‘Ecocide law can make the world a better place’

Photo Sylvain Guenot

Photo Sylvain Guenot

Scottish Earth lawyer Poly Higgins (1965) hugs me as if we're old friends. For years she has been advocating for an ecocide law which would make the mass destruction of ecosystems the fifth international crime against peace alongside genocide. Higgins speaks quickly with a warm voice, shifting easily between laughter and stressing what is fundamentally wrong.

What you are saying is there is a word missing in our vocabulary. What does the word 'ecocide' bring us that we don't have already?

It gives name to the harm. By giving a legal definition to ecocide you are shining a light on something that has become a normative. It is perfectly normal for transnational corporations to cause damage and destruction. It is legal to do that. They might exceed their pollution levels, they might even get a fine but in the end they don't have to pay anything anyway. By naming it as a crime we can actually bring it to an end.

Right before I went up to the climate negotiations in Copenhagen a Colombian shaman told me 'only when we give the shadow name can the healing begin'. This was really powerful for me. It was when I was up there someone in the audience said we need new language to deal with this mass damage and destruction. That's when I realized what happens is like genocide, only it's ecocide.

By naming something you suddenly get it. Or sometimes you don't. There are good people who care about the Earth who say no to ecocide. I couldn't understand at first why. Then I was talking to friends of mine in Austria and they were saying their Jewish grandparents who lived through the Holocaust found it really difficult to reconcile with the word genocide. This was a common reaction within the Jewish community when genocide was being named as a crime. Because it meant to face the enormity of what had happened. Sometimes that also means to take responsibility. While sometimes it is easier to pretend it is not there and to numb it out.


You've obviously chosen the option of taking responsibility. How is your relationship with nature? What does it mean to you to be wild?

To have a far degree of freedom to engage with the world how I wish to engage with it. To not be fethered. To allow myself to be deeply creative. It's a very fun, joyful and nourishing space. But also it's about being far more in harmony with nature, it's a far deeper connection. I yearn sometimes to be in wild places that have been lightly touched by humanity. For me the west coast of Scotland where I grew up is a very special place.

I also really loved the cenotes, these hidden underwater caves in the Mexican jungle which I was taken to when I was at the climate negotiations in Cancun. That spoke of a wildness that I never experienced before. It was so deeply moving to actually step into this huge pool of water underground where there were just shards of light coming through from holes upground above them in the jungle. All these stalachtites and stalchmites were pacified and the water itself had this sheer white which was like ice and dissolved when we went into it. It was an unbelievably peaceful experience.

These wild places are sacred to the ancient tribes and the wisdomkeepers that protect the land. But they are being destroyed. This is where two thousand room megahotels were being built. Where did they put all their waste? They dumped it down underground in the cenotes. Gone. Where this is the portal to the other world for these ancient indigenous people! It is a violation on so many fronts, cultural ecoside as well as ecological ecocide.

This is also happening closer by home, as we see in the Tegenlicht documentary 'Earth Lawyer'. One of the places you explore in it is Sapmi land in the north of Sweden where the land of the indigenous Sami people is being destroyed by mining. How could they benefit from an ecocide law?

I was really shocked by what I experienced in the north of Sweden. What is happening there indeed is ecological as well as cultural ecocide. Sami culture has been systematically eroded since the 1920's when they started measuring their heads. If they had too big a head they weren't considered Sami. This immediately created division and conflict within their community. Even today their voice is not heard. Having their own parliament might seem as a good thing but actually it is a way of silencing them. It stresses how their problems are considered as having nothing to do with the Swedish government. That is wrong.

Rönnbäck we saw in the documentary is a huge example of Swedish government giving permission to big companies to mine. This continiously destroys vast stretches of land leaking high toxic metals. The local community ends up ill, the land is destroyed and the reindeer can no longer be there while this is land that has been used by many generations to live of through the migration of the reindeer.

It is corporate and political failure. With ecocide law you could look at both. The failure to prevent that ecocide will happen in the first place because it was legal to pollute. What the law also does is to give huge importance to the indigenous rights of the Sami. Because at the moment the government keeps on handing out permits. The Sami are left disempowered and the toxic legacy is literally there in the ground for many generations after. There is no ability to clean this up because it costs too much.


