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We need an international environmental criminal court now
“Confraternity of the living sun, make the embers of financial and industrial internationalism pale upon the hearth of the earth.”
– DH Lawrence
“The major problems in the world are the result of the differences between how nature works and the way people think.”
– Gregory Bateson
It was not a lawyer or economist who uttered those words about the “financial and industrial internationalism” but a poet and a prophet generations ahead of his time. The world convulses and fires sear across the face of the Earth. I speak not as a PhD economist or lawyer from Harvard or Oxford, for Mother Nature does not give awards or accolades. Her wisdom is of an incomparable, multimillennial mind we have lost touch with on a grand scale. I write these words because we have this year in which to start reversing the ways of our cannibalistic species or we lose the biosphere.
We have already lost the first 20 percent of the 21 st century just as we have lost almost 20 percent of the rainforest in South America. It may go into dieback and become a savanna. To this end, in memory of Polly Higgins — who fought to make ecocide a part of the human conversation — to answer Prince William’s Earthshot challenge, to underscore what the International Bar Association has long recommended, it is time humanity create an International Environmental Criminal Court, representing all continents, to enforce environmental protection across borders, and to minimize damage to what remains of our only life support system. Before it is too late.
My son Lysander when he was 8 years old looked at the full moon rising over the Atlantic and said, “We have landed on the moon but we haven’t landed on Earth yet.” This year for the third time in a decade we were reminded of the extravagant fragility of the cryosphere in Greenland spilling 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean, an event that will upturn civilization as we know it. It seems especially relevant that a young boy was able to recognize the aberrant behavior of the adult world given that teenagers are leading the way with global activism and a universal declaration for saving the planet. The children’s crusade in 1212 failed. Today’s crusade cannot. We have become “cosmic outlaws” in the words of Henry Beston. The Law of Nature and Nature’s God was written into the Declaration of Independence abetted by the elders of the Iroquois Confederacy. What have we done with Nature since this country’s inception, since the Enlightenment?
I was told 20 years ago by Southwest native elders that 2020 is the point of no return. How prophetic those words seem today. Do we still have time for waking up to the realities of our new geologic era? Tipping points in the world’s rainforests, the Arctic and oceans are being reached yearly. Witness the Amazon fires. Witness the apocalypse of Australia now. Witness the denialism of its conservative leaders. What will there be left of Australia by the end of the summer, never mind the end of the decade? The coal robber barons have hijacked an entire continent. We know the science; we have exulted in numbers for generations. The experts have spoken. The James Hansons who warned us about carbon dioxide emissions screamed the alarm decades ago.
The world has become asphyxiated with numbers. Numbers of voters disqualified from voting in the U.S. The fascination with Gross Domestic Product. Earnings and mind-numbing profits on Wall Street. Astronomical military expenditures. It is what DH Lawrence prophetically called “industrial internationalism.” One thing is certain: We have one planet and going to the moon again or Mars will not solve our terrestrial tribulations. Globalization as Jerry Mander warned in his tome The Case Against the Global Economy, has wreaked havoc on the world order. Demonstrations are weekly erupting like firecrackers. It seems that EF Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” was forgotten in the storm of economic profits that supported the 1 percent. And today the bedrock of existence trembles.
I helped alert the world to the elephant slaughter about 10 years ago. At first, no one in the media cared. I tried every major magazine to no avail and finally after five months of unrelenting concern convinced Vanity Fair to send Alex Shoumatoff to Africa. The result was “Agony and Ivory,” a blistering landmark article on the elephant’s plight across an entire continent. It was perhaps the greatest piece of investigative journalism on a single species ever. It galvanized the conservation world and warned of an “extinction vortex.” And indeed, despite the outrage and international efforts we still lost a third of Africa’s elephants and the fight is not yet over. But the world mobilized. China broke down its internal ivory market. Today, barely a decade later, it is every living being on Earth that is menaced. Insects, birds, ocean plankton are diminishing, and the social fabric of humanity is fraying.
