the destruction of large areas of the environment and ecosystems. Obviously ecocide can be caused by severe weather events like tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, not directly attributable to specific human activity but there is another category: Ascertainable Ecocide. This is the destruction, damage or loss to the territory, caused by human activity – people, corporations, and nations. Activities such as nuclear testing, the exploitation of resources, mining practices like tar sands extraction, the dumping of harmful chemicals or the use of defoliants, the emission of pollutants or war. Examples of ascertainable ecocide affecting sizeable territories include:

So who is Polly Higgins and how did she become such a force for nature? Polly’s earlier career was in art but at the back of her mind was a persistent voice that called her to study law. She tried to ignore it whilst studying for her Masters but it became more and more insistent. Six years later whilst working as an art dealer in London, the call became non-negotiable and she applied for a scholarship. She won. Doors opened. More scholarships followed and she eventually became a barrister. All was well until a few years later she realised that if the Earth was a client in law, it would have no rights. This was one of those life-changing moments. “I didn’t know what I was doing anymore.” That night she went home and told her husband what had happened. They decided to take holiday and ‘go up a mountain’. “When I came down I had decided to leave the Bar.” At the time she thought, “It’s the Earth that really matters here… there are enough barristers that can do the job inside courts, but nobody is doing anything out there. I need to get out and look at the bigger picture.”

By now I am realising that I am in presence of an extraordinary human being….

I asked Polly what took shape after this. “In 2007-2008 I was thinking why don’t we have a legal duty of care for the Earth? If I was to represent the earth in court as a barrister, how could I? My client doesn’t have any rights. A barrister’s tools are the law which we use to fight the case. It occurred to me that the Earth needed rights. The Earth is a big being so it wasn’t just a matter of the rights in one country. This needed to be universal, rather like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In July 2008, I dropped everything, treated it like a legal brief, and researched how it could work. At one of the UN’s top climate change conferences in November 2008 I gave the speech about how we needed to put this law in place. It was as if I dropped a huge boulder in a still pond – the ripples went very, very far. Within ten months Bolivia got in touch. I had got together a team of lawyers to create a draft document of rights which is what Bolivia has now adopted. They renamed it, quite rightly, the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights because they’re coming from an indigenous place.”

So how did the concept of Ecocide arise? “When I was at the Climate Negotiations in Copenhagen at the end of 2009, talking about the Declaration it occurred to me that you can be shouting for your rights but it’s an absolute waste of time if you can’t exercise some form of criminality over those who are trampling over them. For instance, my human rights to life are governed and protected by the crime of murder. If someone takes my life, they have committed a crime and they can be put on trial in the courts. If this is on a mass scale, it’s genocide. If the Earth as a being has the right to life, how would we govern it? We need a new language in the form of an international law akin to genocide.

“What would the crime of ecocide look like? The four existing international crimes are known as crimes against peace. How would ecocide sit with these? I discovered that all it would take is an amendment to a pre-existing statute, so we don’t even have to write up a whole new statute, we can amend the one that houses all the four crimes against peace. When there is destruction that leads to loss of resources, which leads to conflict, which leads to war – Darfur was a war about water, Iraq was a war over oil – that’s what I call ecocide and ecocide is a crime against peace.”

Polly realised that the additional amendment for ecocide is absolutely vital. It is the missing link. The UN recently published a report saying we’re reaching a tipping point due to system collapse. They did a number crunching exercise last year, which all governments sponsored, demonstrating that in 2008 the top 2,000 global corporations had caused $2.2 trillion of damage and destruction (a conservative estimate). In 2009 it had almost doubled to $4 trillion. For 2010 they think it will be $8 trillion. “Somewhere along the line we’re escalating completely in the wrong direction and that’s largely due to corporate ecocide. This is destruction we deem to be the norm. Corporations are not deliberately destroying habitat but, as a result of their activities in pursuit of profit, they’re causing enormous damage and they’re not taking responsibility for it because there are no laws to make them do so.”

At this point Polly tells me that when the Abolition of Slavery was proposed, the companies using slaves to produce crops like sugar in the West Indies predicted a collapsed in trade due to the increase cost of wages. This never happened and the world was changed overnight by this law. Slavery still exists, of course, but now it is entirely unacceptable. There is no reason why ecocide shouldn’t become similarly unacceptable. Roll on civilization!

