Words: Elaine Quinn (December 2017)
Image Credits: Polly Higgins; Stop Ecocide; Mary Bettini Blank (Pixabay); Edgar Winkler (Pixabay)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

[*On Easter Sunday, 21 April, news was shared that Polly Higgins had passed away peacefully with her husband and close friends beside her.]

Polly Higgins, internationally renowned Earth Lawyer, began her career as a lawyer in London (called to the Bar 1998) where she was a barrister specialising in corporate and employment law. Her training began firstly in the criminal courts, and subsequently expanding into a civil law practise. It was only after she asked herself “how do we create a legal duty of care for the Earth?” that Polly turned her attentions full-time to examine what law is required. Forsaking her successful court work in order to defend one client, the Earth, Polly began the process of examining existing law to determine how to best advance a legal precept to protect the Earth.

Building on her professional experience in court and her legal rigour, in 2010 she presented to the United Nations her proposal for ecocide to become an international crime, to protect the Earth from ecological and climate ecocide (ecosystem loss or damage caused by corporate and/or State senior officials).

Mission Lifeforce (now Stop Ecocide) is the campaign Polly co-launched in late 2017 in order to launch ecocide crime into the wider public domain. In an unprecedented step, an Earth Protectors Trust Fund was created.  The fund provides for representation at the annual Assembly of the International Criminal Court for Small Island Developing States and their delegates costs. (From Polly Higgins’ website)

Last month, in March 2019, Polly Higgins was diagnosed, at the age of 50, with an aggressive cancer that had spread through much of her body. The doctors told her she had six weeks to live. In an article published in The Guardian newspaper on 28 March last, Polly is quoted as saying: “If this is my time to go my legal team will continue undeterred. But there are millions who care so much and feel so powerless about the future, and I would love to see them begin to understand the power of this one, simple law to protect the Earth – to realise it’s possible, even straightforward. I wish I could live to see a million Earth Protectors standing for it – because I believe they will.” On Easter Sunday, 21 April, news was shared that Polly Higgins had passed away peacefully with her husband and close friends beside her.

To declare yourself an Earth Protector and to help make Ecocide Law a certainty, visit the Stop Ecocide website here.

In December 2017, I had the wonderful experience of meeting, and interviewing, Polly Higgins at the Mission Lifeforce “heartquarters” in Stroud, UK – an occasion I won’t ever forget.

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Mission Lifeforce has recently launched (Dec 2017). I would love to know more about what it is?

We have done something that is really unprecedented. In effect, we are going beyond a petition, beyond crowd-funding and beyond just the signing of a legal document, to enable people right across the world, wherever they are, to sign up and become legal trustees of the Earth.

You can sign this document but the beauty is that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world. It is a trust fund document so you can put in some funds – anything from five euros upwards – and that money will be used to help the small island developing states who have the political will to take Ecocide Law forward to become an international crime in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

It does more than this however. The document has been ‘apostilled’ (i.e. verified or legalised) in virtually every legal jurisdiction. This means that if activists who are standing up and speaking out to protect their patch of the planet from Ecocide (whether it is fracking, deforestation, pipelines, mining etc.) end up being charged or prosecuted in their capacity as earth protector, they can then take this document into a Court of Law and seek to rely on it.

That is very important because, in effect, this document is giving protection to the earth protectors themselves. It is giving them an opportunity to explain what this Ecocide is, what this serious harm is, and why they are actually standing up to prevent it from occurring. It then gives them the opportunity to give the evidence so a Court of Law can evaluate whether or not there has been a serious harm. If that judge or jury have a conscience, they have the opportunity to acquit what we are calling ‘Conscientious Protectors’. (You will have heard of ‘Conscientious Objectors’ during war-times – well this is a ‘Conscientious Protectors’ defence that we will use before a Court of Law).

It is therefore a very powerful document on a number of fronts. What really gives it its power is that the more people that sign up to it, the more weight it will carry. The Court cannot ignore this when an activist is standing in front of it. Because it has been legalised, it carries legal weight.

Of course, if that activist can come forward and say there are thousands – or hundreds of thousands -of people that have signed up, then that Court is going to accord it even more weight. So, this is a very, very powerful thing that can continue on until essentially the job is done. We are hoping that that will only be a matter of three years or so.


It seems you have identified the block to bringing this Law of Ecocide into effect and it relates to these smaller, more vulnerable states that have not been able to bring their voices to the table?

Exactly. This is a huge problem because small island, developing states do not always have the finance to take forward their concerns in the correct forum.

When you are talking about climate change, what you are really talking about is state and corporate responsibility to stop dangerous industrial activity that is exacerbating climate change. That is an international criminality and justice issue. If you are dealing with justice then it needs to be taken into the Assembly of State Parties. The Assembly of State Parties is the annual meeting of the signatory parties to the governing document of the ICC, the Rome Statute. That is where we are seeking an amendment for Ecocide to become an international crime.

Your funds, as a trustee, are ring-fenced to pay for specific things for these small island states like travel, accomodation, top legal representation, for their delegates to attend these international meetings so that Ecocide Law can be taken forward.


You rely very much on intuition and trust which is very different from the way lawyers usually operate. I’d love to hear you talk about that.

Well, as you can see, this is our office. This is really our ‘heart-quarters’. It is a place we really enjoy, we don’t even see it as work, it is serious play. But it is very informed, and it is informed on the legal front as well. What we are dealing with here is the law that we want. What we want to move forward with rather than what is.

All the time we are looking to the future of what it is that is required here. It is not a compromise position that we take. What we’re doing is standing up and seeking to align human law with higher law.

We were working on a premise of a fundamental principle of: “First do no harm” and we realised – this does not just apply to the laws that we create to protect, it applies to our own inner self-governance and our community governance aswell.

