As we face the urgent crises of climate and extinction, we need every tool available — including the law — to fight for life on Earth. By identifying “ecocide” as a prosecutable crime, as a panel of 12 lawyers recently proposed to the International Criminal Court, we can set up a practical framework for tackling these emergencies.
The legal panel defined ecocide as “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.” It’s launching a global campaign to list ecocide as an international crime. Currently, the court can prosecute four crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression. Ecocide would be the fifth.
The term “ecocide” was coined by bioethicist Arthur Galston in the 1970s to refer to intentional destruction of a specific environment. It was inspired by the U.S. use of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange in the Vietnam War and is now used more broadly to refer to a wide range of environmentally destructive behaviors.
Extractive industries and their enablers are the root cause of the biodiversity and climate emergencies that are becoming, every season and every year, more extreme and more glaringly obvious. The recent Pacific Northwest heat dome, for instance, resulted in mass deaths of mussels, clams, sea stars and snails in British Columbia. It’s still unknown exactly how many heat-related animal deaths occurred, but it’s estimated at least 99 people in the United States and potentially “hundreds” more in British Columbia perished. Yet, with the death tolls mounting, the short- and long-term consequences of breaking all previous heat records in the first month of summer remain unknown.
The deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, a global biodiversity hotspot, is another example of ecocide. The world’s largest rainforest is no longer able to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it once did because of deforestation. In fact, a new study shows that decades of logging, burning, mining and development have turned the Amazon Basin into a net source of greenhouse gas emissions.