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Guest Opinion: Human progress is no excuse to destroy nature. A push to make ‘ecocide’ a global crime must recognize this fundamental truth

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By Anthony Burke and Danielle Celermajer 

Scientists recently confirmed the Amazon rainforest is emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, due to uncontrolled burning and deforestation. It brings the crucial ecosystem closer to a tipping point that would see it replaced by savanna and trigger accelerated global heating.

This is not an isolated example of nature being damaged at a mass scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month confirmed global heating is now affecting every continent, region and ocean on Earth.

In the face of such horrors, a new international campaign is calling for “ecocide” — the killing of ecology — to be deemed an international “supercrime” in the order of genocide.

Making ecocide an international crime is an appropriate response to the gravity of this harm and could help prevent mass environmental destruction. But whether it does so will depend on how the crime is defined.

Defining ecocide

The global campaign is being led by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, is working to define the crime of 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 being caused by those acts.”

Laudably, these core elements show a concern for ecosystem integrity, human rights to a healthy environment and the way grave damage to ecosystems can have devastating local and planetary consequences well into the future.

Despite these strengths, lawyers and scholars have identified problems with the definition.

Ecological approach

A key concern is that the proposed definition considers only “unlawful” or “wanton” acts to be ecocide.

Most environmental destruction is not illegal. We need look no further than federal environment law that has comprehensively failed to protect nature.

Under the proposed definition, lawful acts are only ecocidal if they are “wanton” — defined as “reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic and benefits anticipated.”

This condition assumes some ecocidal damage is acceptable in the name of human progress. According to the panel, such “socially beneficial acts” might include building housing developments and transport links.

This assumption furthers the human-centered privilege and “get-out-of-jail” clauses that have so weakened international environmental law to date.

We are not saying that housing or farms should not be built. But, in a period some scientists are calling the sixth mass extinction, they cannot come at the expense of crucial species and ecosystems. Sustainable development must respect this boundary.

The assumption also fails to recognize the gravity of ecocide. Such trade-offs — formally known as “derogations” — are rejected by international conventions governing slavery, torture, sexual violence and fundamental human rights.

An international crime of ecocide must meet a similar standard. It should recognize that all forms of life, and the ecological systems that support them, have value for their own sake.

This perspective is known as multispecies justice. It holds that human well-being is bound to flourishing ecosystems, which have an intrinsic value outside the human use for them.

Genocide — the annihilation of human groups — is recognized as a crime against humanity. In the same way, the definition of ecocide should recognize that acts that destroy biological diversity, and lead to species extinction, threaten the very nature and survival of Earth’s multispecies community.

In Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe, the Balkans and more recently Myanmar, millions were killed and dispersed under a crime against humanity known as “ethnic cleansing.” Yet this killing and dispersal is happening to nonhuman communities as we write. The vast habitat destroyed by deforestation is as important to displaced animals as our homes are to us.

Mass environmental destruction is an attack on the foundations of all life that makes up the biosphere, of which humanity is only a part.

What should be done?

The Stop Ecocide Foundation says the proposed definition will now be “made available for states to consider.”

As they do so, we ought to work toward a definition of ecocide that puts nonhuman lives at its center. The crime of ecocide must be defined in a way that honors its victims — the myriad beings of the Earth.

In the meantime, political efforts to rein in biodiversity destruction must become an urgent global priority. And citizens can press their governments to criminalize the ecocidal acts that have become business as usual.

Anthony Burke is a professor of environmental politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales. 

Danielle Celermajer is a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney.