Interview: Polly Higgins, lawyer and campaigner

Lawyer Polly Higgins wants ecocide to be an international crime, and cites early family conversations in west-coast Scotland as sowing the seeds of a showdown for the future of our planet at next month’s Earth Summit in Rio. By Ruth Walker

THERE is a bit of an Erin Brockovich thing going on with Polly Higgins. She might not thank me for the comparison. After all, rightly or wrongly, in some quarters Brockovich is probably more famous for her cleavage than her courtroom gravitas. None the less, here Higgins is, much like the woman made famous by Julia Roberts and Ultimo bras, taking on the big, bad wolves of global pollution – a single voice against the directors and CEOs of some of the world’s most profitable, most powerful companies.

She has been called the planet’s lawyer and hailed a green hero. She was named Campaigner of the Year and overall champion at the recent People and Environment Achievement Awards. Next month will see her attending the Earth Summit in Rio, where her campaign to have ecocide – damage to, or destruction of, the world’s ecosystems – made an international crime (along with genocide and war crimes) will be taken to the highest levels.

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Those corridors of power are a very long way from a childhood spent in the hills of the Scottish Highlands and on the shores of Loch Lomond, where she was raised nearly 45 years ago. She nods in agreement. “You get to a point in London when you just hanker for the hills,” she says. “I’m a country girl at heart. In fact, everything I’m doing is very much about engaging with nature. So my childhood, growing up on the west coast, has been really transformative in learning to appreciate nature and enjoy it.”

In fact, you could say the Higgins family was way ahead of its time. Dad was a meteorologist during the Second World War, and conversations around the kitchen table regularly focused on green issues and the environment when the rest of us were probably more focused on Jim’ll Fix It and the Smash robots. “I remember very clearly in the 1980s, when the big thing was were we going to be looking at the next Arctic Age, having lots of conversations about that. I remember my father being very engaged on climate issues in a big way throughout the whole of my childhood. My friends weren’t – it wasn’t common dialogue back then.”

Perhaps strange, then, that she ended up training to become a lawyer. “I’m not entirely sure what that was,” she laughs. “But it was a really strong hankering: I needed to do law. My mum is an artist and she thought I was selling my soul to the devil.”

Fortunately, her soul remained intact, and while at university Higgins spent time researching with the Austrian artist and ecologist known as Hundertwasser, whose work she had seen at an exhibition during the Edinburgh Festival as a 16-year-old. “He really inspired me,” says Higgins, “and as a result I ended up spending time with him in Vienna and learning an awful lot about the European ecology movement. There was so much more going on there than in Britain at that time. When I finished university nobody seemed to be engaging on the environment in the same way.”

As we talk, the voice has just a hint of a Scottish accent remaining – perhaps the result of years spent, first in London, then travelling the world campaigning on its behalf. She laughs easily and talks passionately. It’s quite easy to imagine her all power-suited in court, representing big business on corporate law. “I was standing in court one day,” she recalls. “It was three years on in a long case, the last day in the Court of Appeal, and we were waiting for the judges to come back. I’d been giving voice to my client, who had been injured and harmed in the workplace, and I looked out the window and thought, ‘The earth is being injured and harmed as well and nothing is being done about it.’

“I actually thought, ‘The earth is in need of a good lawyer’. That thought would not leave me alone. It changed my life.”

Looking back now, she realises this was an epiphany. Seven years after taking a year out, she’s still on what she calls “one of life’s biggest pro bono jobs”. Because, while the earth may well be in need of a good lawyer, it doesn’t pay particularly well.

Funding is starting to come through, enabling her team of eight to spread the word. “Only now are people waking up to how important this is. People have been donating because they believe in what I’m doing.” Her growing group of global supporters includes people from the fields of law, politics, the green movement; people like Deepak Chopra, Michael Meacher MP, Michael Mansfield QC, primatologist Jane Goodall and actress Daryl Hannah.