The new world

I really wanted to know, however, what the world would look like when the crime of ecocide is adopted by the UN? Polly replies, “We are not very good at looking at the new world, we’re always looking at the nightmare rather than the vision. The flow of money goes into damaging, destructive activity, which has been normalised under legal contracts. All our big banks invest millions and millions of pounds and dollars into the Athabasca Oil Sands in Canada. One in six pension funds in the UK has the majority of their finance coming from Athabasca Oil Sands investments. By creating a crime of ecocide, we close the door. We say you can’t invest there and so the money then has to flow elsewhere.

“CEOs will no longer be able to invest in ecologically destructive businesses. They will risk prison, as will the board of directors. Banks will no longer finance them. It will be too risky. Heads of state will no longer condone ecologically devasting projects. Corporate subsidies will be pulled.

“Imagine I’m a CEO and you’re one of my directors and I am telling you, ‘If we invest our money, time and energy into the extraction of oil from the Athabasca Oil Sands, we are at risk of going to prison. Our shareholders will find it untenable to support criminal activity. The banks will also no longer finance this activity and the head of state will no longer support this policy because it’s a crime.’ Suddenly, companies, banks and governments will have a direct incentive, both legal and financial, to change direction. “These large corporates have power and we need them to switch from being the problem to becoming the solution.

“What we will see is a huge incentive to create energy sources locally rather than huge centralised solutions with big land grabs and solar panels out in the desert. We’re obviously going to need some of that but there will be a lot of industry on a ground level, on a localised level, on a national level. This is hugely important, because at the moment we don’t have government policies supporting this. Our governments have their heads in the sand and they are looking for a technological fix. It’s not going to happen, so the sooner we put laws in place, the sooner we can plan a structured fossil fuel power descent. This is really about the biggest job creation scheme in history: the big, green, clean economy in the world. It is about facilitating this and rolling up our sleeves and getting practical. It is about a far healthier, far cleaner society on a macro as well as micro level.”

In essence this is an overnight shift in worldview. “Commercialising and qualitising the planet is not going to work. Greenhouse gases are the symptom of a larger cause. There’s some very good number crunching being done which identifies that the top 173 companies have created 70% of excess greenhouse gases in the last 20 years. We really need to turn the tap off upstream….

“This is about the developed world taking responsibility. The planet is not there for us to commoditise. Once we view the planet as a living being, we recognise its intrinsic value rather than placing an extrinsic value on it. How we have come to view the planet is deeply flawed, certainly within the western consciousness. This needs to be realigned and law is a powerful tool to begin this process.”

Ecocide Mind Map
Click for larger view

Giving voice to our intent

As we were talking I felt myself shift. I could clearly see that making ecocide a crime could indeed be a vital turning point in our history, akin to outlawing slavery and genocide. These crimes still happen, but law renders people and nations accountable. Polly has deep insights into the nature of positive change. I asked her what happens when people start ‘to give voice to their intent’, to use her words.

“It is a kind of a magic. When you give voice to what you want to see happening in the world and when it comes from a place of caring, especially if you are collaborating with other people, it creates a process of new future visioning. Once we start giving it language it makes it happen. Doors of opportunity open and the right people appear. We each have a role in creating the new world and giving voice to the world we want to see, literally getting back to Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’. He spoke about that dream and galvanised thousands and thousands of people around the world.”

I tell Polly that Permaculture magazine is very much about dreaming up the solutions, it’s not about investigating the detail of what’s wrong. Sometimes we are accused of being idealistic and intellectually lightweight but this is a very conscious policy that we’ve held since 1992 — to give voice the dream.

“Permaculture is about seeding the new world, quite literally as well as metaphorically,” Polly replies. It is vital that we raise enormous public awareness around closing the door to destruction so that the new world vision becomes the norm, not the exception. At the moment it’s the exception.”

Polly and her team are building a huge global campaign around ecocide in the run up to the Earth Summit in June 2012, 20 years on from the original Earth Summit. “We are going to put in the laws that create the clean, green new world.” For many, the yearning for change is intense and painful. The tipping point on our planet has been reached and we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. “I want millions and millions of people around the world to call on their governments to say this needs to be made law, not just ecocide but also the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights. This is a new body of earth laws that are needed to help protect people and the planet.”

I realise that this is possibly the most important conversation of my life and deep inside me stirs again the passion for this beautiful planet and the poignant yearning for the new world. Polly leaves me with the words, “Giving voice is very empowering. It’s about getting connected in the community, engaging in the ideas and giving voice to the new. It is about dreaming the dream and then putting it into action. Something that a lot of indigenous people know and understand is that once we can find language for the vision, we de-mystify it, we give it a name and the healing begins.”

