Polly’s Law: a duty of care for the Earth

‘If you care, you can move mountains.’ These were the words of the extraordinary Polly Higgins, who devoted her life to creating a law to criminalise ecological damage, a law to protect the Earth. Polly died on Easter Sunday, taken suddenly by cancer during an extraordinary week in climate history. Across central London and several cities across the world, tens of thousands were taking part in non-violent acts of civil disobedience under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion; student leader of the School Strike for Climate movement got all the political parties at Westminster to sit down together and discuss the climate crisis; and it was Earth Day, celebrated by a billion people worldwide. It was also the day that the Easter Sunday bells of Notre Dame were silent for the first time in 800 years, the day that about 250 people were killed by suicide bombs up and down Sri Lan

Polly Higgins, the Earth’s lawyer

Yes, these are crazy times and sometimes it seems as though the whole world has gone mad. But something else is happening too, something remarkable and precious. We are remembering something wonderful that is deep within us, something we had thought we had lost. We glimpsed it as we silently watched the great spire of Notre Dame burn, the shock plunging us into our hearts. The connection was there for a brief and precious moment – before the babble and the voices started all over again, drowning it out. Nevertheless, it is undeniable. We are collectively waking up, starting to step out of our comfort zones and realise that we are here for the biggest show on Earth. The voices are many, the songs varied but slowly they are harmonising into one refrain. Will humanity, or will humanity not turn the evolutionary corner from treating our planet as a commodity to be bought and sold, to collectively stepping into our roles as guardians and protectors of the fragile and delicate ecosystem on which are lives also depend?

The message is clear and simple, scientists, activists and reformers have been saying it for years. Greenpeace, Noam Chomsky, Secretary-Generals of the UN, the IPCC all tell us that we are facing climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and ecological collapse if we do not limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – now. Their voices were like cries in the wilderness, or if we heard them we chose not to listen. It seems that it would take a sixteen year-old student to do that. ‘We are facing an existential crisis,’ says Greta Thunberg. ‘We must act now to create a shared vision of change, to create a world that is fit for future generations.’ After her meeting with politicians in the House of Commons last week, Michael Gove echoed her demands. ‘The time to act is now, he said. Greta, you have been heard.’

Iceberg’s calving in Iceland (author’s photo)

Indeed it is now imperative we not only hear, but act. As our human population has increased, so has our impact on the natural world. The burning of fossil fuels to power, heat and light our world is the main source of CO2 emissions, but our use of plastics, pesticides and technology is causing pollution and plunder on unprecedented levels. Our impact on biodiversity is causing a mass extinction, our use of plastics is giving rise to a whole new layer in the geological record named the Anthropocene. But it is not too late, there are some simple solutions. We clearly need to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewables, we must manage and protect our oceans, reduce meat and plastic consumption, plant more trees and stop cutting them down to plant palm oil or make cattle farms. To rewild the wild.

The good news is that we have all the information we need, and there are some frameworks in place. Under the Paris Agreement, we are committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, to reach net zero by 2050. According to the IPCC, we have all the tools in our tool box to successfully limit climate change to 1.5 degrees.  We don’t need science to invent a magic machine to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, we can’t buy our way out of it, and we certainly shouldn’t intervene with drastic measures that would upset the delicate homeostasis of the Earth.

But we do need to make different lifestyle choices, and this means changes to our behavioural patterns. This is the rub, what we are resisting. Climate change and consciousness change are linked. We cannot do one without the other, and when we do one the other will happen automatically. And it is already happening, slowly but surely, like a seed planted in the ground, it has taken root and just needs more care and attention to make it grow into the shoot – like the one in the ‘Banksy’ picture. We are waking up to the fact that it is ultimately the future of our own species that is at stake. The Earth will survive, we might not.

We need people who are aligned to a cause, we need Greenpeace activists to highlight our follies, David Attenborough to tell us to halt biodiversity loss and re-wild the wild, Greta to get school children to care about their future, Extinction Rebellion activists demanding that we must act now. And most of all, we need a law to protect the Earth, for we must align our heads with our hearts if we are to change our consciousness.

That is what Polly dedicated her life to. To bring about a law at both national and international level to hold to account perpetrators of long-term severe damage to the environment. In her words, she was ‘realigning human law with natural law to take it back to the sacred trust that we all hold in our hearts.’ It’s not just ‘big corporations’ that need to clean up their act, though it is clear that this needs to happen, it’s down to each one of us too. How we take responsibility for ourselves on a microlevel is important, as this is what ripples out. Each one of us has a duty of care to the planet we call home, to protect the natural world, to protect life. And we need to expand this duty of care to a collective one. Polly has left us a framework to do this, she assures us that it is possible, even straightforward. She has now passed the baton, to Jojo Mehta and the rest of the ‘Ecocide: Change the Laws’ team, and to all of us too. She showed us what is possible when we step out of our comfort zones, she is daring us to be great. And she is assuring us that together, we can make it happen.

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