Green Criminology Research Paper

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The term “green criminology” emerged in the 1990s to describe a critical and sustained approach to the study of environmental crime (Lynch 1990; South 1998). This research paper provides an outline of the distinctive features of green criminology, its main concepts and foci of analysis, and the continuing debates that mark its further and continuing development as a bona fide perspective within criminology.

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Generally speaking, green criminology takes as its focus issues relating to the environment (in the widest sense possible) and harm (as defined in ecological as well as strictly legal terms). Much of this work has been directed at exposing different instances of substantive social and ecological injustice. It has also involved critique of the actions of nation-states and transnational capital for fostering particular types of harm and for failing to adequately address or regulate harmful activity. Given the pressing nature of many environmental issues, it is not surprising that many criminologists are now seeing environmental crime and environmental victimization as areas for concerted analytical and practical attention.

From a criminological perspective, any attempt to take up the challenge offered here will require rigorous and sophisticated analysis of the social dynamics that shape and allow certain types of activities harmful to the environment (including humans and animals) to take place over time. This sort of analysis, in turn, demands that environmental issues be framed within the context of a sociological and criminological imagination (White 2003). That is, study must appreciate the importance of situating environmental harm as intrinsically socially and historically located and created. Interpretation and analysis thus has to be mindful of how current trends reflect the structure of global/local societies, the overall direction in which such societies are heading, and the ways in which diverse groups of people are being affected by particular social, economic, and political processes.

The Foundations Of Green Criminology

Green criminology refers to the study by criminologists of environmental harms (that may incorporate wider definitions of crime than that provided in strictly legal definitions), environmental laws (including enforcement, prosecution, and sentencing practices), and environmental regulation (systems of civil and criminal law that are designed to manage, protect, and preserve specified environments and species and to manage the negative consequences of particular industrial processes) (White 2008).

The key focus of green criminology is environmental crime. This is conceptualized in several different ways within the broad framework of green criminology. For some writers, environmental crime is defined narrowly within strict legal definitions – it is what the law says it is. For others, environmental harm is itself deemed to be a (social and ecological) crime, regardless of legal status – if harm is done to environments or animals, then it is argued that this ought to be considered a “crime” from the point of view of the critical green criminologist.

Specific types of harm as described in law include things such as illegal transport and dumping of toxic waste, the transportation of hazardous materials such as ozone depleting substances, the illegal traffic in real or purported radioactive or nuclear substances, the proliferation of “e”-waste generated by the disposal of tens of thousands of computers and other equipment, the safe disposal of old ships and airplanes, the illegal trade in flora and fauna, and illegal fishing and logging.

However, within green criminology there is also a more expansive definition of environmental crime or harm that includes (White 2011):

  • Transgressions that are harmful to humans, environments, and nonhuman animals, regardless of legality per se
  • Environmental-related harms that are facilitated by the state, as well as corporations and other powerful actors, insofar as these institutions have the capacity to shape official definitions of environmental crime in ways that allow or condone environmentally harmful practices

The definition of environmental crime is, therefore, contentious and ambiguous. Much depends upon who is defining the harm and what criteria is used in assessing the nature of the activities so described (e.g., legal versus ecological, criminal justice versus social justice) (Beirne and South 2007; White 2008).

For many green criminologists the biggest threats to environmental rights, ecological justice, and nonhuman animal well-being are system-level structures and pressures that commodify all aspects of social existence that are based upon the exploitation humans, nonhuman animals, and natural resources and that privilege the powerful over the interests of the vast majority. It is for this reason that assessment of environmental injustice requires critical scrutiny of how states themselves intervene with regard to specific environmental harm issues.

An eco-justice perspective refers to the broad orientation of green criminology which is largely directed at exposing different instances of substantive social and environmental injustice. From an eco-justice perspective, environmental harm is best seen in terms of justice, which in turn is based upon notions of human, ecological and animal rights, and broad egalitarian principles. A key issue is the weighing up of different kinds of harm and violation of rights that may involve stretching the boundaries of conventional criminology to include other kinds of harms than those already deemed to be illegal.