I urge you wherever you are in the world to find out more. Join the campaign and lend your voice to this work. A new world is indeed possible.

At time of writing, Polly is on a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand — check out dates and locations here.


Maddy Harland

Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture Magazine, established in 1992, and Permanent Publications, a publishing company that has produced over 100 permaculture books and eBooks internationally. She and her partner, Tim, have one of Britain’s oldest food forests.


  1. what an intelligent and brave woman is Polly Higgins, it gives me a little hope for what I thought was a lost cause( mother earth ) in the face of this rampant consumerism and money-making madness that is dragging us down. please keep on trying to spread this campaign.

  2. The Law of Ecocide map seems to cover it all: this gives me so much hope for the future. It’s time we really take the gloves off & support such vital work & make it our reality.

  3. Not wishing to be negative, its just that I think we need to call a spade a spade here. Raising the need for destruction of the environment to be considered a crime is to be applauded.

    However, if you think Capitalism can be made to become holistic and humane by asking it to change its laws….or that you can control its destructive capacity, by getting it to abide by, or encact some law against its own short term interests,well, then you sadly are pissing into the wind.

    Capital can and will always find ways to circumvent or completely ignore that which is not in its interests. Slavery was not abolished because capitalists wanted a better world. Slavery was a hindrance to the expansion of Capitalism…..Capitalism merely adapted the arguments of the anti slaving reformers….it had far more sophisticated methods of rapacious exploitation and expansion in mind. (eg. the movie “Burn”)

    The establishment of Native title laws in Australia appeared a wonderful thing….but I think if you ask Indigenous Australians about the reality of those laws, you will find that Capital has just found another way to carry out the plunder.

    Similarly….Tell me about the crimes against Humanity for which our Companies and leaders ever ever been tried …It is only the vanquished that ever face Law.

    The truth is it is all about power…The dominant capitalists have the power and they enact, choose to apply or ignore law at will.

    Morality is vital,but it can never make capitalism become the tool for a holistic world. To think the world can become a better place without abolishing Capitalism, or by asking the Imperialism to enforce its own illegality is Naive in the extreme…and helps perpetuate the Dominant paradigm.

  4. Ya, sorry but Martin is right. Even if this law were to be enacted, how about actually enforcing it? The system must be destroyed, you have a hope in hell of actually changing it in time.

    This also smacks of globalism, I don’t want to give the UN more power than it already has. The worst thing for us would be a global government.

    Also, look at the international laws and treaties that are currently on the books. Do they actually have any effect?

    I do agree however that law is extremely important in determining where energy goes in society. Tax law and the rights of the corporation being two very strong examples.

    How about trying to repeal the rights of the corporation? Good luck with that short of a general strike. Hey maybe not a bad idea eh….

  5. Huge thanks to Polly for her ideas and energy. What a fantastic contribution to the protection of earth’s remaining natural ecosystems.

    To me, the devil will be in the definition of “ecocide”. The reference in the article was to “the destruction of large areas of the environment and ecosystems”. Where will thresholds be drawn and how will they be derived? If 100ha of forest is the threshold for an act of ecocide, can a company make seperate applications (if neccesary) to clear 50ha of forest and fall outside of the definition, or will there be a time factor included, to account for cumulative effects on ecosystems? What if these are undertaken by different parties, does the government then shoulder responsibility?

    One of the main reasons i think this issue is important, aside from the obvious complications i’ve mentioned above, is because from a local (Australian) point of view, how many of the mineral mines, for example, that are critical to maintaining our unsustainable quality of life, will constitute ecocide? If a large part of a country’s economic activity will be affected, then it will struggle to get popular support to be gazetted in the first place.

    Just a couple of thoughts, but i’m all for it. I think this has huge potential and will be very interested to see the concept tested on the international stage.

    Regarding the issue of enforcement, raised by Martin, my understanding is that any barrister acting on behalf of the earth could file a case against a party who had broken the law.

  6. Yes any barrister could… go file a case against Kissinger or Bush for laws that are already on the books…Test the power of law against the power of Capital with laws that already stand.

    You will soon find out ….

  7. What would be done then Martin – just roll over?? Bleak picture you paint there bro. I reckon its a good start. Despite it all, I keep coming back to the words of MLK – “the arc of the moral universe is long – but it bends towards justice.” Who or what determines this?? Well perhaps we have a part? ?? – not that I profess to know. I do know though – that in our natural universe – there is balance – and in human terms – the thing that keeps wrong-minded action in check is right minded action. What a state we would be in if it weren’t for all the good little people that you so carelessly underestimate out there – who, through time, have lived and loved,and sung and worked and brought abundance to this earth. If its not positive – its not Permaculture. We are the problem – so we are the solution. Can we one distant day – transcend our need for hubris (rid ourself of the gene perhaps if you are that way inclined?? -well thats not for this forum. Should we work in that direction? Absolutely! Good work Polly! According to Goethe, boldness has genius power and magic in it. Well you certainly have your share.

