The image of Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon Mobil, loomed over the climate strike in New York last Friday afternoon. Rendered in cardboard, 15 feet tall and clutching a bag of fake, bloodied money, the puppet of Woods wore the label “Climate Villain.” It bobbed among the 250,000-strong crowd, joined by cutout versions of BP CEO Bob Dudley and Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden. By the time the puppets were set down in Battery Park, the terminus of the New York protest, the faces of the fossil fuel executives had been daubed with marker-pen devil horns.
As millions of workers and students filled city streets around the world last week, there was no shortage of bold and inventive protest signs. While many expressed broad concerns about the burning planet and an imperiled future, a number, like the CEO puppets, were unambiguous in their antagonism towards the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers. With the stakes of global heating intolerable, and the fanglessness of international climate agreements undeniable, it is little wonder that activists are calling for the major perpetrators of environmental decimation to be seen as guilty parties in mass atrocity, on a par with war crimes and genocide. The demand that ecocide — the decimation of ecosystems, humanity and non-human life — be prosecutable by The International Criminal Court has found renewed force in a climate movement increasingly unafraid to name its enemies.
The push to establish ecocide as an international crime aims to create criminal liability for chief executives and government ministers, while creating a legal duty of care for life on earth. Its strength, however, lies not in the practical or likely ability of The Hague — a profoundly flawed judicial body — to deliver climate justice. The demand that ecocide be recognized as a crime against humanity and non-human life is most powerful as a heuristic: a framework for insisting that environmental destruction has nameable guilty parties, perpetrators of mass atrocity, against whom climate struggle must be waged on numerous fronts.
WHEN IT COMES to narratives about environmental degradation, the greatest lie of all is that people are not responsible. The second greatest lie is that people are equally responsible. Last year, the New York Times Magazine published an entire issue dedicated to one extended essay by novelist Nathaniel Rich. It was framed as a devastating and overdue exposure of how we could have prevented climate catastrophe in the 1980s, given available scientific understanding, but “we” did not. “All the facts were known, and nothing stood in our way,” wrote Rich. “Nothing, that is, except ourselves.” Rich’s story conveniently ignores the ferocious capitalist hierarchies, which decimate natural resources for profit, while state militaries and police forces help quash environmentalist and indigenous resistance — just think of the militarized police assaults and swathes of criminal charges faced by the Water Protectors who took a stand at Standing Rock.
No climate justice will be possible without bringing down the powerful actors standing in the way of cutting emissions and production.
Legal norms and rights can and do take on political life through direct action, community consultation and protest. Even if the court’s signatories resist adopting ecocide as a crime, or as is likely, the court fails to prosecute, let alone convict, the world’s worst climate criminals, we can and must take justice into our own hands. Collective action — like last week’s mass climate strike, like voting for leaders pushing a Green New Deal, like fighting for our lives against capitalism — must be pursued with vigor. This is how we take the fight against ecocide to its perpetrators.