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How to Kill an Ecosy­stem in 10 Steps or Less

The delusion of perpetual growth and climate catastrophe

The impending climate catastrophe – the effects of which can already be directly felt in various environments across the globe – strikes some people as wildly urgent and others as a problem for some undefined later time. Part of this wide difference in people’s sense of urgency is explained by how close they are to the problem. Greta Thunberg’s generation understands the severity of the issue very well, since they’re poised to inherit the future. Similarly, people in the global south can already feel the dramatic effects of climate change in their day-to-day lives as the ecological balance upon which their livelihoods depend deteriorates at an ever-accelerating rate.

The people in control, however – the politicians holding power in richer states as well as people at the helm of international corporate behemoths – they cling desperately to delusions of power. They’re collectively convinced that the situation imposed by the generation before them, the state of affairs which they perpetuate, can continue unimpeded. They’re convinced that they can use their political and economic power to brush the issue aside. Their actions speak louder than their words – we see just how delusional they are in their half-hearted incremental reforms and their desperate search for a technological miracle. Such a fissure between the ruling and the ruled is nothing new – it’s a mainstay of every political struggle throughout history. But it’s different this time. If the ruling classes keep putting things off, the Earth will become uninhabitable.

But they just don’t understand. They’re too wrapped up in their power fantasy to realize that actual change, the real change we need, is only possible through a radical inversion of values. The green transition must revolutionise how we, as a species and as a community, treat the Earth and its resources – we must change our fundamental attitude towards our home. According to the old and outdated attitude, the human race is the Earth’s steward, and the Earth itself is a storehouse of infinite surplus value just waiting to be ravaged and cleaned out. We pillage, burn and pollute as if we own the place, as if we don’t have to consider any possible future for the ecosystems we throw off-balance. This is precisely what has to change: we must reconsider our relation to the planet and its delicate ecological systems from the ground up.

Redefining destruction for the 21st century

The past century is rife with examples of grand ecological destruction in the name of economic progress. The Amazon rainforest, to name but an example, has undergone constant and steadfast destruction – for mining, oil exploration, agriculture – to fuel unsustainable consumption habits of people living far away from the destruction. Records for deforestation are still being broken to this day: more than 1000 square kilometers of forest were destroyed in April 2022 alone. Not only is nature defiled, but human rights are violated as well when the environments people rely upon are decimated.

The severity and scope of the destruction we carry out every day is vast enough to boggle the mind – which might be why we seem to have a hard time grasping its extent. It’s no wonder that we seem to have a hard time discussing how we can become accountable for our actions as a species when we can’t even contextualize the impact and severity of our destruction.

Take crimes like individual homicide or collective massacres, for example. Here, we’re dealing with crimes committed against living, breathing beings: in each case, there’s a culprit and there’s a victim. This logic works well enough for its intended subject, but it can work against us if we try to apply it to more complex cases. When we’re accustomed to thinking in these terms, we tend to follow a logic of “no body, no crime.” This can make addressing legal and moral culpability difficult when faced with something like a global climate catastrophe caused by human action.

Whole ecosystems are being thrown off-kilter, ravaged by over-production, mutilated by pollution and other blatant abuses… but even so, many might ask themselves: “Where’s the victim here?” – which is obviously troublesome. Ecosystems are less tangible entities than organisms from one perspective, but infinitely more real and far-reaching on another. Obviously, the survival of countless species hinges on ecological equilibrium.

Enter ecocide – a conceptual tool in the fight for life on Earth

The concept of ecocide is designed to meet our need for a new vocabulary. Its roots stretch back half a century, having been coined by Olof Palme at the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972, but the concept has been gaining traction over the past years through the Stop Ecocide campaign. In its simplest form, ecocide can be seen as man-made natural disaster. But the campaign wants more than just recognition of ecocide as a concept, it sees it as a tool to hold to account those most responsible for disastrous decisions.

By making the people in charge accountable for the destruction of the environment, we can make them feel the same urgency we do. That’s why the Stop Ecocide campaign wants ecocide be treated as an international crime by the International Criminal Court. That is, ecocide should be considered just as severe as crimes against humanity, for example.

That might seem like a tall order – and it is. But that shouldn’t discourage us from fighting for it. In fact, the fight is already underway. Last year, a group of experts convened by the campaign settled on a legal definition of the term: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”. Parliamentarians from all over the planet – myself included – have formed a coalition to fight for the recognition of ecocide as a crime under the International Criminal Court, alongside war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace.

The fight to have ecocide recognized as a crime has found its way into Alþingi, the Icelandic Parliament, as well. Earlier this year, I proposed a parliamentary resolution to that end: that the Icelandic government propose adding ecocide to the Rome Statute, which would make it fall under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and to bring a bill to Alþingi to ban ecocide under Icelandic law. This way, Iceland could use its voice on the international stage to enact positive change for the whole world. The resolution already enjoys broad political support, with twelve members from four different parties co-signing the proposal – and hopefully it will receive even broader multipartisan support when it comes to a vote, since this is an issue none of us can afford to turn a blind eye to any longer.

Iceland – environmental paradise?

People all over the world seem to have an overly romanticized view of Iceland – but is it deserved? Well, not really. For a long time, the main goal of Icelandic governments was to be exempted from international climate treaties aiming to reduce carbon emissions, like the Kyoto Protocol, for example. The government has raised dams and submerged invaluable swaths of land in order to power aluminium refineries. Our greenhouse gas emissions increased by 23% from 1990 to 2020 – and in the industrial sector, our emissions doubled!

We have all this green, sustainably sourced energy – and we foolishly squander our opportunities. Iceland could easily place itself at the forefront in the battle against climate change, showing the world how to respect not only nature but human rights as well. Instead, our carbon footprint is obscenely large and we pollute way too much.

Hopefully, Parliament will support the resolution to recognize ecocide both internationally and locally. It’s not enough to offset our blatant disregard for the ecosystem so far, but it’d be a step in the right direction. Not only do we need to act concretely in order to correct our course, but we also need to reinvent our values as a global society if we’re to survive the coming storm.

If you want to learn more about ecocide and the political fight for recognition, visit or

Greinin birtist upphaflega á Vísi, 16. maí 2022.