Statue of Gaia

Ecocide: A Crime Against Peace?

Published in The Weekly Standard

Environmentalism is growing increasingly antihuman. Having left Teddy Roosevelt-style conservation and Earth Day consciousness-raising behind, the cutting edge of the movement is pursuing utopian “save the planet” agendas while angrily castigating mankind for supposedly sucking the life out of Gaia.

Such environmental misanthropy used to be confined to the fringe. For more than three decades proponents of Deep Ecology have urged “environmental egalitarianism” and radical depopulation to beat back the human “invasion” of nature. Alas, in recent years such advocacy moved from the flanks toward the center of environmentalism — to the point that some of the world’s leading global warming warriors now echo the radical depopulation agenda as an urgent imperative to protect polar bears and keep glaciers from melting.

Global warming alarmists and other über-environmentalists also promote anti-prosperity, seeking to convince developed nations to constrict their economies drastically and redistribute much of their remaining wealth to developing countries as an inducement for them to remain mired in low emissions poverty. The advocates of this view see economic decline as a goal. Thus, in the run up to the failed Copenhagen global warming summit, New Yorker writer David Owen asserted that “the world’s principal source of man-made greenhouse gases has always been prosperity.” He warned darkly that the recent “environmental benefits of economic decline, though real, are fragile, because they are vulnerable to intervention by governments.”

The antihuman and anti-prosperity impulses in environmentalism have also led to granting human-type rights to the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees. Under the influence of American environmental radicals, the leftist government of Ecuador won ratification for a new constitution that formalized the “rights of nature” along with those of humans. Several municipalities in the United States have taken the same route. In 2007, Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, enacted an ordinance purporting to strip sludge-and-dredge corporations of all constitutional rights within the town — an empty gesture given the town had no such authority—while granting rights to “nature” enforceable in court by any resident.

Allowing radical environmentalists to enforce the putative rights of nature could certainly stifle development. But it might not eliminate it. To do that, punitive action is required. Indeed, how better to push us back toward a hunter/gatherer (or just plain gatherer) ideal than to criminalize large-scale economic development?

That’s precisely the goal of This Is Ecocide, a new environmental campaign that seeks to outlaw serious pollution as an international “crime against peace,” akin to war crimes or genocide. Anyone indicted for ecocide would find himself in the dock at the International Criminal Court alongside such alleged mass murderers as Serbia’s Radovan Karadzic and Liberia’s Charles Taylor.

But what is ecocide, precisely? Practically any business activity that environmentalists loathe, from large scale resource development to nonrenewable energy generation, along with any accidental ecological disaster would potentially qualify as a crime against peace. As envisioned by ecocide’s rising star, Polly Higgins, who recently addressed the United Nations promoting a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights, the This Is Ecocide website states:

Ecocide is the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

Note that “peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants” is a very broad term, intended to include everything from grass, fish, and insects to mice, snakes, and people. And diminishment of “peaceful enjoyment” would not require actual pollution, but could mean a declining supply of forage or a loss of foliage caused by almost any use of the land, perhaps even simple urban growth.

Not only that, but the crime of ecocide would be so encompassing that any company involved in large scale resource development would almost certainly commit it. Again, from the website:

  • Ecocide arises out of human intervention. Heavy extraction, toxic dumping, release of pollutants can all result in ecocide.
  • Ecocide is a crime of consequence, e.g., where an energy company procures its energy by extracting fossil fuels, as opposed to creation from renewable energy, that would result in ecocide.
  • Ecocide is not a crime of intent. The intention is rarely to render damage on a given territory, more often it is an outcome of another primary (economic or war) activity.

It is worth noting that the website does not cite deliberate ecological despoliation among its examples of ecocide; it makes no mention, for instance, of Saddam Hussein’s releasing oil into the Persian Gulf and setting oil wells aflame during the first Gulf war. Its prime target is resource development, such as oil extraction from the Alberta tar sands and large mining projects. Under this view, the Exxon Valdez accident could be elevated from a civil wrong justly requiring Exxon to pay billions in damages to a crime requiring the jailing of the company’s CEO for life. There need not even be harm to any living organism: The proliferation of space junk is listed as ecocide.

One need not read between the lines to perceive that the real culprit isn’t pollution as much as it is human prosperity created by industrialization. Thus, declaring the need to “abolish planetary slavery,” the YouTube video “Ecocide: A Crime Against Peace” states:

We have come to accept that extraction of natural resources is normal. Just because it is normal does not mean that it is right. Two hundred years ago companies plundered for profit. Then it was called colonization. Today it is called business.

Back then, extraction often led to conflict. Sometimes it led to war. Now a century of “resource wars” is predicted. The battle to control oil and water has already started. Now natural resources are becoming the reason for war. Unless we change. Do you see what is happening here?

PowerPoint style, the screen then slowly rolls out the phrase “Extraction = Ecocide > Resource Depletion > War,” which melts into the summary statement “Ecocide > War.”

The concept of Ecocide is subversive on several levels. First, equating resource extraction and/or pollution with genocide trivializes true evils such as the slaughter in Rwanda, the killing fields of Cambodia, the gulags, and the death camps, while elevating undefined environmental systems to the moral status of human populations. Even more elementary is the fact that ecocide’s promoters want to destroy prosperity by criminalizing necessary economic activities.

The cliché that green is the new red is proving all too true. Increasingly, environmental activism promotes utopian hysteria, undermines human exceptionalism by personalizing nature, and exhibits disturbing totalitarian symptoms. Ecocide fits squarely within this emerging zeitgeist. Tempted as we may be to laugh it off, we should instead recognize it as a potential threat to our collective future.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute and author, most recently, of A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.