Lawyer-turned-activist Polly Higgins has dedicated her life to the most vulnerable client: planet earth.
“I was in the Court of Appeal, dealing with a case. I looked out the window and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” says Polly Higgins, surrounded by the books and artefacts that fill her Islington flat. “There was so much going wrong out there, it seemed to me that what the earth was in need of was a good lawyer.”
With that, Polly quit her job as a corporate barrister and fled London for Scotland to think things through. She returned a few weeks later, decision made: she was ready to become the earth’s first lawyer. Today, after nearly a decade of intense campaigning, news for her client is looking good. This June, Polly will travel to the UN Earth Summit in Rio and put pressure on the world’s leaders to make ecocide the fifth crime against peace – alongside Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity – policed by the International Criminal Court and defined as ‘the extensive damage to, or loss of ecosystems, of a given territory’.
But why does the earth need a lawyer? “You just need to look at the red list of endangered and lost species and the increase of greenhouse gasses to see that we’re doing something wrong,” says Polly. “Clearly, existing environmental law is not fit for purpose.”
Of course, it’s not like the environment isn’t already protected by law. But Higgins sees flaws in the existing system, which is based on retrospective permits and fines. She explains: “It’s an end-of-pipe solution; you’re shoring up the mess after it has happened, rather than going upstream and turning off the tap before it happens.” And that’s assuming that offenders get prosecuted at all, which very often they don’t.
Her proposal is different. For one, it’s based on a cultural shift, which she believes we can only arrive at through law: “We’ve created rules that put profit without consequence first. And as much as people may well care, there’s not much you can do if it’s the law that you maximise your profits over everything else.” As well as moving ‘upstream’ and creating laws designed to prevent environmentally unfriendly acts, Higgins’ ecocide legislation would hold people, rather than companies, accountable. “You impose a level of what’s known in international law as superiority responsibility on those who are in a position of command and control,” she explains. “Surprisingly, many decisions in this world are made by few people, yet they determine the outcome for the rest of civilisation.” In short, if a company’s actions result in serious ecocide, the decision-maker takes the rap.
Polly’s environmental consciousness traces back to her roots. Born in 1968, she grew up in rural Stirlingshire, on the borders of the Scottish highlands. Having a meteorologist father meant a feel for the environment was practically in her blood. In her twenties, she became fascinated by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist, architect and environmental activist who became the subject of her master’s thesis. Yet she went on to train as a lawyer, and for years corporate law dominated her time. “My mother, who’s an artist, thought I’d sold my soul to the conventional world,” she explains. “It’s funny. The day I told her that I was leaving courtroom work to take on another type of client – the earth – she loved it.”
Once she’d identified the problems with existing environmental law and worked out an alternative, her next step was to get others on board. Drawing on the success of the human rights agenda, she began calling for the earth to be afforded similar rights. Numbers-wise, it’s always been a small campaign – Higgins has only just hired an assistant after seven years – but she has a knack for getting her voice heard. In 2008, she presented her proposal for aUniversal Declaration of Planetary Rights to the UN Climate Conference.
And yet, Polly casually refers to her dealings with the UN in a way others would mention calling their mum. But surely gaining an audience in an institution like that is no mean feat? “As a lawyer, I can put in a legal expert’s written submission,” explains Polly. “I discovered that in the small print. And I thought, ‘Okay, that’s precisely what I’ll do.’”
Though Polly is the legal brains driving the campaign, she doesn’t like to see herself as its only face. “We see this as decentralised campaigning, where we’re spreading the message out, pollinating like bees and asking others to run with it in whatever way they want to,” she energetically explains. “We’re not dictating terms; it’s very much about decentralising the message, passing it out, using the power of networks.”
And yet, when she goes to Rio this summer Higgins will have a huge job on her hands. For ecocide to become a criminal act, an amendment to the 2002 Rome Statute is needed, which will require agreement from two thirds of 139 signatories. Although her proposal makes perfect sense, it’s still a pretty hard concept to grasp – especially for politicians unwilling to take risks. Luckily, Polly’s optimism is a force to be reckoned with.
“The way I look at it, we are at a point of emergency,” she states. “Now the interesting thing with the word ‘emergency’ is that emergency means ‘a state of emergence’, so it’s not necessarily something to fear, but it’s a moment in time when we can actually turn things around and something new can come into being. And when you look at it, [all we need is the backing of] ninety-three people in the world, that’s it. They happen to be heads of state, but they’re just people. They hold the balance of what happens to our planet in their hands. They hold the outcome for people and planet, those ninety-three people. That’s nothing. We can make that happen, I see no reason why not.”