Visionaries: Polly Higgins

‘The planet is currently enslaved to humans abusing its inherent rights – the right not to be enslaved or polluted,’ says environmentalist and barrister Polly Higgins.
The law is not a perfect tool, but it gives great scope for us to change it. Law gives you the tools to go and fight.

After years of fighting other people’s battles, Higgins is taking the Earth on as a client. Last November, she presented her call for a Universal Declaration of Planetary Rights at the United Nations UK & Northern Ireland Climate Change Conference.

‘I realised that it’s not just about addressing the UN,’ she says. ‘I then had to make it happen.’ So she set up the Trees Have Rights Too campaign to promote and build the cause. The campaign is gaining support ‘at a political and legal level. The door is opening. It just needs to be pushed.’

‘Nobody is representing the planet at the post-2012 Kyoto negotiating table. Until we uphold planetary rights we are but tweaking at the corners. Until we stop pollution at source, no amount of offsetting, carbon crediting or carbon capture and storage will solve the problem.’

It’s a radical, expansive, all-encompassing vision. If implemented it would mean the end of the world’s most powerful industries: oil, coal, logging and concrete.

At the moment, a corporation (an ‘abstract entity’) has more power and rights than the tree it fells or the air that it pollutes to make way for ever-expanding business.

‘It’s a mad situation,’ says Higgins. ‘Our laws protect these corporations at the cost of the environment. If we’re serious about human survival we have to stop pollution. Voluntary codes, environmental impact reports or energy efficiency will not change these industries until the concept of “environment as property”, with its limited (or in most cases nonexistent) rights, is overturned.’ She knows it’s very controversial but believes if after a short transition period it becomes illegal to pollute,
‘watch how fast companies will move to find solutions’.

Higgins used to think the solution was technology – big, renewable technology such as CSP (concentrating solar power). For three years she was a legal advisor on international environmental and renewable energy law for DESERTEC until she realised, ‘it’s a useful tool but it’s not enough. What’s needed is a seismic shift in consciousness to recognise our interconnectedness with nature and this planet, and the need to protect and prevent further abuse. This is the essence of Earth jurisprudence’.

She began to explore the need for a duty of care for the planet, examining various legislative avenues before coming up with the declaration. The next step is taking it to the UN General Assembly. For this she needs to secure UN representatives as sponsors – one from each continent. ‘We have to run with this very fast. But I need support, wisdom, advice and finance.’

Can the law really save the planet? ‘The law is not a perfect tool but it gives great scope for us to change and amend it,’ she says. ‘Law creates society, its framework and beliefs. At the moment you can’t fight on behalf of the planet. Law gives you the tools to go and fight. I have faith in that we can use the law creatively.’

The law is not a perfect tool, but it gives great scope for us to change it. Law gives you the tools to go and fight.

Vist Trees Have Rights Too


To read more about the other nine visionaries click on their link below:

Introduction (Society), Ann Pettifor (Finance),

Derek Gow (Conservation), Carolyn Steel (Urban design),

William McDonough (Waste), Peter Lipman (Transport), 

Jimmie Hepburn (Agriculture), Bill Drayton (Business),

George Marshall (Energy), Duane Elgin (Consumerism).

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