  8. I am sorry that you find my picture of reality to be so bleak Denis…I do admit that it is not a pretty picture. However, I think that what makes things bleak, is the failure to recognise reality.

    Real change will not come about via the institutions created by the existing order…they are their to maintain that order. Hence my post.

    What we need to face is that production based on the capitalist model of production can never lead to a sustainable and human world…and so the real issue is to “boldly’ face this reality and to proceed from there. It is not easy I know but is the only basis from which we can truly proceed.

    Martin Luther King had come to recognise that he was being used as the system’s “house slave” and had begun to align with the working class struggle…It is then that he was assasinated…his opposite Malcolm X met the same fate at the moment he began stumbling towards a class based understanding of society.

    Capital is terrified of such convergences….as it can lead to an alternative Idea of power and change. They want it keep within their own framework of domination and control.

    It is complex I know and I dont think we will arrive at the answers in this short space….but we do need to start looking in the right places. Sadly it is a question of power and who has it…those with the power are the law….Just look at the crimes being committed in Libya,Iraq,Afganistan…are those who are enacting these in anyway constrained by Law ?

  9. Polly Higgins is not alone, though she may feel that way, there are volumes of folks in the world who feel that the earth is worthy of protection from exploitation and ruin. Many of these folks are familiar with extreme pulls on earth’s resources and the outcome from it such as what happened at Easter Island, for example. Who can live there?
    People do think of their families, and the generations yet to come, who need Mother Nature, to nurture and protect them throughout their lives. Polly Higgins you are definitely not alone…people do care about what God made and trusted people to take good care of. People are wary of globalization, and rightfully so, but the earth is home to us all, and it must be safeguarded with proper and legitimate protections regarded by all.

  10. The addition of ecocide to the UN charter should be a priority for all permaculturists since it is only the rule of law that allows the weaker person (definitely me, probably you) even a modicum of protection from bullies like big business. For example, it is only due to change in legislature that oil companies found a way to remove lead from fuel. Other legislation that should be actively supported by permaculturists are the introduction of carbon taxes, waste taxes measured on the weight produced per household, end of agricultural subsidies, etc. These would all come under the proposed international law against ecocide because governments (filtering down to councils and finally individuals) would be forced to reduce consumption in order to comply with said law. Big business is only big because we spend our money on their products, if all people need to become aware of their levels of consumption simply because of cost it will be enough for the planet. If you look at Cuba, you will see a nation of permaculturists, not because they are all crying for Gaia, but because they were forced by cicumstance to so. Are the people better for it? I don’t know, they are still quite poor, and despite the education, health care and organic food I am not sure they wouldn’t happily consume themselves to death just like we can do. However, the soil of the island and general health of the local ecosystem are certainly faring much better than before. In summary, the human animal is not one for self sacrifice and most people will only do what directly benefits them, therefore, the only way for the masses to adhere to more sustainable lifestyles is to hit them where it hurts, their freedom and their pockets. Unless you feel like actually husting people, which is what normally happens when class revolutions occur, mostly the revolutionaries are the ones who get hurt and usually nothing changes, except for the name of the dinasty in power. Most importantly, that is not the permaculture way. So, we can sit in our super insulated homes, with in built sewage systems and power plants and wait for the world to end feeling smug that WE didn’t do it, or we can do what Polly Higgins is doing and, maybe, just maybe, the world will be ok.

  11. Suzana, the comments you make Are the standard line endorsed by big and little Capital. This is not surprising…’The dominant ideology of any society is the ideology of the ruling class”. With respect… you completely adopt that worldview. How do you fail to notice…that all your bourgeois institutions are rolling back all Internationally accepted laws as we speak…and yet you touchingly believe that the powerful capitalists can be constrained by laws. Law is determined by is sad but true. Laws even when subjectively defensible become weapons in the hands of the oppressing classes…ie Workers have anti bullying laws leverage against them..when confronting scabs. Law and justice are class questions. Your comfortable middle class worldview understandably sees you placing faith in the power of law…while ignoring who wields presume a gain for people can be made by more laws…while ignoring that Habeus Corpus is being obliterated. Wake up a smell the roses.

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