Most green criminology is informed by at least one of the three approaches that collectively make up an eco-justice perspective. These include environmental justice (where the main focus is on differences within the human population: social justice demands access to healthy and safe environments for all and for future generations), ecological justice (where the main focus is on “the environment”, as such to conserve and protect ecological well-being, e.g., forests, is seen as intrinsically worthwhile), and species justice (where the main focus is on ensuring the well-being of both species as a whole, such as whales or polar bears, and individual animals, which should be shielded from abuse, degradation, and torture).

A major factor that influences the study of environmental harm, therefore, relates to the specific interests that count the most when conceptualizing the nature and seriousness of the harm. For example, when criminalization does occur, it often reflects human-centered (or anthropocentric) notions of what is best (e.g., protection of legal fisheries, legal timber coups) in ways that treat “nature” and “wildlife” simply and mainly as resources for human exploitation. The intrinsic value of specific ecological areas and particular species tends to be downplayed or ignored.

Nevertheless, recent years have seen greater legislative and judicial attention being given to the rights of the environment per se and to the rights of certain species of nonhuman animal to live free from human abuse, torture, and degradation. This reflects both the efforts of eco-rights activists (e.g., conservationists) and animal rights activists (e.g., animal liberation movements) in changing perceptions, and laws, in regard to the natural environment and nonhuman species. It also reflects the growing recognition that centuries of industrialization and global exploitation of resources are transforming the very basis of world ecology – for example, global warming threatens us all, regardless of where we live or our specific socioeconomic situation.

Studying Environmental Harm

Green criminology provides an umbrella under which to theorize and critique both illegal environmental harms (i.e., environmental harms currently defined as unlawful and therefore punishable) and legal environmental harms (i.e., environmental harms currently condoned as lawful but which are nevertheless socially and ecologically harmful). How harm is conceptualized is thus partly shaped by how the legal-illegal divide is construed within specific research and analysis.

There are a number of intersecting dimensions that need to be considered in any analysis of environmental harm (White 2008). These include consideration of who the victim is (human or nonhuman), where the harm is manifest (global through local levels), the main site in which the harm is apparent (built or natural environment), and the time frame within which harm can be analyzed (immediate and delayed consequences). Many of the main features pertaining to environmental harm are inherently international in scope and substance.

Indeed, the categorization of environmental harm is varied in that there are different ways in which environmental crimes have been conceptualized and sorted. For instance, Carrabine et al. (2004) discuss environmental crimes in terms of primary and secondary crimes. Green crimes are broadly defined simply as crimes against the environment. Primary crimes are those crimes that result directly from the destruction and degradation of the earth’s resources, through human actions. Secondary or symbiotic green crime is that crime arising out of the flouting of rules that seek to regulate environmental disasters. The first set of crimes relates to the harm as being bad in itself; the second relate to breaches of law or regulation associated with environmental management and protection.

In recent years researchers have studied a wide range of environmental harms associated with both “green” issues and “brown” issues. In the former the work has been motivated by either a concern with species justice or an interest in conventional environmental crimes such as illegal fishing. For instance, work over the past decade has been carried out in respect to crimes such as lobster poaching (McMullan and Perrier 2002), animal abuse (Beirne 2009), the illicit trade in endangered species (Wellsmith 2010), and deforestation (Boekhout van Solinge 2010).

In regard to “brown” issues, the production and disposal of waste is a matter of significant concern to academic researchers interested in questions of environmental harm. Relevant examples of such research include the role of organized criminal syndicates in the dumping of waste (Ruggierro 1996), inequalities associated with the location of disadvantaged and minorities’ communities near toxic waste sites (Pellow 2007), and the global trade in electronic waste (Gibbs et al. 2010a).