How do we operate together? What is it that we are doing within ourselves that is sabotaging what we are doing? What are our inner ecocides? What are the patterns of harm that prevent us from moving on? It can be something as simple as saying: “Oh, but I can’t do that” or “I’m not good enough” or “That will never work”. You know, the inner critic that can actually stop us from moving ahead with great freedom to be unfettered in our creativity.

And, as a workplace, do you engage in contemplative practice together or are there practices that you do together?

We do. We all have slightly different practices which is really interesting. We are all very consciously engaging with a way of doing things by asking critical questions – questions that we do not know the answer to.

My question that I started with was: “How do we create a legal duty of care for the Earth?” And that started eleven years ago. It was a very important question which governed how we moved forward with this.

So, ask questions that you don’t know the answer to.

Also, we often ask, before we go ahead with something: “Is this for the best?” and that is in the context of: “Is this for the best in the wider scheme of things?” without even understanding what that wider scheme of things might be sometimes.

It is sometimes a felt response. What that means is that you are know longer self-absorbed and driving it from the sense of driving your own agenda forward [I don’t usually tend to use the word ego].

This is about how we are in service to something greater than the self and this is very important to us. We do see ourselves as being in service. It has been very helpful to ask: “Is this for the best in the wider scheme of things?”, especially at moments of crisis like when we have no finance or when something seems to be going terribly wrong. Sometimes the answer is yes. When it seems on the face of it that something does not seem to be right but internally there is a knowing that it is fine, this is where we are meant to be operating at the moment, it is a very key question that we come back to again and again and again.


It is a deeper listening?

Yes, and an embodied response. You can feel when it is a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. In truth, it is about how we tap into our own ‘innate’ – our ability to discern – and we all have that. We do use this but possibly not on a conscious level on a day-to-day basis. An obvious example is when you choose your partner in life. At some level, you will know that it is for the best because you can feel that strong sense of love and happiness that comes with being with the person you love. That’s a knowingness that is there. It is very important to be able to feel and discern what is for the best there.

Likewise, the contrary, to be in an abusive relationship and to know that that is not for the best. It is the conscious intent however. If you can discern that, you can make a conscious choice as to whether or not it is best to stay or to go. Do I choose to remain within this or do I choose to let go? And it may well be that one of those patterns of harm – an inner Ecocide – is keeping you stuck in an abusive relationship. When you make the choice to let go, you break that pattern and choose to move forward. It is a very powerful question to ask at various junctures in our lives as we move forward both personally and collectively and professionally.

For law, and legal education, do you have a sense of how it might change or where it is going?

I think we are absolutely ripe for change here. When I first started advocating for Earth Rights and Ecocide Law, I had lawyer friends saying: “Polly, this is ridiculous, you’re crazy. You know the Earth doesn’t have the right to life. How can you criminalise Ecocide?”

Now I have so many lawyers that really support this. In a way, this is progressive, it is an expansion. Twenty or thirty years ago, environmental law as a subject area was tiny and marginal. No-one paid any attention to it. Now though, we are at the stage where we recognise that it has not gone far enough. It has got its deficiencies, it is limited in its remit and, in fact, it is expanding out.

It is now no longer about environmental law being in a pocket over there. Now we are also looking at ecological law, it is a far more holistic approach. It is an understanding, not just about it being a rights issue but, about it being a duties and responsibilities issue individually and collectively, at state level, at corporate level. Where do we draw the line? Where do we say enough, no more? That is where we create the crime. That is where we criminalise that dangerous industrial activity, the decisions, the individuals who make the decisions.

So, there is a progression here. In a way, we are at the front line of a huge wave of change happening, a tsunami. The global warming that is happening is the global warming of our hearts. I see this very much in the legal profession. The most progressive lawyers in this arena are very proactively engaging in ecological law and that is very exciting. We are seeing this right across the world now. So, something is happening here. There is a convergence – that unlikely alliance that happens at times of great change, where people from the most unusual backgrounds start converging.

You do not have to be a lawyer to get this. The principles themselves are, in their essence, very simple. Do we continue causing serious harm, or do we stop that and enable significant harmony? From harm to harmony. You know it is like two different ends of the spectrum and, at the moment, the world of Trump is very much in the serious harm end but then there are lawyers advocating at the other end. Not just lawyers but activists, earth protectors, and people from many walks of life saying: “No – No, this is about significant harmony. How do we get there? What is required here? And what are our terms of governance to get there?”

This is really about how we realign law? Where laws are protecting serious harm – that does not work. Law is a tool at the end of the day. So, if it is not fit for purpose anymore then yes, we have to uproot it, we have to turn it upside down. It is like the scales of justice have been overturned. Let’s turn it back up the proper way and put in place the proper justice that is missing here.

I have heard you say that we may not see the results of our work in our own lifetime but that this is no reason not to start as others will continue the work we have started.

This is legacy work. What do I choose to do in this lifetime that people will carry on doing for many generations to come? I know in my heart of hearts that what I am doing – and not just me, hundreds of thousands of us, Earth Protectors – will be a huge collective legacy for future generations and it is very exciting to be part of that. To get that ball rolling and to allow others to carry it forward. Our work will continue after us. Of course the steps we choose to put in place in our lives always leave ripples that enter into other people’s lives in ways that we don’t even know. How we choose to engage with life is very, very important.

‘Cloud Atlas’ is a wonderful film. It looks at six different lives and how the ripples knock through history. For instance, the issue of slavery and the response from one person standing up. William Wilberforce stood up and spoke out on behalf of the abolition of slavery two hundred years ago and it led eventually to race discrimination legislation not just in this country but in other countries aswell. That has had huge ripples throughout the annals of time.


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