William Wilberforce is popularly credited with the abolition of the slave trade. However, the campaigners — far ahead of their time in their methods — had recognized the need for a major business figure to stand beside them and declare his (it was two centuries ago) support. That man was Charles Grant, chairman of the East India Company, which then controlled over half of world trade.
British lawyer Polly Higgins often draws parallels between the campaign to outlaw slavery and her initiative — to abolish ecocide — the destruction of the natural world. Think poisoning a river, tropical deforestation or the havoc wreaked by climate change. The comparison is not original, but it is valid, concerning the protection of powerful business interests, the damage that they cause, but often do not see and the prevailing ideology that some people can have dominion over others or their environment without consequences.
Higgins’ solution is also as simple as the outright outlawing of slavery: The campaign wants environmental destruction to be declared illegal by making it a fifth crime against peace in the International Criminal Court (ICC).
If this sounds implausible, it is arguably easier than the current approach to climate change: attempting to get 194 nations to agree targets to re-engineer their economies and cut consumption, and then keep their promises. Instead, Higgins is asking world leaders to open an amendment to the 1968 Rome Statute (the treaty that established the court) until it has the required two-thirds of the statute’s signatories (currently about 100) to become law. Curiously, to avoid mass chemical warfare, governments have in effect outlawed ecocide in war, but not in peacetime.
To get there, Higgins needs to borrow one more detail from the slavery story: to find a modern Charles Grant willing to stand up among his or her business peers and urge them to support the abolition of ecocide. So who might that be?
It can be argued there are already promising candidates among the titans of our corporate world. Microsoft founder Bill Gates — the world’s second-richest man, according to Forbes magazine — and his wife, Melinda, have become almost as well known for their philanthropy as his software. Since 1994, they have spent more than US$26 billion.
Their foundation concentrates on development and health, but in so doing directly deals with environmental problems from poor soils to polluted water; its Web site states: “Climate change is a major issue facing all of us.”
Next on the Forbes list, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and chief executive Warren Buffett promised to give away 99 percent of his billions to good causes. Buffett has consistently pre-empted economic and social changes, responding to public pressure by rejecting new coal-fired power stations.
However, as important is his apparent appetite for clean solutions to politically awkward problems; he recently told CNBC news: “I could end the [budget] deficit in five minutes. You just pass a law that says anytime there is a deficit of more than 3 percent of GDP, all sitting members of [US] Congress are ineligible for re-election.”
Perhaps more surprisingly, another contender could be Nestle chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, who has been one of the most high-profile campaigners for introducing higher water charges — recognizing that though this will add cost to his food and drink behemoth, for both moral and economic reasons the company will suffer far more if ordinary people are left in drought by its activities.