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A reality check

When we were first able to view, and photograph, the Earth from space, our planetary perspective changed. Suddenly ‘home’ had a whole new meaning. Nowhere, as far as our technology has been able to discern, is there evidence of any planet like Earth – anywhere else that can sustain life as we know it.

In its recent 11,700-year period of climatic stability, that is what our planetary home has done, facilitating the spread and technological advance of human civilization. While benefiting many in terms of material comfort, life expectancy and societal support structures, this advance has increasingly taken place within a framework of thought that perceives nature as “other” – a resource to be exploited, or a foe to be conquered. The Oxford English Dictionary even defines nature as “opposed to humans”.

With this perspective, ever since the industrial revolution, we have been – at first unwittingly, now recklessly and even knowingly – disrupting the biological, chemical and atmosphericsystems on whose stable interaction we intimately and profoundly depend. Greenhouse gas emissions are just one part of this story. Bit by bit, with each felled forest, polluted river system, species extinction, oil spill, toxic waste leak, nuclear or mining disaster, we are committing ecocide. Relentlessly, and with startling rapidity, we are killing our home – while exacerbating social injustice, racial inequality and resource conflict along the way.

And because our legal system doesn’t treat environmental destruction with the seriousness we are now beginning to understand it warrants, we are doing this with impunity.

The word ‘ecocide’ was first used on the international stage by Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme at the UN environment conference in Stockholm (1972), when he stated that “destruction brought about… by large scale use of bulldozers and pesticides is an outrage sometimes described as ecocide, which requires urgent international attention.”

Nearly 50 years later, the world is at last beginning to pay that attention. Last month an expert panel of top international criminal and environmental lawyers, convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, proposed a legal definition of the term, suitable for adoption into the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a fifth crime alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. Responding to the explicit call of climate-vulnerable island nations Vanuatu and the Maldives, directly impacted by rising sea levels and heavy tropical storms, such a move would criminalize, “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

The warmth of response to this legal definition has been remarkable. Sparking articles in over 100 global publications in the first week, from the Financial Times to Der Spiegel and from Bloomberg to Le Monde, it has also prompted political action.

 

Jojo Mehta, "A reality check," The News. 2021-07-13.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Environmental issues , Environmental lawyers , Environmental destruction , Greenhouse , Pollution , Nature , PM Olof Palme , Stockholm , ICC