The notion of Ecocide was examined for the first time in 1970 by Barry Weisberg, in his book, Ecocide in Indochina, which dealt with the American intervention in Vietnam from 1964 to 1975. He states that the term Ecocide was used at the Conference on War and National Responsibility, in Washington, D.C., in February of 1970, by Professor Arthur W. Galston of Yale University, when he proposed “a new international agreement to ban Ecocide - the willful destruction of the environment” (Weisberg, 1970: 4). Weisberg emphasized that “the precise origins of this term seem unknown. No doubt, Ecocide originated in the recent concern that chemical warfare in Vietnam required a concept similar to that of Genocide, relating to the theory of war crimes” (Weisberg, 1970: 4).
The neologism is constructed using the words ecosystem and genocide, in order to symbolize the systematic and massive destruction of ecosystems. This term is used in reference to deliberate acts of destruction in a natural environment, as well as all acts, which by their nature may provoke an environmental disaster.
Weisberg analyzed and denounced the American strategy of intensive environmental destruction applied during the Vietnam war. During the course of this conflict, the American army sprayed more than 77 million liters of defoliants (Agent Orange, Agent White, Agent Blue), thus destroying approximately 20,000 km² of forests and cultivable land, and 500,000 hectares of mangroves, in total, almost 20% of the total territory of South Vietnam. Agent Orange used was a herbicide containing dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical substance. In addition to the immediate destruction of the environment, dioxin has long term effects on nature and, 30 years after its introduction, it remains present in the food chain. Immediately following the first contamination, a large part of the fauna was killed, the subsequent collapse of the ecosystem which harbored them could lead to their complete disappearance. Among the most emblematic species were the Irrawaddy fresh water Dolphin, the Saurus crane, the wild Asian Elephant, different species of deer, the Giant Ibis and the White Shouldered Ibis. Other methods of defoliation employed in Vietnam were the leveling of the jungle by bulldozer and Napalm incited forest fires.
From this, we understand that the origins of Ecocide are found in military conflicts. The two World Wars, from Verdun to Hiroshima and the arms race of the XXth century have inflicted serious environmental damage throughout the world. The Vietnam war, the Gulf war (1990-1991), and the intervention of NATO in ex-Yugoslavia (1999) are a few of the most striking examples. The acts of war associated with Ecocide also include the use of arms of mass destruction (nuclear, biological or chemical), attempts to provoke natural disasters (volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or floods), the military use of defoliants and explosives, the leveling of forests, attempts at climate modification and the forced, permanent displacement of species for military objectives.
From a legal standpoint, Ecocide first appeared as a specific crime in the context of the Vietwar, but, even today, it is infrequently cited in any nation’s penal code. Currently, only a few nations who have been confronted with Ecocide have included this crime in their penal codes “punishable by a prison term of 8 to 15 years” (in this case the Ukraine, with reference to Chernobyl).
Since Weisberg’s work, two other researchers have shown particular interest in Ecocide.
Franz Broswimmer, a researcher at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, defined and analyzed Ecocide as a perpetual and auto-destructive war against nature (Broswimmer, 2002). His work is a well documented book on this war which pits mankind against nature.
Broswimmer retraces the history of the relationship between mankind and nature, from the impact of prehistoric societies on the environment to the current destruction of many species. Apart from military interventions, he cites demographic pressure and excessive exploitation of ecosystems as important causes of Ecocide. There is no doubt that the rapid growth of the world population (6.1 billion in 2000, 8 billion in 2025), combined with unsustainable models of consumption, massively increase the pressure on existing ecosystems (intensive farming, urban spread, fracturing of ecosystems, deforestation, and exhaustion of natural resources are the physical manifestations of this demographic pressure).
The same can be said about excessive exploitation of ecosystems, the most famous examples of which are the deforestation of Easter Island and the shrinking of the Aral Sea, both considered, by the author, as Ecocides: at the beginning of the XXIst century, it is apparent that humanity is living in a period of Ecocide characterized by immense ecological changes. Most researchers think that the earth is undergoing one of the most rapid mass extinctions of many species in all of its history (the Sixth Extinction) and consider that this environmental problem is a contemporary ecological disaster to the same extent as climatic changes. Rebelling against the waste provoked by our current economic model, Broswimmer proclaims the necessity for an Ecological Democracy, one where political and economic decisions made will ensure the long term preservation of the natural resources necessary for future generations.
The concept of Ecocide has also been studied by Jared Diamond, physiologist and professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He sees the current dramatic environmental problems as the signs of a future collapse and analyses the causes of the regression of different ancient and current societies (Diamond, 2004). Moreover, considering the different threats societies are confronted to, he proposes ways to react.
When analyzing the collapse of the Mayan civilization, the causes of the twilight of Easter Island and other past societies (the Indians of the south eastern United States, the Vikings of Greenland) and the problems of current troubled societies (Haiti, Rwanda), Diamond advances five major factors to explain their regression or collapse: environmental damage, climatic changes, hostile neighbors, dependence upon commercial partners and the inability of societies to provide appropriate solutions to the problems they face.
According to Diamond, how a society responds to its problems is a determining factor. While even the most evolved and creative societies can face collapse, nevertheless, the process can be impeded. The absence of control over environmental degradation has always played a key role, but each society influences its destiny through the choices it makes. Solutions proposed depend on values held and can change the course of history if they are implemented immediately and by everyone. This is precisely the challenge faced by societies today.
Like Franz Broswimmer, Jared Diamond is counting on public opinion to intelligently influence politicians and industrials through non-governmental organizations and on a Civilian Democracy endowed with an ecological conscience. He cites the fact that with globalization, interdependence of today’s societies is a reality and that solidarity is indispensable to combat the global risks threatening us.
In a more general fashion, Ecocide deals with the relationship between man and nature. Theodore Monod, a French researcher, geologist, botanist and archeologist, worked on this topic. He recognizes that, while prehistoric man was born into nature, man today, on the contrary, is in conflict with nature: “improvements made to tools are in direct relationship to the development of the psyche and thus are made from a more efficient freedom of choice;… with the Neolithic revolution, a new level was reached. From that moment, a new phase began and it still exists, that of divorce and aggression... Man will henceforth intervene with ever increasing efficiency and while pursuing destructive and devastating activities” (Monod, 1991: 78-79).
According to Monod, the question of the relationship between man and the environment, nature and society, is closely related to the necessity to redefine our values. Today, situations of Ecocide have become more and more frequent and should force societies to redefine the attitude of man towards nature: either man accepts to reconcile with nature or he is headed towards grave danger. Without question, this is the heart of the problem. “...Will humanity be able to bring about the upheavals which are necessary by adopting respect for life as the possible fundamental ethic capable of renewing the relationship man has with nature, and by making the transition from the centre of gravity “reason” to the centre of gravity “life”?.... We must hope so, because the alternative is becoming clearer each day, either ethics are reoriented and the battle won in the revolution against the absurd or the definitive victory will go to the inhuman” (Monod, 1991: 139-140).
WEISBERG, Barry, 1970, Ecocide, San Francisco: Canfield Press.
BROSWIMMER, Franz, 2002, Ecocide, A Short History of the Mass Extinction of the Species, London: Pluto Press.
DIAMOND, Jared, 2004, Collapse, how societies choose to fail or succeed?, New York: Penguin Books.
MONOD, Théodore, 1991, Et si l’aventure humaine devait échouer, Paris: Le Livre de Poche.