Fashion designer pushes for signatures on a petition to make harming the environment a punishable crime.
The fashion designer Vivienne Westwood has urged people to sign up to a petition that could bring in a new European law to hold businesses and individuals responsible for environmental destruction, such as oil spills and industrial pollution.
There are only a few days left to gather a total of 1m signatures needed to trigger a formal EU debate on “ecocide”, as Westwood terms the crime that would be created as a result of such a law, as the online petition will close on 21 January. The petition has been opened under the EU rules that force legislators to consider new laws if at least a million EU citizens request it. So far, about 100,000 people have signed.
Although companies and individuals can be held responsible for a variety of environmental harms – from massive international incidents such as the Gulf oil spill, for which BP was held liable for tens of billions in compensation, down to small-scale crimes such as illegal waste disposal, for which individual business owners can receive thousands of pounds in fines – many incidents still do not result in compensation or prosecution, and few executives are ever threatened with prison terms as a result of their failures.
Westwood argues that some companies simply build the risk of being fined into their business models, because the profits outweigh the costs. She wants business executives to be personally liable and to face the possibility of jail time as well as financial penalties, in order to provide a strong disincentive to take risks that could result in environmental damage.
She said: “Our financial rulers and the politicians who help them are playing a giant game of Monopoly with the world’s finite resources. But you can’t play Monopoly when everybody’s dead.”
The petition calls on the European commission “to adopt legislation to prohibit, prevent and pre-empt ecocide – the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems”. It further asks that “natural and legal persons” – that is individuals and companies – should be held responsible for committing ecocide, including companies based in the EU that operate in other territories. This would, for example, mean that instances of pollution such as oil spills abroad, or the dumping of toxic waste in the developing world, by European companies would be counted as crimes under any such act.
The draft directive that the campaign has drawn up includes a broad definition of ecocide, as the “extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants has been severely diminished; and or peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of another territory has been severely diminished.”
This could be held to encompass climate change, making companies with high emissions liable, and Westwood suggested that it could even apply to activities such as fracking, which she is strongly against.
Such a broadly sweeping definition is unlikely to make it unscathed into European law, but the campaigners believe that even forcing the European legislative bodies to consider it would be an important victory.
Prisca Merz, director of the End Ecocide in Europe campaign, said: “With this law, we want to shift [people’s] consciousness. By making their destruction a crime, we recognise the intrinsic value of ecosystems for human and non-human life on earth.”