The Origins of Ecocide

Post by Amy Hay

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.”[3]

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.”[4]  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.

[1] Arthur Galston, “An Accidental Plant Biologist.” Plant Physiology 128 (3): 786-87.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Damian Carrington, “Damian Carrington’s Environment Blog,” 29/09/11, theguardian,, 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.

9 Comments on “The Origins of Ecocide

  1. Hi Amy,

    Delighted to read this post. Ecocide is a key term in my art-forest-politics artful inquiry PhD project taking place in rural Ireland ‘Seeing and tending the forest: beyond ecocide toward deep sustainability’. Polly Higgins work does include extending duty of care beyond the human but perhaps its not that clear in the above video.

    The area of ecojurisprudence is developing in many areas with Galston but also the 1970s book, ‘Shall Trees have Legal standing’ by Christopher Stone (1972). Polly Higgins with her Ted talks/internet campaigns has done fantastic work to bring it to mock trials and to UN level whilst also spearheading more legal research and public campaigns -there are some countries that have some legal frameworks against ecocide/crimes against mother nature (particularly in countries that have another perspective of relating to nature, ie those with strong indigenous cultures). American environmental lawyer Thomas Linzey and the Community Environment Legal Defense Fund are equally extending concept of ecocide in local community law and actions (check out their recent work/ video too – particularly relevant in measures against fracking etc.

    Here in Ireland I am hoping to bring the ecocide concept more into the public domain as I am proposing a motion at our national Green Party convention soon, along the same lines as the UK/Wales Green Party last September. I’m putting forward the motion ‘The Green Party supports the proposition that a crime of ecocide be created in international law, as a crime against nature, humanity and future generations, to be defined as ‘the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants (human and non-human) of that territory has been or will be severely diminished’; and that the proposed crime of ecocide be formally recognised as a Crime against Peace subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.’

    I also have a personal reason for noting/highlighting ecocide. My late father was a victim of Monsanto’s agent orange/other rainbow agents use in Vietnam war. As you mentioned ecocide is a recognised war crime, and the NZ army/govt successfully won a case against US military for redress. As a result, children of New Zealand Vietnam veterans have been awarded access to doctors if they get specific cancers related to their fathers time in Vietnam. I have a card from the NZ govt for this ecocide reparation – you can see it here Its a poignant reminder to me that fighting for ecocide law has some affect even though ecocide is exponentially accelerating since the mid 1950s with little evidence that laws will make much difference (my past background in science makes me aware that we are more likely to witness ecological collapse than the reverse, although I remain personally motivated to work on these issues)

    Thanks again for such a detail post, will share too


  2. Cathy, thank you so much for your post. My connection to ecocide comes from my research on various protests against Agent Orange herbicides, with Galston and his fellow biological scientists among the first.


  3. Amy – thanks for your excellent post about the origins of ecocide. I share your concern for its present incarnation. I am a wild law/environmental lawyer and recently completed an article on the need to recognize nature as having legal rights. In the article, I touch on the weakness in Polly Higgins’ approach to ecocide and identify how it has strayed from its original purpose and vision. The current reinterpretation of ecocide focuses on people as victims. In so doing it maintains the existing paradigm of requiring human victims for the elements of crime against peace. Moreover, it includes nature as a potential agent of ecocide in the proposed revised language. Such an interpretation of the elements of ecocide maintain and reinforce the existing anthropocentric perspective which got us into the environmental mess we’re in and are therefore not a solution. A different framework is required that offers a paradigm along the lines of the original vision for Ecocide propounded by Galston.


  4. Dear Joelle,
    I would be interested in reading your article, can you post a link – I have heard at time Polly Higgins use the phrase of ‘extending a duty of care to the non-human’ as well but perhaps there is an overly anthropocentric position in her interpretation.


  5. Joelle and Cathy,
    Joelle, I second Cathy’s request; it would be great to read your article! I just attended an environmental history conference where the concept of ecocide came up. A panelist mentioned an article mentioned with which I was unfamiliar, “Should Trees Have Standing?” by Christopher D. Stone. In it, Stone argues that forests, oceans, rivers – the natural environment as a whole – be granted legal rights (you are probably familiar with it Joelle). It seems reasonable to me that if corporations can have the rights of individuals, so should the environment. I absolutely agree that Galston and the life scientists had the right idea in their vision of ecocide.


  6. Hi Amy and Cathy,
    Cathy – thanks for sharing your post – congratulations on your recent success! I can see what it would have meant to you. Yes, Christopher Stone’s book is wonderful. Also I highly recommend “The Great Work” by Thomas Berry and “WIld Law” by Cormac Cullinan.
    Unfortunately, I can’t share my article at the moment because it’s embargoed while it’s under consideration for publication. Once it’s published – I’ll be happy to share it, of course. In the meantime, I could share a preview if you would like to give me an email address to send it to.
    I’d also like to share a documentary/television series I’m working on wearing my other hat as CEO of Human Dimensions TV, a video production team with a conscience: “One Story, Many Voices” – the Journey Home is about a global movement that is advocating for a truly sustainable path, including wild law that recognizes nature’s rights. “One Story, Many Voices” – the Journey Home” celebrates the relationship we have with Mother Earth and all of Earth’s communities, but that we have forgotten. For more information, please see – and please like us on our facebook page – and please do share!


  7. Pingback: The Origins of Ecocide | Ecocide Alert

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