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We’re Killing the Environment, and There’s a Word for It – Ecocide

We’re Killing the Environment, and There’s a Word for It – Ecocide

A member of Peru’s government sits in a boat as a dead bird floats in the water after Repsol spilled more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, February 9, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Sebastian Castaneda

  • Ecocide refers to actions that result in the willful, conscious destruction of the natural environment or ecosystem that impacts human, animal and plant life. 
  • It is a big deal because its impacts are grave and widespread.
  • Activists are pushing for ecocide to be recognised as an international crime. This, they say, could hold polluters to account and help address climate change.

Kochi: We know that dumping untreated industrial produce or sewage into rivers will pollute them. But industries and local bodies do it anyway.

We know our unsustainable thirst for coal or minerals like gold is ravaging entire hills, accelerating biodiversity loss and affecting the people living near these areas as well as working there. Governments and corporations mine them anyway.

There’s a word for such sustained, deliberate actions that we commit despite knowing fully well their monumental and widespread ecological and environmental fallouts: ecocide.

It is, literally, ‘the killing of the environment’.

Origins in war crime

Ecocide refers to actions that result in the willful, conscious destruction of the natural environment with consequences for human, animal and plant life.

That’s the context in which biologist Arthur Galston used the term for the first time in 1970, at the Conference on War and Responsibility in Washington, D.C. He referred to the US’s use of Agent Orange – a herbicide used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War – an act of ecocide. Galston was the first to link the the willful destruction of nature with genocide, which is recognised as an international crime.

The term apparently became more popular after 1972, when Sweden’s prime minister referred to the Vietnam War as an “ecocide” at the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Incidentally, during the conference, India’s prime minister Indira Gandhi also advocated that the destruction of ecosystems be considered a crime against humanity.

Ecocide doesn’t really have an accepted legal definition as of yet. In June last year, a panel of lawyers from across the world came together to offer one. Ecocide is the “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 Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide said.

Why is ecocide such a big deal?

Ecocide today is everywhere. And it is a big deal because its impacts are grave, widespread and impossible to ignore.

Impacts can be direct or not. For instance, oil spills – which directly impact ocean life – are an act of ecocide. So is unsustainable overfishing in our oceans, which can indirectly impact us by bringing down fish species populations, which in turn affects other species in the food web.

There are numerous instances of ecocide in India too. As per the non-for-profit Stop Ecocide International, the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 is one example. As many as 5 lakh people were exposed to toxic levels of the methyl isocyanate, due to a gas leak from an insecticide plant, while some 20,000 people died over the years, according to some reports.

Also read: What Is Ecofascism?

The impacts on health continue – including in the form of gas victims suffering the effects of COVID-19 to a “disproportionate” extent, as activists have said.

Well-known personalities across the world have drawn attention to the issue of ecocide. Greta Thunberg donated 100,000 euros to the Stop Ecocide Foundation, while Pope Francis called for ecocide to be recognised as a crime by the international community.

Ecocide as a crime

Currently, a handful of countries – including Russia and Ukraine – recognise ecocide as a crime. With its association as a war crime at the very start, there’s been much talk on the need to classify ecocide as an international crime. Currently, the International Criminal Court (ICC), a permanent international court under the UN, recognises only four distinct international crimes, under its Rome Statute: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes against peace.

In 2010, British lawyer-turned-campaigner Polly Higgins urged the UN to accept ecocide as an international crime, on a par with genocide. She proposed amending the Rome Statute of the ICC to do so. This would make ecocide an arrestable offence. Numerous other campaigners and organisations across the world (such as Stop Ecocide International, for instance) have been – and still are – pushing this idea forward.

The need to recognise ecocide as an international crime also appears to be more pertinent in the Anthropocene epoch. A sixth mass extinction is unfolding worldwide. Climate reports, such as those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, show that human activity is aggravating and accelerating climate change.

Bringing ecocide under the ambit of the ICC could help make climate change more accountable and bring it under control, some have said. An international law on ecocide could also hold major polluters to account. For example, just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, a 2017 report found.

There’s still a long way to go, however. Some have asked if classifying ‘ecocide’ as an international crime could really be a silver bullet, because only individuals – not corporations – can be tried at the ICC at present.

A legal definition for ecocide could be a crucial first step in this regard.

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