The Green Criminology Monthly #10 – June 2013 – Some Thoughts on the Dependent Variable in Studies of Green Crime

Welcome to the tenth issue of The Green Criminology Monthly by the IGCWG. Written and reviewed by the members of the International Green Criminology Working Group, The Green Criminology Monthly is a source of original research and publication on green criminology, environmental crime, and other issues concerning criminology. Each month a issue of this publication will be posted to our blog.

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Some Thoughts on the Dependent Variable in Studies of Green Crime

Michael Long
Department of Sociology
Oklahoma State University

What is a green crime? When does an act move from being just environmentally hazardous to a full-blown green crime? These are questions that green criminologists often wrestle with, either when attempting to explain the field of green criminology to students or uninitiated colleagues, or more importantly, when designing studies to analyze the correlates and causes of green crimes. In this essay, I would like to address these issues through a discussion of the choices green criminologists have to make when selecting a dependent variable (i.e. the measure of green crime) for analysis. In this essay, to present my argument clearly, I focus primarily on quantitative studies. However the discussion below would apply equally to measures of green crime in qualitative studies. This essay proceeds as follows. First, I briefly discuss the social construction of crime literature. Next, I review previous research that suggests that green criminology should focus on harms. I then turn to an examination of possible dependent variables in studies of green crime. The discussion stresses the importance of selecting a dependent variable that measures environmental harm, not adherence to a socially constructed environmental law. I also suggest that further theoretical development that takes a political economy approach to the study of green crimes will lead researchers towards employing scientific measures of green crimes as dependent variables.

All Law (Including Environmental) is a Social Construction

Despite the acceptability of defining crime as a violation of the criminal law within criminology, the criminal law is not an objective standard for doing so. Though not often stated in this exact way, Quinney (1970) famously argued that crime is a social construction. In the process of constructing crime, social, political and economic interests influence what the legal system defines as a crime, and what it does not. Political and economic elites attempt to (and often succeed at) protecting their interests by excluding harmful behaviors from criminal definition, because doing so is beneficial to them.

This process often occurs in cases where environmental degradation is a primary issue. While it is, for example, in the public’s interest to be protected from pollution, it is in the interest of those who own the means of producing to encourage minimal pollution regulations as a means of protecting profit. In the economics literature, this relationship is depicted by the environmental Kuznets curve which states that as modernization and economic growth proceed, environmental harms accelerate until, at some point, the relationship is reverse and further economic development constrains ecological harms. Empirical evidence on this point is mixed.

From the standpoint of political economy, the relationship between environmental protection and economic growth is believed to be an inverse relationship, meaning that political economy hypothesizes the first half of the environmental Kuznets curve. Put another way, environmental degradation increases with commodity production as firms attempt to increase the surplus value embodied within the commodity. In an effort to expand profit, capitalism externalizes environmental inputs and outputs, and therefore, any attempt to regulate these environmental withdrawals and additions, will result in a reduction in profits for the capitalist (Schnaiberg 1980). Corporate elites, then, will attempt to limit environmental regulation. One effective way of doing this is to put pressure on the State (e.g. through lobbing, withholding financial contributions, etc.) to craft environmental law that is favorable to capital accumulation, while giving the public the impression that the environment is being protected.

The Harm Approach in Green Criminology

Green criminologists have recognized that to study green crimes objectively, a focus on environmental harms that are scientifically determined (Lynch and Stretesky 2001; 2011) is more accurate than a focus on environmental laws. For instance as Stretesky, Long and Lynch (2013) note, “[A] harms perspective is shaped by shared understandings and scientific knowledge about what constitutes ecological harm rather than being a socially constructed concept defined by politicians as in orthodox criminology.” Consequently, the green criminologist should look to fields such as biology, medicine, epidemiology, and toxicology for scientifically derived indicators of ecological harm (Lynch and Stretesky 2011).

Many scientific indicators are available that measure environmental harm. I will provide a brief overview of one group of these measures here, referred to as planetary boundaries. Johan Rockström and Will Steffen along with a group of Earth System and environmental scientists (2009a; 2009b) identified nine planetary boundaries: climate change, nitrogen/phosphorus cycle, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, stratospheric ozone depletion, global freshwater use, changes in land use, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. Breaching these boundaries could trigger major environmental disruptions that would fundamentally alter the Earth’s ecosystem, resulting in massive negative effects on humans and non-human animals. The boundaries have been developed independent of country-level or global environmental laws and regulations; they are objective thresholds derived from scientific evaluations.

Selection of Dependent Variables in Studies of Green Crime

Orthodox criminology is replete with studies that model adherence to (or lack thereof) criminal laws (i.e. the dependent variable = did a violation of law X occur? (Yes/No)). However, if we side with Quinney (1970), this is a problematic assumption. Following Quinney’s argument, these orthodox studies are actually measuring adherence to a social and political construction, and this is not the same as modeling an objective scientific fact. This difference is particularly worrisome in studies of environmental crime because the scale and scope of the damage caused by green crimes is often much greater than street crime.

