Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Against Ecocide"
Brian G. Henning
I read with great interest Femke Wijdekop’s essay calling for ecocide to be codified as a fifth crime against peace. In that I am a philosopher and not a legal scholar, I am primarily interested in the ethical implications of her thesis.
I was very happy to see reference to and defense of an ecocentric framework that recognizes the intrinsic value of and direct duties owed to the non-human world. Our anthropocentric commitments run so deep that we often reenact them even as we attempt to overcome their implications. As the philosopher Eileen Crist has noted, the Anthropocene discourse is an instance of this.1 (For more on this and also on Thomas Berry, mentioned below, see my forthcoming essay, “From the Anthropocene to the Ecozoic: Philosophy and Global Climate Change,” which will appear in Midwest Studies in Philosophy.) Similarly, definitions of sustainability, such as that in the 1987 Brundtland Commission, are often at best forms of intergenerational anthropocentrism, recognizing only the value of present and future humans.2 As Wijdekop rightly notes, “In an ecocentric framework, it is not enough to integrate the interests of future generations in lawmaking; the interests of nature must also be integrated to do justice to our interconnection with and dependence on the natural world.”
As many scholars have noted, the root of our ecocidal impulse is Western modernity’s delusory worldview, the key means by which our species has convinced itself that it is outside of and above the natural world. Aldo Leopold—arguably the originator of modern ecocentrism—presciently noted in the 1930s that we must shed this arrogant and self-destructive conceit. It is, he notes, an “evolutionary possibility and ecological necessity” that we come to recognize that we are not conquerors of the land; we are a part of, not apart from the wider community of life.3 Accordingly, an ecocentric moral framework contends that the baseline of morality is forms of living compatible with the flourishing of the whole community of life. (It is important to note that, as with every field, there are important differences between various versions of ecocentrism. For instance, Arne Naess’s ecological egalitarian Deep Ecology is quite different than Holmes Rolston’s hierarchical ecocentrism.4) What does this mean for Wijdekop’s proposal to add ecocide to the Rome Statute of the ICC?
As the great cultural historian Thomas Berry puts it, “What is needed is a governance and a jurisprudence founded in the supremacy of the already existing Earth governance of the planet as a single, yet differentiated, community. An interspecies jurisprudence is needed. The primary community is not the human community, it is the Earth community. Our primary obligations and allegiances are to this larger community.”5 There are real problems with the ICC specifically and with contemporary international jurisprudence broadly. Adding ecocide to the Rome Statute will not be nearly enough, but it is a real and meaningful step in the right direction within the systems we’ve created.
1. Eileen Crist, “On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature” Environmental Humanities 3 (2013): 129–147, http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.7.pdf.
2. The Brundtland Commission defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” See http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf.
3. Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1949).
4. A definitive statement of the principles of Deep Ecology developed by Naess can be found in Bill Devall and George Sessions, Deep Ecology: Living as If Nature Mattered (Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith 1985). For Rolston’s hierarchical ecocentrism, see Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).
5. Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint 2015), 20.