The genocide that dare not speak its name


Article Two of the UN Convention on Genocide, in December 1948, defined genocide as “any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”[1]

Some readers my find this blog offensive, or even obscene. But unfortunately, the subject of this blog is highly offensive and obscene. A genocide is taking place now. And we are all culpable.

Recently the WWF Living Planet Report shows that the number of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish around the world have decreased by 60 per cent during my lifetime – between 1970 and 2014.[2]

The number of vertebrates that have died in this period is approximately 100,000,000,000,000[3] compared to about 40 million people that have died in human history as a result of genocide.[4] That is 3 million times more animals have been killed in the last 45 years than people that died as a result of genocides in the entire human history.

The fact that this is a very approximate calculation is of no consequence – if it were a factor of 1 million or 10 million would not change the argument.

Genocide was intended to refer to ”people” and it is generally accepted that people means humans (although this has been disputed). A key concept is that one group is deliberately trying to wipe out another group that is in some way different, for reason of that difference.

The main difficulty with describing this ongoing occurrence as genocide is whether you can use that term with reference to non-humans, and I feel strongly that this destruction is so great that genocide is indeed the correct word.

In making this argument, I am not arguing for animal rights, or that we should all become vegan, or that killing animals is wrong. Or that the extinction of any one species is genocide. Or the rights and wrongs of domestication of animals and somehow equating this with slavery. And I am in no way arguing that animals are equivalent or equal to people, or that prejudice against them is speciesism.

There are many people who take these positions, and if you are one of them, then accepting that what is happening is genocide should be self-evident.

I start from the premise that non-human animals are not as clever as people and are not capable of sophisticated languages. Only humans have created complex civilisations and non-human animals are in some way not as important and in no way have or should have equal rights to humans.

Can the term genocide cross the species boundary? I believe it can. The destruction of life of such an inconceivable magnitude is almost without precedence – the current human-caused extinction event is the fifth occurrence of mass species extinction in the multiple billion-year history of life. If we believe that animal life has any value, even much lower than that of human life, its annihilation should class as an historic crime.

It is not the case here that just one species is being destroyed, but all species. The idea inherent in genocide is the destruction by one group of another group because of their difference. Humans are destroying non-humans simply because of their difference – that they are non-human.

The category of non-human animals is a different order of magnitude to the category of a single species, for example elephants, and hence the act of wiping them out is an order of magnitude greater in seriousness.

Many non-human animals have culture, are conscious, feel emotions, feel pain, can solve puzzles, have complex social relationships, exhibit altruistic behaviour and have means of complex communication (notwithstanding if you can define, say, dolphin communication as a language).

These are the sort of characteristics that we value in fellow human and why we think it’s a crime to kill humans. Even if non-human animals display these characteristics to a far lesser extent than humans, this should be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of destruction.  Any one given animal may be seen as being inferior to a person in each of these regards, but in aggregate animal-kind displays all of these characteristics.

I would like to sketch out a more numerical argument, because it could be the start of a legal argument, even though I find such an argument ethically questionable. If you add up the “human” characteristics of wild animals you could assign a relative importance of the life of a non-human animal compared to the life of a human.

As we are considering all vertebrates, from blue tits to blue whales, there would have to be some heroic averaging, but arbitrarily valuing a non-human animal’s life at one 10,000th (ten thousandth) that of a human, the destruction of animals since 1970 would be equivalent to the death of 10 billion people, more that the world’s entire human population.

If we accept that the definition of genocide can jump the species barrier, then the acts committed fall under the definition of genocide, especially: “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. But also: “Killing members of the group” and “Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”.

To qualify as genocide, the acts have to be deliberate – in other words, with intentionality. Unlike, say, the final solution – the deliberate policy of the Nazis to wipe out the Jews – a group of humans have never sat down at a conference and devised a plan to wipe out non-human animals.

Even so it would be hard to argue that the most egregious forms of wildlife destruction, such as over-fishing, trophy hunting or poaching was not intentional.

The largest cause of non-human animal annihilation, habitat destruction, is a by-product of human economic activity, the destruction of wildlife is incidental to this activity. However, I would argue that it still constitutes intentionality.

Humans have known for a long time that this destruction of wildlife is happening; the WWF publish their report every two years, and there are a huge number of other academic studies on bio-diversity loss. Indeed, you just have to turn on the TV and watch a nature documentary to get some sense of the destruction.