How do green criminologists avoid modeling social and political constructions? By selecting dependent variables that are scientific measures of ecological harms. I will use a planetary boundary, chemical pollution, for illustration purposes. The nine planetary boundaries are broad ecological categories that require concrete indicators. Rockström et al. (2009a: 473) suggest the following indicators of chemical pollution: concentration of persistent organic pollutants, plastics, endocrine disrupters, heavy metals, and nuclear waste in the global environment. Measurements of these chemicals and environmental contaminants provide objective indicators of environmental harm and crime.

Now, consider two hypothetical studies on the same topic, pollution created by corporations in the United States. Study 1 uses two dichotomous (yes/no) dependent variables: 1) Did the company violate the Clean Water Act?, and 2) Did the company violate the Clean Air Act? Study 2 uses Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) emission data. TRI, created by the US Environmental Protection Agency, is a measure of chemical pollution, specifically, total reported chemical releases (air emissions, surface water discharges, underground injections and releases to land) in metric tons per year by company (Burns, Lynch and Stretesky 2008). The results of Study 1 will be impacted by the economic and political influences that are embedded within the Clean Water and Air Acts. For example, the subject of the study, corporations, helped indirectly craft these laws through campaign contributions and lobbying. The results of this study will clearly underestimate the level of green crime that is occurring in the United States. The results of Study 2, in contrast, represent a more objective assessment of the effects of corporate pollution on the ecosystem since the dependent variable is a scientifically-based measure of environmental harm. In addition to being more objective, the dependent variable in Study 2, TRI emissions, provides information on the degree of the environmental crime, not just its occurrence. While Study 1 could only tell a researcher if a green crime was occurring, the results of Study 2 provide the researcher with the amount of chemical pollution. This is a much more interesting and useful measure since it can also tell us about the degree of ecological harm that is occurring. Finally, recalling the harm perspective in green criminology, it is entirely possible that the Earth could reach and exceed the planetary boundary for chemical pollution, while the levels of pollution remain below the arbitrarily set country-level laws like the US Clean Water and Air Acts. So, environmental harm continues, but if green criminologists, scientists and policy makers choose the Study 1 approach, those other outcomes will go unnoticed.


In this brief essay, it was my intention to bring attention to the way green criminologists operationalize green crime in our research. Crime and criminal law is a social construction and we must treat it as such. By choosing our dependent variables wisely we can get a much better idea of the amount of green crime that is occurring, while at the same time have a more nuanced understanding of how and why green crimes occur.

As I mentioned in the introduction, I present my argument for the use of scientific-based dependent variables in green criminology with a quantitative study as an example. However, qualitative researchers should pay attention to this issue as well. In qualitative case study research, it is difficult to define what “green crime” means in the same manner that I argue for in quantitative studies. Although it is much easier to scientifically operationalize green crimes with quantitative indicators, qualitative researchers should not shy away from providing a detailed, theoretically informed, explanation of why their case should be considered a green crime.

As green criminologists strive to explain environmental harms, proper operationalization of green crimes is only one issue. A second, equally important ingredient is theory. I have argued that we need scientific-based indicators of green crime because as Quinney (1970) argues, crime is reflective of political and economic interests. Green criminological theory should make this clear by focusing on the role that political economy plays in the causes of environmental harms. By starting with political economy assumptions, green criminologists are likely to realize the necessity of selecting objective indicators of green crimes.

In sum, green criminologists often study issues that are influenced by political and economic interests. Therefore it is important that green criminologists take steps to eliminate as much of this bias from their results as possible. One relatively easy step is to carefully select measures of green crime to serve as dependent variables in green criminological research.


Burns, R. G., M. J. Lynch, and P. B. Stretesky. 2008. Environmental Law, Crime and Justice. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly.

Lynch, M. J. and P. B. Stretesky, P.B. 2001. “Toxic crimes: examining corporate victimization of the general public employing medical and epidemiological evidence.” Critical Criminology, 10(3): 153–72.

Lynch, M. J. and P. B. Stretesky, P.B. 2011. “Toxic Crimes.” Forthcoming in Wilcox, P. and Cullen, F. (eds.) Oxford Handbook of Criminology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Quinney, R. 1970. The Social Reality of Crime. Boston: Little, Brown.

Rockström et al. 2009a. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Nature 461(24): 472–75.

Rockström et al. 2009b. “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Ecology and Society 14(2): 32 available at:

Schnaiberg, A. 1980. The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Stretesky, P. B., M. A. Long, and M. J. Lynch. 2013. The Treadmill of Crime: Political Economy and Green Criminology. London, UK: Routledge.

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