The range of substantive topic areas that green criminology is presently investigating is growing. So too, the complexities involved in studying environmental harm are likewise being acknowledged. For example, the detection and origins of some types of environmentally related harm may be unclear due to significant time lags in manifestation of the harm. Here it is important to acknowledge the notion of cumulative effects. For example, this could refer to the way in which dioxins accumulate in fish flesh over time. It could also refer to the cumulative impact of multiple sources of pollution as in cases where there are a high number of factories in one area (such as places along the US-Mexican border). Diseases linked to asbestos poisoning may surface many years after first exposure, and this, too, provides another example of long-term effects of environmental harm. Persistent use of pesticides in particular geographical areas may also have unforeseen consequences for local wildlife, including the development of new diseases among endemic animal species (as has been suggested has occurred in the case of facial tumor disease now rampant among the Tasmanian devil population in Australia).

As extensive work on specific incidents and patterns of victimization demonstrates, it is also the case that some people are more likely to be disadvantaged by environmental problems than others. For instance, studies have identified disparities involving many different types of environmental hazard that especially adversely affect people of color, ethnic minority groups, and indigenous people (Bullard 2005). There are thus patterns of differential victimization that are evident with respect to the siting of toxic waste dumps, extreme air pollution, chemical accidents, access to safe clean drinking water, and so on (Williams 1996). It is the poor and disadvantaged who suffer disproportionately from such environmental inequalities.

The kinds of harms and crimes studied within green criminology include illegal trade in endangered species (e.g., trade in exotic birds or killing of elephants for their ivory tusks), illegal harvesting of “natural resources” (such as illegal fishing and illegal logging), and illegal disposal of toxic substances (as well as pollution of air, land, and water). Wider definitions of environmental crime extend the scope of analysis to consider harms associated with legal activities such as clear-felling of old-growth forests and the negative ecological consequences of new technologies such as use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture (e.g., reduction of biodiversity through extensive planting of GMO corn) (see, e.g., Walters 2011). Recent work has considered the criminological aspects of climate change (see White 2012), from the point of view of human contributions to global warming (e.g., carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants) and the criminality associated with the aftermath of natural disasters (e.g., incidents of theft and rape in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans).

Differences Within Green Criminology

There is no green criminology theory as such. Rather, as observed by South (1998), there is what can loosely be described as a green “perspective.” Elements of this perspective generally include things such as a concern with specifically environmental issues, social justice, ecological consciousness, the destructive nature of global capitalism, the role of the nation-state (and regional and global regulatory bodies), and inequality and discrimination as these relate to class, gender, race, and nonhuman animals. The green criminology perspective, therefore, tends to begin with a strong sensitivity toward crimes of the powerful and to be infused with issues pertaining to power, justice, inequality, and democracy.

Green criminology has emerged in the last 20 years as a distinctive area of research, scholarship, and intervention. It is distinctive in the sense that it has directed much greater attention to environmental crime and harm than mainstream criminology and has heightened awareness of emergent issues such as the problems arising from disposal of electronic waste (e-waste) and the social and ecological injustices linked to the corporate colonization of nature (including biopiracy and imposition of GMO crops in developing countries). Within the spectrum of ideas and activities associated with green criminology, there are nonetheless several different kinds of analytical framework.

While the link between and among green criminologists is the focus on environmental issues, important theoretical and political differences have become more apparent over time. For example, some argue that green criminology must necessarily be anticapitalist and exhibit a broad radical orientation (Lynch and Stretesky 2003).

Others, however, construe the task as one of conservation and natural resource management, within the definitional limits of existing laws (Herbig and Joubert 2006; Gibbs et al. 2010b). Still others promote the idea that the direction of research should be global and ecological and that new concepts need to be developed that will better capture the nature and dynamics of environmental harms in the twenty-first century (White 2011).

Typically there are important differences within green criminology around issues pertaining to the distinction between “harm” and “crime.” These differences do not stem solely from disputes over the legal/illegal divide however. There are also profound disagreements with regard to victimization and varying conceptions of justice. For instance, there may be differences within a particular area of work, such as debates over “animal rights” versus “animal welfare” in the case of concerns about species justice (Francione 2010). There are also disagreements in terms of priorities, values, and decision-making between particular areas of green criminology (Beirne 2011). This is evident, for example, in debates over multiple land-use areas. This kind of dispute can involve those who argue that human interests should come first (from the perspective of environmental justice), or that specific ecological niches be protected (from the perspective of ecological justice), even if some animals have to be killed or removed from a specific geographical location. From the point of view of species justice, however, big questions can be asked regarding the intrinsic rights of animals and the duty of humans to provide care and protection for nonhuman species.

