We often employ the term ‘Earth’ at times when we, almost unconsciously, wish to emphasise the magnitude of questions such as “What on Earth are you thinking about?” or “How on Earth can you make that happen?!” or “Where on Earth did you get that idea?” It passes unnoticed, taken for granted, just like the Earth itself.
This book redresses that inherent indifference – an indifference that underpins so much irreversible destruction carried out in the name of growth and progress.
What we need now is a paradigm shift. Recognising the problem is essential, but implementing a solution takes far more time, effort and persuasion, especially if it challenges fundamental attitudes.
The importance of Polly Higgins’ work is her ability to combine vision and passion with an utterly convincing and achievable way forward. Put simply, how can the vested interests of established political and economic institutions be persuaded to change?
Her answer demonstrates that the moral imperative of respecting the planet as a living entity ultimately embraces economic empiricism. The idea of approaching the world as a marketplace in which everything is regarded as property or commodity to be traded or exchanged has to be replaced with an entirely different model. Without this shift we remain locked into measuring price and not value. William Wilberforce appreciated the power of this argument in his demolition of the slave trade.
There is a key passage in Chapter 6: “Global problems, such as climate change, transnational pollution, competing nations, unequal food distribution, and banking without ethics, all stem from property laws.”
This point is most graphically illustrated by the massive energy project, the biggest of its kind anywhere, that has been taking place in Alberta, Canada over the last century. Known as tar sands, it is producing dirty oil in millions of barrels, desecrating huge swathes of boreal forest, polluting and depleting water resources, destroying the natural habitat of wildlife, and displacing large numbers of the First Nation peoples who were originally promised undisturbed rights in exchange for land. Needless to say this undertaking has not been fulfilled.
This situation was subjected to a mock trial in the Supreme Court in 2011. The detail of this event is set out in the book. The result was a conviction for Ecocide against the senior executives of the companies involved.
Ecocide should be the 5th inter¬national Crime Against Peace, alongside Genocide, in the Rome Statute 1998. But three major states with vested interests in tar sands objected in the early stages of negotiation. They were the Netherlands, the USA and the UK. The most vehement opposition came from the UK, which was implacably opposed in principle to the concept of such a crime. Documents revealing this have only recently been analysed.
It will come as no surprise therefore that the two main European nations recently opposing the imposition of an embargo on the importation of dirty oil into the EU were the Netherlands and the UK. Ultimately the UK, playing its frequent role of Perfidious Albion, was persuaded to abstain; a fine example of property and profit before people and the planet. How can anyone sit on the fence on an issue like this?
Polly is not advocating the abolition of profit but the exercise of responsible, conscientious and accountable gover¬nance for the benefit of the integrity of the planet. Profit has to be harnessed to preserve the bedrock of our existence, not to line the pockets of individual and corporate operators.
This lies at the heart of the growing and universal awakening. Oppressive and self-perpetuating regimes are being challenged. Morally bankrupt democracies are being laid bare. Corrupt institutions are unravelling. Citizens everywhere wish to retake control of their own lives and destinies. The Occupy movement is one manifestation of this radicalisation.
For these reasons Polly almost sees the planet as her client, for whom she articulates a new world order, for whom she outlines fundamental rights and freedoms. In a sense she is promoting a charter for peaceful coexistence between those who live upon the Earth and the Earth itself.
The pitfalls of fantasy idealism, conceptual and scholastic pirouettes, are avoided by unambiguous language and practical frameworks. This is not to say that the thinking is novel, but Polly has successfully managed to bring it all together into a cohesive whole. Historical awareness and sharp legal analysis make her narrative both informative and inspiring.
None of this is for the faint-hearted or the fatalist. Instead it is for those who are fed up to the back teeth with broken promises, vacuous commitments and stultifying inaction – in other words, ordinary people who want to make a difference. Here’s how to do it – provided there is courage and most of all solidarity.
Earth is our Business: Changing the Rules of the Game by Polly Higgins. Shepheard-Walwyn, 2012.
Michael Mansfield is an English barrister, republican, vegetarian, socialist, and self-described “radical lawyer”.