The idea of an environmental court is not novel, but its implementation would be. We need sanctions, a moral compass and immediate legal council to bear on countries’ actions to protect what is left of the planet. The Amazon does not belong to just Brazil, just as the Arctic’s icecap does not belong to the United States.
Is it too much to ask the world to create an International Environmental Criminal Court that would sanction countries who allow environmental activists to be killed by the dozens from the Philippines to Mexico? Can we as a species prevent total ecocide and ensure restrictions on extractive and waste industries, oversee adhering to the cop21 Paris Climate agreement and generally mandate the preservation and hopefully regeneration of the world’s biodiversity? We have fought against imperialism, slavery and colonialism, although leftovers from all those have helped create the world as we know it. But the overarching, triumphal issue of our time is the life force of the planet. This decade could be the synthesis of the previous two if we manage to transcend our differences. We still operate with a Stone Age mind, acting with 21st century technology. The deadliest combination possible. What does this portend? Can we allow humanity to dredge rare earth minerals in the oceans? Can the Arctic be completely devastated by the oil industry? It is time a Global Green Deal be implemented. Antarctica needs to be off limits to all mining interests. The IECC would make sure to that. Palm oil extraction that is scouring the forests of the world, and now Africa needs to become a thing of the past.
I remember the words of the native Hopi, Dine and Apache elders from the Southwest who warned us of this time 20 years ago. Few in the dominant society listened to them. One grandmother from San Ildefonso told me, “We are living on borrowed time.” We have become overly cerebral and schizophrenic as a species. Need has been co-opted by systemic greed as EF Schumacher used to remind us.
After being transformed by his epic trip to Africa, Carl Jung came to New Mexico in 1925. It was there that the elder Mountain Lake admonished Jung that the white people thought with their head. Jung surprised, wondered what they should think with. The heart, the elder answered. It is the same kind of response an elephant researcher told us when she said that saving the Earth will come through poetry and not just science and the intellect. It will come through an emotional response to what needs saving.
An environmental court will have its many layers of complications and complexities that make up legal challenges today. But it cannot fail in humanity’s commitment to life. We do not need more satellite systems in space despite what Elon Musk tells us. That is economics, technology, the old system. Humanity, as Carl Jung would have warned us, must be able to die to one’s ego while letting slavery, apartheid, colonialism and ecocide die as well. It is the biggest challenge our species will ever face. A court for the environment is only a step but it could function as a much-needed brake towards a behavior that threatens life on a global scale. What we have to do is save the oceans, the bees, the forests, indeed what is left of the human soul.
A small continent with prehistoric wonders is going up in flames. An elder in Kakadu, northern Australia, born under a rock escarpment, told us we needed to listen to the trees and the stars, they are talking to us. What would he say today knowing that a continent with the second oldest culture on Earth was ablaze because its leaders did not hold itself accountable to anything but shareholders? That a new coal plant was being planned in Queensland not so far from the Barrier Reef? Australia, whose bird life, koalas and plants mystify us, is in the throes of a global calamity.
When I was in high school, I knew I needed to see the birthplace of humanity in East Africa. Four months in what many city dwellers would call the middle of nowhere were more meaningful and engaging than anything I ever learned amidst the glass towers, computers and steel palladiums of man. It was a harsh paradise but a garden of unimaginable splendor and challenge. When Charles Lindbergh landed in East Africa almost a century ago, he arrived in a plane that had traversed the world and opened up the trajectory of the jet age. Lindbergh, in his autobiography wrote that “many Maasai thought that ‘civilization’ is not progress.” They feel sorry for the white man because he has lost contact with nature. They question our basic values. “You speak of freedom in your country,” a Maasai elder told me, “but we have known freedom far greater than yours.” Bureaucrats, business elite of the world, well intentioned diplomats take heed. We are running out of time. The children of today and children of tomorrow are asking what has mankind done to this unique gem in the universe? This decade is the last in which we can even begin to hope to stabilize what is left of the world.
CCR REPOST from The Hill. Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.