The hallmark of green criminology, regardless of diversity of opinion and the plurality of views, is that proponents argue that criminology ought to take seriously environmental crimes, and in doing so to rethink how it does what it does, and how it might conceptualize the relevant issues. It is interesting in this respect that a number of prominent criminologists are now utilizing their expertise from mainstream areas of criminology (e.g., situational crime prevention, general strain theory) to study specifically environmental issues such as illegal trade in elephant tusks and social problems arising from climate change (Agnew 2012; Mesko et al. 2010; Lemieux and Clarke 2009). Green criminology is not only expanding in its own right but simultaneously there is a greening of criminology more generally.

Differences within green criminology are not only apparent at the level of theoretical focus and orientation. They are also manifest when it comes to responding to environmental crime or harm. From a critical green criminology view, for example, environmental harm is related to exploitation of both environments and humans by those who control the means of production. Analysis of global capitalism provides answers to questions such as why it is that human societies simultaneously respect and protect certain creatures (especially animal companions such as dogs and cats) while allowing and even condoning the dreadful treatment of others (as in the case of factory farming of battery hens to produce eggs) (Beirne 2009). It also allows us to better understand why it is that we strive to preserve some environments (via creation of national parks) while at the same time ensuring the devastation of particular ecosystems (such as clear-felling of old-growth forests).

Environmental harm takes place within the overarching context of a distinct global political economy. Most writers within the green criminology perspective concentrate on exposing specific types of criminal or harmful environmental actions or omissions. In doing so they have provided detailed descriptions and analyses of phenomena such as the illegal trade of animals, illegal logging, dumping of toxic waste, air pollution, and threats to biodiversity. In many cases, the corpus of work identified within this field has highlighted issues pertaining to social inequality, speciesism, ecological and environmental injustice, and crimes of the powerful. What is less common, however, are examples of study that locate these harms, crimes, injustices, and corrupt practices within the context of an explicit theoretical understanding of the state or economic relations. In other words, it is rare to find a sustained political economy of environmental harm.

Yet, analysis of broad trends indicates that it is systemic imperatives and historical transformations associated with global capitalism that, in today’s world, ultimately shape what it is that individuals do with their lives and their environments. Even a cursory examination of dominant world political economic trends reveals the close link between capitalism as a system and environmental degradation and transformation. The sphere of production is dominated by the production of commodities, the advance of technology and biotechnologies, and the exploitation of labor (particularly in so called Third World countries) in the service of mass production of goods and services that, in turn, demand a high turnover rate. Extensive and intensive forms of consumption are essential to the realization of surplus value – that is, profit depends upon a critical mass of buyers purchasing the mass-produced commodities. The link between production and consumption is found in the form of specific kinds of distribution processes (e.g., transportation of goods and services, retail outlets, storage, roads, railways, bridges, and ships) and exchange mechanisms (e.g., finance capital, credit availability) that sustain and contribute to extensive use of natural and human resources. Economic efficiency is measured in how quickly and cheaply commodities can be produced, channeled to markets, and consumed. It is a process that is inherently exploitive of both humans and nature.

In essence, the competition and the waste associated with the capitalist mode of production have a huge impact on the wider environment, on humans and on nonhuman animals (e.g., in the form of pollution and toxicity levels in air, water, and land). These same processes pose major threats to biodiversity and the shrinking of the number of plant and animal species generally. This is related both to the legal and illegal trade in species, as well as to mass industrial production and extensive use of genetically modified organism (GMO) technologies.

