EVERY time I think about the intractable problems of climate warming, destruction of species and habitat, environmental degradation, poverty and famine, genetic modification, fracking, tar sands and all the rest of the horror, it all comes down to one thing – profit.
All these things are being carried out in the name of the profit motive because it is legal to do so. Indeed it is the board’s duty to its shareholders to make profits.
Business law is based on property rights, permitting the owner of a property to do whatever he likes with it, even if it involves destroying ecosystems, as long as he does not affect the legal rights of other people. Paradoxically, life on earth has no such rights, which is strange, because people are part of life on earth. Because there is no proper enforcement of international law, businesses can override even human rights with impunity, as happened for example with the Ogoni protesters in the Niger Delta and the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa by the Nigerian government at the instigation of Shell Oil.
There is, however, a glimmer of light, an idea which I believe is the most important to have emerged so far in the effort to restrain the destructive power of profit. It is barrister Polly Higgins and her campaign to bring in a law of ecocide.
Polly Higgins’ idea is to make business responsible for its actions not under property law but under trust law. This would make business responsible not only to their shareholders but also to future inhabitants of Earth. If it can be proved that a business activity is detrimental to the future inhabitants of Earth, under trust law the business could be prosecuted.
This is a stronger law than property law, against which environmental protection legislation has proved weak.
To make ecocide a crime under international law would be a very powerful regulation on business. It would act against the heedless rush towards environmental collapse which business is currently engaged in, not only because property law allows it to do so but because current financial regulations require it.
Business today can’t change course even if it wants to, because there is no adequate regulation.
I believe that most people engaged in destructive activities justify themselves on the grounds of the profit imperative. ‘We’ve got to make a profit otherwise we’re out of business’. Or as George Osborne has famously said: ‘We won’t save the planet by putting Britain out of business’. No, but as any small child will easily understand, if you haven’t got a planet you haven’t got a business.
Polly Higgins’ initiative makes the planet more important than business, and that means – if it becomes law – that there will at least be a planet for us to do business on. If not, there won’t be. The super-rich will have built themselves survival bubbles, but for the rest of us, including animals and plants, it will be curtains. There is a significant opportunity approaching – the Earth Summit to be held in Rio de Janeiro in June this year.
World leaders will meet to decide the future of the Earth. We are all in a position of influence it to some degree. Let us do all we can to put a law of ecocide firmly on the agenda.
Dirk Campbell, Lewes