A campaign to declare the mass destruction of ecosystems an international crime against peace - alongside genocide and crimes against humanity - is being launched in the UK.
The proposal for the United Nations to accept "ecocide" as a fifth "crime against peace", which could be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC), is the brainchild of British lawyer-turned-campaigner Polly Higgins.
The radical idea would have a profound effect on industries blamed for widespread damage to the environment like fossil fuels, mining, agriculture, chemicals and forestry.
Supporters of a new ecocide law also believe it could be used to prosecute "climate deniers" who distort science and facts to discourage voters and politicians from taking action to tackle global warming and climate change.
"Ecocide is in essence the very antithesis of life," says Higgins. "It leads to resource depletion, and where there is escalation of resource depletion, war comes chasing behind. Where such destruction arises out of the actions of mankind, ecocide can be regarded as a crime against peace."
Higgins, formerly a barrister in London specialising in employment, has already had success at the UN with a Universal Declaration for Planetary Rights, modelled on the human rights declaration. "My starting point was 'how do we create a duty of care to the planet, a pre-emptive obligation to not harm the planet?'"
After a successful launch at the UN in 2008, the idea has been adopted by the Bolivian government, who will propose a full members' vote, and Higgins has taken up her campaign for ecocide.
Ecocide is already recognised by dictionaries, but Higgins' more legal definition would be: "The extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished."
The ICC was set up in 2002 to hear cases for four crimes against peace: genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression (such as unprovoked war), and crimes against humanity.
Higgins makes her case for ecocide to join that list with a simple equation: extraction leads to ecocide, which leads to resource depletion, and resource depletion leads to conflict. "The link is if you keep over-extracting from your capital asset we'll have very little left and we will go to war over our capital asset, the last of it," adds Higgins, who has support in the UN and European commission, and among climate scientists, environmental lawyers and international campaign groups.
Although there is debate over how frequently people go to war over resources such as water, a growing number of important voices are arguing this case. Most recently Sir David King, the UK's former chief scientist, predicted a century of "resource wars", and in response to a report on resource conflicts by campaign group Global Witness, Lessons Unlearned, the UN appeared to accept many of the arguments.
Controversially, Higgins is suggesting ecocide would include damage done to any species - not just humans. This, she says, would stop prosecutions being tied up in legal wrangling over whether humans were harmed, as many environmental cases currently are.: "If you put in a crime that's absolute you can't spend years arguing: you take a soil sample and if it tests as positive it's bang to rights."
Under an ecocide law, which would be more potent because prosecutions would be against individuals such as directors rather than the companies, traditional energy companies could have to become largely clean energy companies, much extractive mining would have to be scaled back or stopped, chemicals which contaminate soil and water and kill wildlife would have to be abandoned and large-scale deforestation would not be possible. "I'm only just beginning to get to terms with how enormous that change will be," admits Higgins.
Higgins will launch her campaign through a website – thisisecocide.com– asking for global support to pressure national governments to vote for the proposed law if it is accepted by the UN Law commission. The deadline for the text is January, and a vote has been scheduled on other amendments in 2012. It would need a two-thirds majority of the 197 member countries to pass.
Higgins hopes the UN's "one member, one vote" system will help over-ride likely opposition of some nations and vested business interests. She also believes many businesses favour clear regulation because they fear a future public backlash. And she cites how, when the US entered world war two, its car manufacturers - despite initial opposition - made 10 times the number of aircraft originally asked for. "It shows you how industry can turn around very fast."