Differences in opinion over the nature of global political economy, and over the tactics and strategies most likely to bring about desired social and ecological transformations, manifest in different approaches to how responses to environmental harm are construed (White 2008). One approach is to chart up existing environmental legislation and provide a sustained socio-legal analysis of specific breaches of law, the role of environmental law enforcement agencies, and the difficulties and opportunities of using criminal law against environmental offenders. Another approach places emphasis on social regulation as the key mechanism to prevent and curtail environmental harm, including attempts to reform existing systems of production and consumption through a constellation of measures and by bringing nongovernment and community groups directly into the regulatory process. A third approach presses the need for transnational activism, with an emphasis on fundamental social change. What counts is engagement in strategies that will challenge dominant authority structures and those modes of production that are linked to environmental degradation and destruction, negative transformations of nature, species decline, and threats to biodiversity. Social movements are seen to be vital in dealing with instances of gross environmental harm.

By its very nature, the development of green criminology as a field of sustained research and scholarship, will incorporate many different approaches and strategic emphases. For some, the point of academic concern and practical application will be to reform aspects of the present system. Critical analysis, in this context, will consist of thinking of ways to improve existing methods of environmental regulation and perhaps to seek better ways to define and legally entrench the notion of environmental crime. For others, the issues raised above are inextricably linked to the project of social transformation. From this perspective, analysis ought to focus on the strategic location and activities of transnational capital, as supported by hegemonic nation-states on a world scale, and it ought to deal with systemic hierarchical inequalities. Such analysis opens the door to identifying the strategic sites for resistance, contestation, and struggle on the part of those fighting for social justice, ecological justice, and animal rights.

There are major political divisions within the broad spectrum of green criminological work (and indeed within green political movements), and these have major implications for whether action will be taken in collaboration with capitalist institutions and state authorities, or whether it will be directed toward radically challenging these institutions and authorities. Similarly, there are significant tensions between ecological justice and species justice approaches, as indicated in the following observation:

The [green environmentalists] rarely champion the sites of their concerns with rights talk, whereas for [animal rights advocates] their very focus is the criterion for moral standing and holding of rights. This crucial deep-seated difference is already present in green criminology in environmentalist notions such as ‘fisheries’ and ‘harvests’ and ‘conservation’, all of which are the stuff and fodder of animal welfare and sustainability but mostly anathema to animal rights. (Beirne 2011: 354)

To put it differently, some green criminologists view nature instrumentally, and harm is viewed through the lens of legality; others view the exploitation of nature, particularly in relation to animals, as intrinsically bad and harmful. How or if this “moral fissure” can be overcome is of major interest to many currently working within the broad area of green criminology.


Green criminology has many different substantive contributions and theoretical dimensions. Debates will continue over how best to define concepts such as harm, crime, and victim; over the moral calculus that weighs up human, ecosystem, and animals interests and rights; and over which interventions will achieve what kinds of intended and unintended outcomes. Dialogue around these issues will ensure lively and healthy deliberations over environmental matters now and into the future.

The development of green criminology has led to new interests, new conceptualizations, and new techniques of analysis. This is because there is increasing acknowledgement of environmental problems and the relevance of this to traditional criminological concerns with social injury and social regulation. There is also greater awareness of the interconnectedness of social and environmental issues. For example, matters relating to poverty, health, indigenous people’s rights, exploitation of nonhuman nature, corporate business wrongdoing, state corruption, and so on are seen in many instances to be inseparable. As well, there is recognition of the need for multidisciplinary approaches to the study of environmental harm, involving cooperation between different “experts,” including those with traditional and experiential knowledge associated with culture and livelihood (such as indigenous peoples and farmers and fishers), as well as sensitivity to ideas and research generated in intellectual domains such as law, police studies, political science, international relations, zoology, biology, philosophy, sociology, and chemistry.

These kinds of observations and interrelationships are forcing a rethink of the social and natural universe and a reconceptualization of the relationship between humans and nature in ways that accord greater weight to the nonhuman when it comes to assessing issues such as environmental harm. In practical terms, this translates into new and overlapping domains of consideration within green criminology itself: hence, the concern with transgressions against humans, environments, and animals.


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