Environmental Damage Remains Widespread while Criminology Sleeps

Environment Damage Remains Widespread While Criminology Sleeps

This post addresses the neglect of green crime, victimization and justice within criminology. Other disciplines have long addressed the forms of harm destruction of the environment produces. In general, criminology overlooks these issues. Of importance to that discussion is addressing the ecological destruction capitalism produces, and which it must produce, to fulfill its accumulative goals.

Michael J. Lynch
Department of Criminology
Associate Faculty, The Patel School of Global Sustainability
University of South Florida
Tampa, Florida

Criminologists have failed to adequately address the scope of green crimes and the diverse forms of victimization green crimes present in contemporary society. To be sure, green crimes are not simply a modern problem, and scientists have long commented on the environmental problems that face society. The field of environmental toxicology, which can be traced to the influential work of Rachel Carson in the early 1960s formed the basis for the modern era of concern with ecological damage. Medical studies in occupational and public health which can be traced to the 1830s, and well known studies of the effect of poor environmental conditions on the health of the working class (by Charles Turner Thackrah (1831), Edwin Chadwick (1842), Rudolf Virchow (1848) and even Frederick Engels’s (1845) analysis of the conditions of the English working class; for general discussion see, Herbert K. Abrahams, “A Short History of Occupational Health,” 2001, Journal of Public Health Policy, 22,1) mark the earliest acknowledgements that environmental pollution of workplaces, neighborhoods and homes caused physical damage. Yet, in the interdisciplinary field of criminology, the scholarly work on such issues remains untouched, and the issues of green crime and justice largely ignored.

While the average academic criminologist spends a great deal of time and effort attempting to explain why the marginalized mass of the population is the most prone to commit street crime (as if being marginalized was insufficient for this purpose), and in pursuing those explanations invents dozens of individual level explanations for those crimes that explain very little individual level variation in crime; and while the “more radical” among them seek out the cultural meaning of crime and the subjective, individual aspects of the construction of crime as an expressive act – there are real dangers building themselves to staggering new heights all around us. These are the green or environmental crimes of our times, which worsen daily as they build on their own past, destructive history, accumulating daily, filling graveyards and hospitals and doctors’ offices with its victims and lists of extinct and endangered species with some of its nonhuman species. Yet, these green crimes, which harm the living system of earth, its subsystems, and all of the various species that inhabit the living earth – the green crimes which endlessly victimize the living earth and all its species through the global march of the destructive powers of the capitalist world system of production and consumption — go unnamed by the average criminologist, neglected as if they did not exist at all, and as if they caused no harm and were unworthy subject matter. But it is these latter crimes, the green crimes of capitalist industry and the political economy of capitalism, which hide in the open as the criminologist stares around the world for some subject matter of interest to examine, that the criminologist overlooks, and which the discipline of criminology cannot fathom as an offense, that promote the greatest destructive force of our time.

This is a serious charge against criminology, and some would challenge this assumption, asking for support of these contentions. That evidence, too, lies all around us in various government reports and in the writing of a variety of scientists from numerous disciplines – but rarely criminology. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, estimates that 50,000 deaths are caused each year in the US due to poor air quality alone, and that the cost of addressing illnesses that result from exposure to air pollution costs $150 billion annually. The World Health Organization estimates that 40% of deaths world-wide are pollution related. Extending that estimate to the US, we can estimate that that there were approximately 1,000,000 deaths last year due to pollution – a figure that is more than 65 times the number of homicides that occur in the US. And while the harms from green crimes far outweigh those from street crimes such as homicide, homicide is an outcome that occupies much of the time criminologists spend on the study of crime. Thus, if we limit our analysis to just the human consequences of pollution and take a rational look at the harms around us, criminologists could make a much more important contribution to society by addressing the causes and control of pollution than they can ever make even if they were somehow to discover the causes of homicide and entirely eliminate homicides.