Another case in which ecocide law could be applied is regarding the small island states which are currently facing rising sea levels. The law would then oblige other states to help.

Yes, because this is truly about our global commons and there is a common responsibility for all of us to help those who are in crisis. It's human nature. But we got stuck in nonsensical political systems that say only if this bilateral trade arrangement is there we'll give you money.

What will help is when we all work together and we work hard so we can have migration with dignity; being able to give land that people can come to and give them all the assistance so they can deal with the trauma. To have practical systems in a way that they require for their culture. That would be a natural given. If your friend would end up with their house completely under water you would be right there.

This is what global citizenship is being like. It is actually overtaking the globalization of state and business. People are coming together now. There is a saying that says where political will fails the rule of law will prevail. I think it requires systems on the ground to say we want new laws. To say we need ecocide law because what is happening is immoral. That is a growing narrative that is being understood by more and more people. In a way what I am doing is skill up people so they have the language and the ability to see that clearly.

The stories you are telling aren't happy ones. How do you deal with this on a personal level? I can imagine working on ecocide and speaking the voice of the Earth might feel like a huge burden.

It used to be. Now it got to a point where so many people got involved that I recently felt a huge weight lifted of my shoulders. But I remember when I first came up with the idea of ecocide law I spent a month vomiting. I was thinking how huge it was, wondering how on earth I was going to take this forward. Then I decided if it had come to me it's for a reason and all the help is needed. I realized I don't need to be alone on this journey and was sending out the call for support and indeed my needs are met in that way. I don't need to speak in Paris since many others are stepping up into that place.

What is actually the first thing you would do when the law would be there?

Jump on a Harley run on vegetable oil and travel the world. Haha.

FridaysforFuture - school strike for climate, Wellington March 15th 2019

FridaysforFuture - school strike for climate, Wellington March 15th 2019


The underlying vision of ecocide law is that of Earth as a living being and it also mentions other living beings except for humans. Though this feels natural to a lot of us it is not mainstream thinking in our society. Do you see law as a tool for awareness raising and shifting of consciousness?

Completely. What I am doing is fundamentally shifting people's vision of what's possible. Ecocide law can take the world to a better place. It is about the flow of money and as soon as investors realize that it is no longer wise to invest in dangerous industrial activity they'll invest in the other direction which will create huge innovation and resilience and jobs. The success is in the transition of these companies saying we are dirty and we are moving to clean energy. So the problem actually becomes the solution.

It is a very fast-track legal route and those that get it and have the courage to say they want to help are far more innovative and more adventurous. They are open to exploring life in a wilder way and are not content to be boxed into. There is a fundamental questioning of the way we are living life. Just because it is as it is doesn't mean it is always right.

Once you start questioning stuff around you, which is a very healthy thing to do, you fundamentally shift everything. You can say no, I don't buy into that. I don't want to give it my energy, I don't want to remain complicit into it. Like you permaculturists literally say I don't buy or give people vegetables that are chemical. I don't buy at the supermarket but get it from local organic or biodynamic growers. It is the same with the political system. Whether or not you buy into the existing system contaminated with corruption. It's about whether or not you chose a very different way of engaging with your world and your community.

While I am sipping my mint tea Polly is pointing at the necklace of a naked woman I am wearing.

It is so delicate and yet it is so strong, isn't it? That really speaks to me about the divine feminine. I believe we can bring our own female wisdom into this and to give permission to men to speak this softer narrative of care. A lot of this damage and destruction I am seeing is born out of decisions made by men. If you look at the extractive industries it is 99.9% male driven by this very macho masculinity that is very unattractive, where it is all about control and dominance. That is a very obsolete way of thinking which has got nothing to do with care for future generations, which has got nothing to do with that intimate connection of the sacredness of nature itself.

In a way we can talk about that more easy than some men can – it is genetically embedded in our dna, we are the ones who give birth. At the end of the day the more we chose to step into our power the more we empower others around us, masculine and feminine. It is about how we choose to embody our femininity, how we choose to speak, how we engage through our actions. Who do we choose to be in this life? How do we choose to make a difference? How do we contribute to creating a more beautiful world?





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