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When we speak, Higgins is just back from Montana and Dakota, in the United States, where she was visiting sites damaged by the oil industry, “then up to Alberta, in Canada, where the Athabasca Sands are, to look at communities that have been really adversely impacted by ecocide through dangerous industrial activity. And to see not just the ecological ecocide – the destruction of the land – but also the cultural ecocide,” she says.

“You see the breakdown of com-munities as a result of what’s happening: the pollution, the water they can’t drink, the illness, the escalating cancer rates, and the fact a lot of the children are committing suicide, taking drugs. This story is repeated in many places right across the world.”

The Athabasca Sands are deposits of bitumen that spread for 141,000 sq km, centred around the oil town of Fort McMurray. “It’s the size of England and Wales – it’s huge,” says Higgins. “When you see it, you see the enormity of the destruction. Occasionally there have been points when I’ve thought, ‘How on earth am I going to stop this?’ But the thing that keeps me going is that, morally, I couldn’t stand back and ignore this. It’s too important.”

She clings to a piece of advice bestowed on her by an indigenous leader. “He said, ‘Only when we give this a name can the healing begin.’ And in a way that’s what this is about. It’s about facing up to what’s happening and saying, ‘OK, it has a name, it’s ecocide, we need to stop this now.’”

So far, so ambitious. But creating an international law? Isn’t that kind of complicated? “Believe it or not, this is easier to do on an international level than a national level,” she says. “Trying to get a law like this in place in Britain would be almost impossible. “As a lawyer, I would advise my government not to do it because it would lead to economic collapse. Virtually every company listed on our stock exchange that commits corporate ecocide would just de-register and go and list themselves in another country, and it would continue, business as usual.

“This is about creating a level playing field across the world. And the beauty is it is not about creating a whole new statute; it is simply about creating an amendment to an existing one. I think there are 118 signatories to the Rome Statute and a two-thirds majority is all that’s required, which is basically 80-odd people in the world. One lawyer standing up on a podium ain’t going to change the world. But 80-odd people can make this an international crime.”

Next stop: Rio. But she admits, “I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know who will speak out. All I’ve been doing is trying to convince people to do just that. If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just keep on pushing.”

It’s hardly surprising, really. Among her many plaudits, she has been called one of the top unreasonable people in the world. It’s a title she takes great pride in. “To be unreasonable is to stand up and say, ‘No, I refuse to accept this norm.’ Just because it’s the norm doesn’t make it right. And sometimes standing up for justice means standing up when nobody else will.”

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Of course, there will always be those who deny climate change is even happening; who insist the planet can look after itself. But she insists, “The law I’m proposing, it’s irrelevant whether or not you believe in climate change. What I’m looking at are the facts and the evidence of the here and now; of the damage and destruction. You can google it on Google Earth and you can see that. You can quantify it.”

So the pressure is on. But she’s confident a law could be put in place to halt the damage before it escalates even further. A review conference would be held by the beginning of next year at the latest. There would then be a five-year transition period, making the law fully operational by 2020. “I would like to think I’m very close to making this happen, but actually it’s probably something I’ll only know in retrospect,” she says.

“Twenty six nations asked me to put in place a concept paper. Last month I took it in to every single government. But when a government decides they’re going to support it, I’ll hear it publicly – just like everyone else.

Scotland is miles ahead of England,” she adds. “There’s a dialogue happening. There has been a commitment not to advance with nuclear. The government has committed to reducing carbon emissions. The British government hasn’t committed to anything; there is no policy.”

But she’s determined not to turn this into a blame game. “We need to do this without pointing fingers and saying, ‘You evil-doers, you have to stop.’ A lot of these people working in these industries are caught in a system that hasn’t linked to the consequences. And, actually, law has played its part in that. It is the law to put profits first, and that is the law in virtually every country – except for, I think, Bhutan, which puts happiness over and above profits. Our legal duty as a CEO or director is to maximise profits for our shareholders.

“That actually creates a moral conundrum for a lot of people. When I was working in corporate law, I’d be representing trans-national corporations in court, both employers and employees, and you would be surprised how everyone thought it was OK to make lots of money out of mass damage and destruction; people I get on with; good people, intelligent people. The law has made it that way. You sit there and say, ‘I don’t feel good about destroying the earth the way we are,’ and you’ll get a CEO saying, ‘Well, you might not feel too good about it but we have a legal duty to maximise our profits. Stuff your morals.’

