In the fall of 2011, an unusual mock trial (see video below) took place, putting corporate leaders on trial for the crime of “ecocide.” Based on an imagined international law prohibiting the destruction of the natural environment, whether intentional or not, the case returned one verdict of not guilty for the oil spill off the coast of Mexico and two verdicts of guilty for petroleum corporations’ extraction of oil from the Canadian tar sands. The idea of ecocide, however, originated much earlier, in the mid-twentieth century. Scientists and other critics of the United States’ war in Vietnam had grown increasingly concerned about the massive amounts of chemical defoliants sprayed on the South Vietnamese countryside. These concerns led them to a new understanding of environmental degradation: ecocide.
“Yes, I’ve always had a gene for politics,” Yale plant biologist Arthur Galston admitted in a 2002 interview. Galston was recognized as much for protesting the use of Agent Orange, an herbicide used to defoliate jungles during the Vietnam War, as for his scientific endeavors. In the course of his activism, Galston named an idea that still resonates today, one based on a simple premise. Speaking at a Washington conference in February 1970, Galston offered the word ecocide to describe the environmental harm inflicted upon South Vietnam by defoliation and bombing. The idea of genocide, the willful destruction of specific groups of human beings, first appeared in 1948, significantly influenced by the Nuremburg trials and attempts to understand and respond to the Holocaust. While controversial, the term offered an important legal concept that allowed adjudication through international courts and potential redress.
The term “ecological warfare” had begun appearing as early as 1968, but Galston was the first to link the international crime of genocide to a crime committed against nature. Ecocide would be the equivalent term to describe the willful destruction of the natural environment, which could transcend national boundaries and which ultimately harmed humans and wildlife. The idea of ecocide provided a powerful conceptual tool in criticizing the use of chemical agents to destroy South Vietnamese forests. While the United States government claimed that the defoliants were safe for animals and human beings, Galston’s idea of ecocide captured the harm being done to the natural environment, harm that would eventually affect animals and humans as their environment was eradicated.
The idea also allowed scientists to condemn the actions of the US government on scientific grounds rather than simply humanitarian ones. Declaring defoliation to be an act of ecocide contradicted the American stance that the herbicides did not constitute chemical warfare, prohibited since World War I. In an essay first published in January 1970, Galston and his co-authors noted the serious implications of using Agent Orange to destroy the jungle and crops in relative ignorance of its long term effects, or the consequences of massive amounts of chemicals being sprayed. “This environmental warfare has been conducted without any broad examination of the question whether any cause can legally or morally justify the deliberate destruction of the environment of one nation by another.”
One interesting difference between ecocide as it was understood during the Vietnam War and the term as defined in the proposed international legislation appears to be who or what represents the injured party. When Galston and his scientific contemporaries used the word, they identified nature, or the natural ecosystem, as the aggrieved party harmed by human actions. In the international law used as the basis of the mock trial in Great Britain, ecocide occurs when “extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.” In this definition, human beings represent the victims through their loss of “peaceful enjoyment” of the natural environment. So does this mean oil extraction from underneath the Arctic would not be an ecocide? For Galston and his contemporaries, it would be.
 Arthur Galston, “An Accidental Plant Biologist.” Plant Physiology 128 (3): 786-87.
 David Zierler, The Invention of Ecocide: Agent Orange, Vietnam, and the Scientists Who Changed the Way We Think About the Environment (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011), 18-21.
 Robert E. Cook, William Haseltine, Arthur W. Galston, “What Have We Done to Vietnam?” In Ecocide in Indochina: The Ecology of War, edited by Barry Weisberg (San Francisco: Canfield Press, 1970), 94.
 Damian Carrington, “Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog,” 29/09/11, theguardian, http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/sep/29/ecocide-oil-criminal-court, accessed 17 March 2013.
Amy Hay is an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas–Pan American. Her research examines the intersections of health, the environment, and public policy. She was an RCC Fellow in 2012.