Holly McElroy reviews Dare To Be Great, a recently published guide to unlocking your power to create a better world by Polly Higgins, founder of the Stop Ecocide campaign.
Before she rose to prominence as an author and campaigner, Polly Higgins was a world-renowned barrister. It was during her time on the Court of Appeal in the Royal Courts of Justice that Polly found herself looking out a window and to the trees below and thinking ‘It’s not just my client that has been badly harmed and injured, so has the earth’. And in considering the great areas of land destroyed, rivers polluted and species facing extinction, she found her unique purpose in creating a legal duty of care for the earth.
This idea came to be known as ecocide, a crime against the living, natural world. Whether it be ecosystem loss, or everyday damage and destruction occurring as a result of human activity, those responsible need to be held accountable by the law. This idea had already been proposed to form part of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court in 1996 however, it was not accepted.
In 2010 Polly Higgins presented this idea again to the United Nations calling for ecocide to become an international crime. She argued that ecocide would lead to resource depletion and where an escalation of resource depletion occurs, war can come fast behind. Therefore, as such destruction arises out of the actions of mankind, ecocide can be regarded as a crime against peace.
Polly passed away from cancer in 2019, and the law still remains unrecognised. However, through her work on the Stop Ecocide campaign, momentum has been gathering and as the consequences of the global climate crisis have become more apparent, so has the rise of environmentalists following in her footsteps.
Dare To Be Great is a first-hand account of Polly’s journey from her everyday life as a London barrister to being forced to confront one of the biggest challenges facing humanity. Part memoir and part self-help, the book details how to find the keys and tools within ourselves to unlock something even greater. In order for our leaders to step into their own, greatness must begin with the self and we must first break our own cycles of harm before we can tackle the issues on a greater scale.
In Polly’s own words, Dare To Be Great is:
a seed and a book to change your life. It comes with a good-health warning: your vision of what is – and what can be – shall alter radically. Let the seed grow within you and feed it liberally. You’ll find windows suddenly open, a gust of fresh thoughts and ideas blow in, and new paths emerge to take you forward.
I have a sense that there will be a lot of, for want of a better word, cynically people out there, people like me, who find the idea Polly preaches of harnessing energy, feeling at one with the earth and creating sacred spaces, at best somewhat amusing and at worst hippyish drivel.
As someone with a scientific background in environmental studies, I have become accustomed to practical innovative solutions to environmental issues based on sound economic and scientific models. In other words, a new form of technology that can store carbon dioxide from our atmosphere safely, me seems far more important to the planet than us all holding hands and trying to become at one with the trees. And I do on many levels still agree with this, however, what I failed to consider was that there is and always will be room for both methods in tackling the environmental crisis.
One thing I have recognised as lacking in myself and others when it comes to environmental issues is commitment and momentum. We will sit and watch Extinctions: The Facts on the BBC or Cowspiracy on Netflix and immediately vow to give up meat or air travel. And this enthusiasm will last the rest of the evening, maybe a week or a month, but for many of us, our environmental concerns tail off and are pushed away under the everyday tolls of life. My practical based solutions do not concern themselves with tackling this loss of energy, but Polly Higgins does.
Through ‘plugging in’ to the wider world re-evaluating what really makes us happy by forging deep connections with each other as opposed to splurging on a new car, Dare To Be Great informs the reader on how we can change our inner narrative and thought processes to align with our unique purpose in service of a better world.
Ultimately, this is not the book to answer any questions about how we can specifically reduce emissions or improve the efficiency of green technologies. It is not even really a book about how to change the laws to become more environmentally focused (although Polly has written about this at great length in Eradicating Ecocide: Laws and Governance to Stop the Destruction of the Planet). Instead, it is a book for individual focus, for those of us who wish to do better for the natural world but struggle to harness our inner motivations and achieve a lifelong commitment.
Through focusing on our own morals instead of relying on societal structures of law and punishment, ecocide can become a thing of the past. This idea is the key to a world Polly imagined for our future where appreciation and protection of nature are paramount.
An older generation has fewer illnesses now than before and a younger generation is growing up breathing and seeing without the need for drugs or glasses. The water is so clean that it is safe to drink straight from rivers and canals, the air is no longer filled with pollutants, the soils – even in the cities- are no longer depleted by pesticides, which have become a thing of the past. Government as we know it no longer exists: sub-governance, bio-region by bio-region, has replaced centralised government and makes decisions from a ‘first do no harm’ principle, which has obviated the need for much planning and regulatory law. The health and wellbeing of all beings comes first’.
At this current time of environmental crisis, it is clear we are far from this vision, which is why Polly’s teachings are even more necessary. Dare To Be Great has changed my perception of the world, maybe not in the exact ways it intended, but by highlighting the need for both practical solutions on a global scale and individual motivation in order to save the natural world.
Too often in society, we see the separation of the environment from other issues, whether it be economics or arts and culture, and this has made it a side-lined topic, preached by a few ‘radical’ groups. If the world is going to change, this segregated way of thinking will need to evolve and the protection of nature needs to be accounted for in every aspect of human life. In Polly’s own words by ‘breaking these chains one by one, we step out into a freer world’.
Dare To Be Great by Polly Higgins is available at Flint Books.
You’re able to sign up for Polly Higgins’ Stop Ecocide campaign here.