“By placing an international law over and above our national legal duty, you can supercede that. My ideal world is that we don’t have any prosecutions for this; that we create a law that is a think-before-you-act provision. I’m not interested in closing down corporations. I want the problem to become the solution. I want them to have the legislative framework so they can go and invest, and instead of being a dirty energy company they become a clean energy company.”

The law of ecocide will differ from the current ‘catch-me-if-you-can’ fines in that it will be attached to a human being rather than a faceless corporation. “It’s absolutely pointless trying to put a corporation – which is just a piece of paper at the end of the day – in prison. It’s human beings that commit crimes. This is something that has been recognised since the Nuremberg war trials. It wasn’t necessarily the person who was closing the gates at the internment camps who was in a position of responsibility but someone in an office in a completely different place, and it was that person who needed to be prosecuted first and foremost.”

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Talking of personal accountability, Higgins must have a pretty hefty carbon footprint, what with all those international flights. “There’s an awful lot of dialogue that says, ‘Oh, everyone has responsibility, we all drive cars, we all use energy.’ I’m all up for having clean energy coming into my house. I’m all up for having a car that’s running on solar or something else that isn’t damaging the environment. But it’s just not possible. Yes, we have Smart cars, but that’s not going to get me up to see my mother in Scotland. There is no investment, there is no legislative framework to force these companies to reinvent the wheel cleanly.

“I’ve just come back from Canada, and obviously I didn’t swim there. But there’s good purpose in me getting out there and speaking about this. For me, this is a legacy issue. What do we put in place so that we have a better world for future generations? And not just for the future; I want to see this play out in my life, for my generation. I want to be travelling in far more benign ways. I’m very excited about what potential new technologies there could be. There are companies that want to be able to invest and move into clean energy solutions but can’t because they are financially hamstrung and they would be failing in their duty to maximise their profits.”

Yes, she brushes her teeth with paraben-free toothpaste and admits to being “fairly fanatical” about using green products on her skin and in her life. But she also admits to having the occasional lapse. Nobody’s perfect. “Haagen Daz,” she sighs, “nothing tastes as good as their vanilla ice-cream.”

When she dreams, she says, she dreams of soaring like a bird on the thermals. “I had a taste of it when I went I was ski-paragliding in Switzerland a few years ago, when staying at a friend’s eco-camp. I’ll never forget that moment of skiing off a cliff, strapped to my instructor, and suddenly soaring. Everything was so silent — it was as if time had slowed down, and I savoured every second of it.”

Back on solid ground, she believes there is a remarkable momentum around her campaign. “It’s of its time. This is about human rights as well as nature. It’s about peace. We’re looking at a century of resource wars if we continue the way we are. That’s the beauty of the law of ecocide: it’s a disrupter. The internet was a disrupter technology. It completely changed the way we view life. A law of ecocide is a disrupter law. It will literally break a cycle of damage and destruction that is escalating out of control.”

She likens it to the abolition of slavery. “Two hundred years ago, the industry howled against the abolition of slavery and said, ‘You can’t do that, it’s a necessity, the public demand it, it will lead to economic collapse if you get rid of it.’ Well, it didn’t. None of those companies went under because it was managed. They were financially assisted and cushioned while they transitioned into other business. And this is what it’s about. It’s a short-term payout for a very long-term gain.

“When William Wilberforce first started fighting for the abolition of slavery he always argued not from the economic argument but the moral argument. The moral imperative, he said, trumps the economic imperative. His argument was that, morally, this is wrong and it has to stop; we can work out what to do next.

“It’s the same with the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was very adamant not to argue that blacks should have equality with whites on the basis of what they get paid. Morally, it was wrong. We ended apartheid and South Africa didn’t collapse.

“It’s a matter of when, not if,” she says. “I just want it to be sooner rather than later.” n

Find out more about the campaign against ecocide at

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