Ecocide: naming an international crime

Last year, I was part of an interfaith delegation to Vietnam investigating the lingering effects of Agent Orange on the civilian population. I saw children with dreadful birth defects and visited the old air base at Da Nang -- now a "hot spot" -- where you can still smell the chemicals today, 35 years after they were stored and spilled there.

Now, David Zierler has written a new book about all this, and named the crime. It's called The Invention of Ecocide. It refers to any large-scale destruction of the natural environment or over-consumption of critical non-renewable resources. Zierler focuses on wartime ecocide, tracing it to the time when the Pentagon began to study weed killers in the 1940s. When the findings merged with theories of counterinsurgency and a perceived need to deny "cover" to the "enemy," it led to the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam. It covered a part of South Vietnam the size of Massachusetts.

By the 1970s, when scientists entered the sprayed zones, they realized the scope of the ecological disaster caused by the spraying. It was only later that the scope of human tragedy, especially among the children, became clear. Later, it was President Gerald Ford who, by executive order, renounced the use of herbicides in warfare by the United States.

This led me to ponder the crime of "ecocide" and what it means today in the broadest sense. What about the use of depleted uranium in Iraq? Is it "ecocide" to cut down large portions of the Amazon rain forest? How about mining more coal or drilling more oil as if carbon pollution makes no difference to the planet -- does this fit? And what about intellectual complicity: a refusal to grapple with the hard science on climate change for reasons of political expediency?

It seems to me that these behaviors are all species of "ecocide." They threaten life on our planet as we know it. And they destroy what Thomas Berry understood as the revelation of God in the universe itself. If we do not reverse these trends, "ecocide" will become the overwhelming tragedy of the 21st century.

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