Criminologists have long been trained to ignore the forms of victimization caused by the powerful, which includes among those behaviors the forms of ecological damage generated by capitalist industries. Indeed, criminologists not only ignore the crimes of the powerful, they offer extensive critiques of theoretical positions that draw attention to the sources of the crimes of the powerful. Of particular relevance is the critique of radical or political economic explanations of crime, and rejection of the hypothesis that the organizational structure of capitalism plays a significant role in the development those green crimes. Having rejected that obvious association, one that is found, for example, in portions of the ecological literature, especially in economics, the criminologist cannot imagine for a moment that green crimes are a serious problem, or that the modern organization of the global capitalist world system plays a role in perpetuating green crimes. This thought is beyond the limited scope of the micro-level orientation of the typical criminologist.

Because they have rejected the theoretical relevance of political economic analysis and fail to perceive the role political economy plays in ecological destruction, the criminologist is unable to perceive the (green) crime problems that stare them in the face. The criminologist cannot appreciate the fact that the destructive force of capitalism consumes the world, and in doing so undermines the health of the ecosystem and the ability of the various life forms on earth to survive. In contrast, as radical ecologists point out (e.g., Foster, 2000; Burkett, 2006), capitalism must consume and destroy nature in order to produce commodities and to generate profit, which is, after all, the life force of capitalism (for discussion see, Dunn, 2003). Capitalism must, in order that it may live and expand and transform nature into wealth, devour nature. The criminologist, because they are unaware of this literature, fails to appreciate that capitalism consumes nature to the advantage of the few – the economically privileged — and that the consumption of nature produces unequal advantages and disadvantages for the rich and poor.

The vast majority of criminologists, unaware of this argument, fail to perceive the world as it is, and instead sit idly by in the face of ecological destruction, persistently drawing society’s attention to the impoverished offender who is, like the green crimes that threaten the existence of all the species on earth, created by capitalism’s gigantic machinery of production and consumption. In their neglect of these green crimes and their political economic origins, the average criminologist fails to appreciate what the physical scientists of the world are telling us about the state of the world’s ecological system – that it is in deep trouble (Lovelock, 2007, 2000), ailing, and on its last legs as the industrial sectors sucks the life out of the earth to manufacture goods to meet the demands for goods capitalism itself stimulates (Kovel, 2007). The average criminologist takes no notice of these things going on all around them, and cannot comprehend that there is an essential contradiction between nature in its healthy state and the expansion of capitalism, for capitalism must, by its very design, destroy nature to enlarge itself, to gorge itself on nature’s resources.

If there is any doubt that this is the case – that the modern capitalist world system creates excessive consumption — one can refer to scientific measures of this relationship between capitalism and nature. These measures include, for example, the ecological footprint of nations (see the website of the Global Footprint Network, www.footprintnetwork.org). Today, the world ecological footprint is 1.5, meaning that in a year, humans consume the volume of ecological resources nature produces through the labor it applies in 1.5 years. Anyone who understands the very basic principles of mathematics understand that this means that humans are consuming their way to extinction. Assuming that the ecological footprint effect is a simple cumulative function and that there is no feedback between excessive consumptions effects in one year on the ability of nature to reproduce itself at other points in time, and if the ecological footprint were to remain the same – and it is growing, not shrinking – then in a decade, humans will consume 15 or more years of nature’s labor; in a half century, three-quarters of a century of nature’s work, and so forth. That this measure, however, underestimates the effect on certain segments of nature should also be established. For example, nature cannot growth back a forest quickly, and it may take a century for a mature forest to begin to re-establish itself once destroyed (e.g., estimates vary by type of forest, ecosystem composition, and presence of human activities; see, Mueller et al., 2010, who estimate recovery periods of 80-260s years; others find full recovery effects of between 700 [White and Oates, 1999] to 300 years [Knight, 1975]. Riswan, Kentworthy and Kartawinata [1985] estimated recovery between 150-500 years).
We must also keep in mind that footprint effects are not evenly distributed. Moreover, we must keep in mind that the world-wide level of consumption is driven by the more advanced capitalist nations. In the US, for example, the ecological biocapacity is 4 hectares (9.9 acres) per person, meaning that there are 4 hectares of land available for consumption purposes per person. US consumption, however, is 7 hectares (17.3 acres) per person, meaning that the average American consumes 3 hectares (7.4 acres) of resources beyond the per-person ecological resources available in the US. Those resources are provided by other nations and that unequal exchange between US consumers and nature in foreign lands is facilitated by the capitalist world system. That is to say, overconsumption in one part of the capitalist world system (in one nation) is paid for by transferring ecological needs and withdrawals to nations that consume less, shifting consumption effects across nations (Stretesky and Lynch, 2009).

