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noun [uncountable/countable]

damage to or destruction of the natural environment, especially as caused by human activity such as pollution, acts of war, etc



damaging or destroying the natural environment

'Experts said the leading theory for the cause of the pollution is that an oil residue was illegally flushed from a ship's cargo tanks out at sea to save the time or costs of emptying it in port … There are also mounting fears that a 25,000-strong population of Auks off the Dorset coast may perish in the ecocide.'

The Mirror, UK 1st February 2013

'These taxes, which are part of the austerity package Greece had to adopt to appease its creditors … have made heating oil unaffordable for millions of Greeks. As a result, they have turned to wood, which is much more polluting than oil … the booming demand for wood has meant that it is an open season on Greek forests … Now we are finding out that capitalist austerity is as ecocidal in the winter as it is in the summer.'

New York Times Examiner 15th January 2013

The next time you're tempted to throw a dead battery in the bin rather than taking it to a recycling bank, consider what you'd do if this little display of apathy turned out to be a criminal offence. Though it seems unlikely that any future law would be able to police the disposal of small batteries used at home, there is in fact a name for this kind of reckless disregard for the environment – ecocide.

classic examples include deforestation, extractive mining, unlimited fishing, and of course use of chemicals which contaminate soil and water, or kill wildlife

Ecocide is the official term for the concept of humans causing damage to or destruction of the natural environment. Depending on where in the world you live, some minor acts of ecocide – such as lighting fires, stealing birds' eggs, or dumping used motor oil – are not only destructive, but can also lead to prosecution.

However ecocide is usually used in reference to large-scale damage across a wide area of the natural environment, rather than small acts of carelessness by individuals. Classic examples include deforestation, extractive mining, unlimited fishing, and of course use of chemicals which contaminate soil and water, or kill wildlife. And it's these large-scale acts of environmental damage which prove much more difficult to deal with under current laws, especially given conflicting economic and industrial demands. This kind of debate is what has really landed the term ecocide into the political spotlight.

In January 2013, a new initiative on ecocide was launched in the European Parliament. Proposals include a new EU law prohibiting ecocide on European territory, or ecocide anywhere in the world if committed by a European individual or organization. They also propose a future ban on importation of products that have caused ecocide during their production. This could for example range from a ban on cosmetics that use palm oils from depleted rainforests, through to preventing the importation of electronic goods containing illegally-mined metals.

Background – ecocide

The term ecocide has is in fact been around for some time, first appearing more than 40 years ago at the first United Nations summit in Stockholm. However the term garnered wider exposure in 2010, when British lawyer/campaigner Polly Higgins mounted a proposal to the UN to accept ecocide (along with genocide and other war crimes) as an international 'crime against peace'. Higgins' argument is that ecocide leads to the depletion of the world's natural resources, and the inevitable consequence of this is conflict and war.

The term ecocide is of course a blend of the prefix eco- in its sense of 'relating to the environment', and the suffix -cide which denotes the act of destroying/killing (compare suicide, homicide etc). Following the pattern of suicide, there's also a corresponding adjective ecocidal and some evidence for use of verbal collocate commit.

Our growing environmental conscience has meant that the prefix eco- has been a particularly active player in 21st century word formation, with other recent examples including ecosexual (a person who makes environmentally-conscious lifestyle choices), ecovore (a person who eats in an environmentally-responsible way) and eco-bling (ecological kit that does not save or produce much energy relative to its cost). The suffix -cide has had a fair airing in recent years too, as in for example pseudocide (faking your own death) and vanillacide (repeatedly changing something until it becomes less interesting and unique than originally intended).

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 2nd April 2013.

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