And it’s a fairly simple concept to grasp, and uncontroversial, that this has mostly been caused by unsustainable over-consumption; much simpler to understand than, say, climate change. If what differentiates us from non-human animals is our intelligence, we should be able to figure this out. And hence if we continue to do something which obvious has the consequences of wiping out most wild species, then we are doing so with intentionality.

Why does a word matter? This loss of animal and associated plant life is usually described as bio-diversity loss. Or in a recent Financial Times editorial: “current behaviour is eroding the planet’s long-term economic productivity potential.”[5] These make it sound unfortunate and that no one is to blame. Genocide is a crime; indeed the most serious crime. You could describe the holocaust as a loss of cultural diversity or an act of “reducing Europe’s human capital stock and hence future growth potential.” But this would be totally unacceptable.

If the mass destruction of animal life is reclassified as a crime, the courts have to get involved to try and stop it. There have been attempts to categorise “ecocide” as a crime.[6] Whilst I fully support this, if the destruction of animal life can be seen as genocide, then this fits within an existing legal framework and would be simpler to prosecute and hence stop.

Members of my immediate family were murdered by the Nazis. My grandparents had to escape their homes in Austria with just their clothes on their backs, and their innocent parents were deported to the death camp Theresienstadt and murdered. The Nazis murdered about a third of my fellow Jews.

This was probably the worst crime in history, although the gulags in the Soviet Union, the Cultural Revolution, the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and far too many other acts have provided strong competition.

In no way do I wish to trivialise the horror of these crimes, but simply to highlight the magnitude of the crime currently occurring. Since 1970 we have been responsible of the deaths of 60 per cent of all wild animals. I consider this a crime of the same magnitude as these terrible genocidal events, or maybe worse.



[3] estimates the number of wild animals remaining, so about the same number have died

[4] Compiled on Wikipedia, with references



Help us lay the intellectual foundations for a new radical politics. Sign up to get email notifications about anything new in this blog. See also our new book: Backlash: Saving globalisation from itself.

Rate this post!

Average rating 0 / 5. Vote count: 0

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Peter Arnold says

    Killing living beings, whether humans or non-humans, is not a skilful way of living. Killing living beings for pleasure, or fun, because they are not humans, is an obscenity. Killing living beings for food may be acceptable in some quarters. Killing living beings because humans can do so in the pursuit of profit or power is a confession of failure to understand the right to life of non-humans.
    The sad truth is that ignorance on the part of human beings of the right to life of all living beings is the cause of all human misery.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    A much welcomed article that acknowledges the importance issue of ecocide and how human development is the main contributory cause.

    I’d add two main concerns.

    Firstly, biodiversity underpins most ecosystem services including climate regulation and therefore biodiversity plays an important function in terms of ecosystem health and ecosystem resilience. This is especially so in terms of providing ecological redundancy whereby multiple species display similar functional traits so if one species vacates an ecosystem then other species can continue to fulfill that role. Pollination services is a case in point but also applies to insect predation, microbial processes in the soil to aid the breakdown of organic matter and tree health. Therefore, far from biodiversity being supportive of economic potential, biodiversity is an essential aspect of overall ecosystem health that is intrinsic to planetary health and wellbeing of all sentient life. The same cannot be said of human life albeit in partial and particularist ways. This intrinsic value of biodiversity in relation to ecosystem and planetary health is what places biodiversity on an equal moral footing to humans from a more ecological perspective since biodiversity (or at least some safe operating level of biodiversity) is essential for life on Earth. In other words, humans need biodiversity to survive unless the essential services provided by biodiversity can be replicated artificially/technologically.

    In this respect ecocide will eventually lead to genocide as human populations die back due to ecosystem dysfunction.

    The second point is that capitalism has over the centuries rapidly increased human population levels and rapidly increased human consumption levels with both intertwined with the other, especially in terms of the advances made in medical science, the advances made in effluent disposal, water treatment and the prolongation of human life through life saving technologies. In other words, capitalism has been and still is a resounding ecological success for humans however the internal ecological contradictions are now becoming increasingly apparent what with biodiversity loss, climate change and the general deterioration of both land based and oceanic ecosystems.

    Therefore the challenge that faces humanity is how to modify what is often seen as a successful ecological formula in order to reduce the obvious negative impacts of this ecological strategy that benefits human populations but simultaneously destroys the ecological basis of our long term survival. This means entering a stage of ecological maturity whereby we calculate the opportunity costs of human biological growth vis a vis nonhuman biological growth and start applying appropriate limits to human technological development in such a way as to ensure equity between humans and nonhumans and equity across the human species.

Leave a Reply