We can see this tendency toward ecological destruction and overconsumption in other measures as well. Global footprints indicate how much we consume, but not how much we destroy the environment by adding waste products (i.e., pollution) to nature. One indicator of these waste products is our carbon footprint or the quantity of carbon waste humans add to the environment. This waste is an indicator of the consumption of fossil fuel and chemical energy humans use, and can also be employed to understand related problems such as the production of entropy caused by humans (e.g., www.globalcarbonproject.org; http://co2now.org/Current-CO2/CO2-Now/global-carbon-emissions.html; www.epa.gov/climatechange/ ghgemissions/global.html). These data, like footprint data, indicate that we are consuming our way to extinction and taking the living earth along with us.

Despite the pretense that world governments are addressing this issue, environmentally, things are getting worse, not better. Even while nations endeavor to reduce their carbon footprints, the world level of carbon dioxide grows, and now is just short of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon dioxide level (399.89). Many scientists suggest that the 400 ppm carbon dioxide level marks a tipping point in climate change, and that the negative impacts of the greenhouse effect will accelerate.
Pollution problems grow everywhere. Recent estimates suggest that pollution in China has grown so severe that it causes 1.2 million premature deaths annually (a figure well in excess – 89 times — of the number of homicide in China, which stand at about 13,400 annually). While those pollution related deaths are a small percentage of the Chinese population, the number of pollution related deaths are likely underestimated for a variety of reasons, such as classification of a death as pollution related. In addition, the effects of recent increases in pollution levels in China will not have an impact for up to another twenty years (representing an estimate of the time it may take for pollution exposure to cause death through disease processes), making the recovery from pollution a long term process in China, and indicating that the long term impact of the growth of pollution in China will be felt for decades. Other areas of the world where pollution is extensive, including several other Asian nations as well as the US, indicates that political leaders have not adequately dealt with the problem of pollution. Singapore, for instance, is currently wrapped in a thick smog blanket that is projected to last several weeks, where air pollution levels have reached a 16 year high. Some of that pollution is due to historically high levels of forest bur ns. To illustrate the extent of the problem, the air pollution index for Singapore reached 371 in June, 2013, whereas the previous high, 226, was set in 1997. In short, these observations indicate that the ecological and health consequences f ecological destruction are becoming more severe as humans continuously devour nature and change the very essence of the ecosystem that keeps them alive.

In the US, facilities that report to the US EPA estimated producing nearly 22.8 billion pounds of hazardous waste in 2011. While industries report releasing “only” 18% (4.1 billion pounds) of that waste directly into the environment and transferring the rest to hazardous waste handlers for disposal, research indicates that those reports likely under-estimate the volume of emissions by as much as 40% (de Marchi and Hamilton, 2006). Ignoring the possibility of under-reporting, we can estimate from those reports that US industries produced more than 220 billion pounds of waste in the past decade, and emitted more than 40 billion pounds of hazardous waste directly into the environment. Those hazardous emissions are accumulating to dangerous levels, increasing the probability that ecological damage of this type accelerates the likelihood of pollution related deaths and illnesses. Those emission estimates do not include emissions from “accidental chemical releases” or ACRs. In 2011, there were more than 30,000 reported ACRs in the US that released an uncounted volume of waste. Those incidents resulted in 1,270 deaths, and cost more than $15.8 million in damages by themselves.

