The ‘End Ecocide’ European Citizens’ Initiative was launched almost two years ago by a group of dedicated volunteers based all around Europe. It was conceived with the central objective of halting the devastating loss of biodiversity and the environmental degradation occurring all around the world at an alarming rate.
Flaws in the ECI: ‘Citizens’ movements are left alone in the rain’
The experience of the ‘End Ecocide’ campaigners shows how challenging it is to create a successful ECI. To collect the necessary number of signatures in the limited timeframe is an immense task, as Thomas Eitzenberger, a member of the initiative’s steering group, explains: “You need to build up network beforehand, to have a mass presence in media and a massive network. The support provided by the EU is not sufficient. To establish such a network for grassroots movement is almost impossible – it takes several months.”
A lot of work needs to go into preparing an ECI, and campaigners are put in a difficult position, having to decide whether to register their ECI first and risk not collecting the signatures in time, or trying to build up the momentum without knowing if the ECI will be accepted. “This needs to change,” says Thomas, “either to have an extended timeline or some coaching to help activists and movements at the beginning of an ECI.”
Despite the huge challenge they faced, the End Ecocide campaigners were initially optimistic about gathering the support needed. “We thought it would work out,” says Thomas. “It seemed so obvious to us that this was a positive initiative, we thought all NGOs active in the environmental area would want to join, but this wasn’t at all the case. For us it was a great concept but we needed partners.”
Despite the energy and enthusiasm behind the campaign, the team found it hard to mobilise people and to get activists from large NGOs on board. “NGOs are focusing on their own issues and campaigns, in some ways they run like a business. There were some exceptions, which gave support but it happened too late. But we continued to campaign right up until the last moment.”
Lilia Tamamdzhieva, a member of the End Ecocide steering group, believes the concept may have been difficult for activists and NGOs to grasp. “With ending ecocide, it’s not like we are fighting against one thing. It’s something more fundamental. The goal is very big, and this turned out to be a big hurdle.”
For Thomas and the other campaigners, all of the social and environmental ills we face stem from a common cause: “The success of the neo-liberal economy over last 50-60 years led to an economy that is focused only on maximising profit. So there is no limit to the devastation of natural habitats and environment if it is necessary for people’s success. Orangutangs’ habitats are being destroyed for Palm oil for the food industry, as it is the cheapest type of oil (for example – Ferrero did so till recently for their well-known product Nutella). The point is all about producing and earning more – this creates a vicious circle.”
Conveying such a vast message proved extremely difficult. “In fact we had a double task,” says Lilia, “first to explain what an ECI is, and why people should sign up, and second to explain what ecocide is – we didn’t succeed in both, but we’ve succeeded in raising a lot of awareness.” She regards this as an important learning experience that has helped the campaign grow. “This is what made us a strong movement, we’re still not an NGO we still don’t have finances but we’re still planning ahead together for the future.”
The campaign continues: finding a new narrative
Despite not succeeding in getting their ECI before the European Commission, the team have not lost sight of their objectives and what they are asking of EU decision-makers: to enact a binding law against ‘ecocidal’ activities, potentially through a kind of ‘International Criminal Court’ for environmental issues. “We are not trying to add more bureaucracy,” stresses Lilia. “We want a law against ecocide and whatever it takes for this to be implemented – whether it is a new court, a mandate or another kind of mechanism.”
“We wanted to have at least a statement that this regular destruction of environment by the economic system has to stop, and a statement of determination to ban ecological ecocide within a certain number of years because it is destroying the basis of our survival – this is what we hoped for. And at some point this will have to happen anyway,” says Thomas.
Despite the urgency of the situation, it is clear that people cannot be forced to change their mindset. “What we need is a shift of paradigm, and a shift of consciousness – so we aim at both,” explains Lilia. “That’s why we are focusing on the legal work and also the work on social campaigning and raising awareness. We need both aspects and they are interconnected.”
Thomas stresses that the aim is not to criminalise anyone; “The goal is not to put CEO’s into jail but to change their mind. Laws are never made to punish people but to protect society, and prevent crimes. A law like this would cut off the stream of money that allows this destructive system of profiteering to go on. It doesn’t have to be this way,” he adds, pointing out that incentives can easily be changed: “For example, money can be divested from the fossil fuel sector into new products or renewables.”
“People focused only on profit will destroy nature but also give no value to human lives – they see them only as workers, this paradigm has to end. We need to have a narrative that will attract people – the core is that we as human beings need to take control again and not let the market decide everything for us. We are not against economy but it has to be sustainable – there is no economy on a dead planet.” This is the message Thomas and his team are trying to get across.
Lilia agrees with this need for a new narrative, especially in light of the current disillusionment with representative democracy. “We need to take control. People are generally not very positive about more laws & regulations – but it has to start from there. A law against ecocide could bring environmental and social justice.”
The future for the ‘End Ecocide’ ECI: Where to from here?
After the failure of the team to get their ECI to the necessary threshold of support, they took some time to reflect about their next move in the campaign. “We didn’t rush, we took our time and came up with a strategy that is much more long-term, with similar goals. We also shifted away from Europe, as this was a problem for many people, to a global scope,” says Thomas.
“With the milestone of COP 21 in Paris in mind, our near-term strategy is to organise a lot of activities this year. It is crucial to keep up pressure on politicians, so we need to keep talking to NGOs and campaigning.” For Thomas, mobilising people is key, and initiatives like the Climate March are a good example of a successful approach towards “Getting people onto the street, protesting for a balanced way of dealing with our planet”. The campaigners will also organise visits to Parliaments around Europe to discuss the issues with them, and in order to get signatures that they hope to hand to the UN Secretary-General.
For Thomas, the ECI may have severe defects but it is the best tool available currently. “It is better to have it as it is now than not to have it at all, because it can work but it could be much better.” Lilia stresses however that the ECI is not fundamentally flawed and has been going through many improvements since it was launched: “It depends on the people, we need more people to know about it and use it.”
“Democracy is not about voting every four years but about building society,” stresses Thomas, “you have to claim your power as a citizen or people will decide for you.” Lilia agrees: “There is a responsibility as citizens, and it doesn’t work if those we delegate power to are not responsible.”
They believe the ECI could potentially be a tool to improve this, but obstacles remain. ”The ECI needs more information and marketing, in some countries it is treated just as a petition.” For the campaigners, the ECI does not have to be directly translated into law to be meaningful, the fact of having a topic proposed by citizens discussed in Parliaments is an important starting point. And for a question as pressing as Ecocide, it is an essential step.
“All the crises we are talking about at the moment, in unemployment and the economy, are nothing compared to when we will have to face the ecological crisis that we are undergoing,” warns Thomas.
“The question is will it be a crash by design or by chance? We need to put the handbrake on now not when we crash.”