In some places, new forms of environmental harms are emerging. In California, the “medical marijuana” industry has recently been discovered to be generating extensive ecological damage cause by marijuana farming. In addition to transforming forests into medical marijuana farms, marijuana growers are using rodenticides to protect their crops from wood rats. In recent months, the deaths of seven Pacific Fishers, a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act, have been linked to the use of those poisons. Only two populations of Pacific Fishers are believed to exist in the state of California — a state where the Pacific Fisher once was widespread. Marijuana farms in California have been established on hilltops, using methods similar to mountaintop removal mining. The hilltops are bulldozed clear of forest, shrubs and rock, creating impediments to streams, and impacting waterways used by salmon (Coho, Chinook and Steelhead) when the overburden is pushed down the hillsides. The bulldozed earth has also created erosion and landslide problems. Water dams and other water diversion methods used to irrigate the marihuana farms are also contributing to serious environmental problems. In other parts of California, the use of pesticides and new farming methods have caused a dramatic decline in what used to be one of the state’s most numerous bird species – the tri-colored black-bird. Data from the Audubon Society’s annual bird count in California indicates a 35% decline in tri-colored black-birds since 2008. The environmental problems for California don’t stop here, as recent studies suggest that California is losing its Central Valley underground aquifer, which feeds significant agricultural production. Shrinking underground aquifers, however, have become a common problem across the US.

Recent studies on the prevalence of autism among US children found that autism rates are higher in heavily polluted areas, providing an indication of a suspected link between autism and certain environmental pollutants (e.g., http://psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/ newsarticle.aspx?articleid=1558422) . Across the world, studies indicate that the intensified use of pesticides is increasing the loss of species biodiversity, especially in Australia and in European nations (Beketov et al., 2013). In Turkey, an economic boom is leading to a loss of marine species diversity. Also in Australia, lead emissions from the mining industry are causing an increase in lead poisoning cases among children (McKay et al., 2013). In Virginia, the Hellbender Salamander is dying off, apparently from exposure to pollution. In Florida’s Indian River, 111 manatees, 46 dolphins and more than 300 pelicans have shown up dead in recent months, the possible victims of pollution exposure.

These are serious environmental problems, problems criminology seems largely incapable of recognizing as green crimes, forms of green victimization and as issues relevant to discussions of green injustice. The structure of criminology as a discipline has made it an antiquated discipline incapable of conceptualizing green crime and victimizations as serious issues, or to perceive the need for green theories of justice in the contemporary era. Criminology, which remains anchored to its ancient past, now stands as a discipline that has perverted the concept of crime and disfigured the meaning of justice. Within criminology, concepts such as “crime” and “justice” have relevance only within the limited space law provides for such idea. Criminology’s adoption of the legal definition of crime and justice has, for example, made these concepts into reflections of legalized jargon absent of any definitional clarity outside of the scope of law and its ability to institutionalize definitions of crime that it can precisely codify – that is, theoretically. The law does not speak to the general concept of crime, nor does it appreciate nor understand the concept of green crime and justice, or that as an institution, that law itself is merely a mechanism for reinforcing preexisting and unequal economic arrangements and the destructive tendencies of economic forms from which green crimes emerge.

In the era of ecological demise in which we are now embedded there is a need to reconstruct criminology so that it becomes relevant to addressing green crime and justice and the forms of ecological destruction the world capitalist system imposes. A criminology capable of less than this has become irrelevant to the widespread forms of green victimization and injustice that plagues the living system of earth (Gaia, as scientists call it) and the living species that depend on Gaia’s ability to reproduce the conditions for life for itself and other living species.


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