What is Green Criminology?

By Dr Gary R. Potter, London South Bank University, UK

The Brief Answer:
Green Criminology is the analysis of environmental harms from a criminological perspective, or the application of criminological thought to environmental issues. As elsewhere in criminology, this means thinking about offences (what crimes or harms are inflicted on the environment, and how), offenders (who commits crime against the environment, and why) and victims (who suffers as a result of environmental damage, and how), and also about responses to environmental crimes: policing, punishment and crime prevention. On a more theoretical level, green criminology is interested in the social, economic and political conditions that lead to environmental crimes; on a philosophical level it is concerned with which types of harms should be considered as ‘crimes’ and therefore within the remit of a green criminology.

The In-Depth Answer:
To say that ‘Green Criminology’ is the application of criminology to ‘green’ issues is both an accurate answer and a slightly unhelpful one, presupposing, as it does, that both  ‘criminology’ and ‘green’ are clearly defined concepts. But they are not. Even within the ranks of criminologists – students, academics, practitioners – the meaning and remit of ‘green criminology’ is not widely understood or agreed upon. Indeed, even amongst the fledgling community of scholars who call themselves green criminologists no two are likely to give the same answer to this fundamental question. So let’s start with the basics.

Criminology is the study of crime and criminals. But even this definition is of limited use – whilst we might recognise that criminals commit crime, and criminologists study crime, we are still in need of a definition of crime itself to really understand what criminology is! Most dictionaries offer multiple definitions of the word ‘crime’, usually starting with the idea that it is a breach of the criminal law; “an action or an instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the interests of the state and that is legally prohibited”. This usage is the one that most people think of, at least at first, thinking about crime. But dictionaries – and everyday speech – offer alternatives that refer to some sense of morality (which is ultimately subjective) rather than law (which strives to be objective): “any offense, serious wrongdoing or sin” (these definitions are taken dictionary.com). In this sense, crime is best seen as some form of wrongdoing rather than the stricter breaking of (criminal) laws. (The fact that criminal lawyers themselves struggle to define ‘crime’ – as distinct from other forms of law breaking and without reference to a concept of ‘criminal’ which again begs the question – is another essay entirely.)

Criminology in its original and narrowest sense sticks with the common legal definitions of crime and criminal, focusing on those acts that are deemed so harmful as to be defined as crimes by the state and those people who commit such acts. Or at least, those people who are both caught committing such acts and successfully processed by the criminal justice system. Radical and Critical criminologists have long since challenged this narrow perspective, asking questions about those who commit acts that are arguably as harmful, but not covered by the criminal law, or those who get away with their crimes whether because they evade detection or because they are not successfully labelled as criminals or punished for their crimes, or about the very social structures that ultimately decide who or what might be labelled criminal or crime. What do we make of the banker who pockets millions whilst the savings of the lower classes are lost, or the politicians who seem to use their positions to improve their own lot even when their people face daily struggles (and many of whom are locked up as criminals)? Laws may or may not be broken in these instances, but it is rare for criminal prosecutions to occur. In a world of financial crises, fraud, corruption and abuse of power, where businessmen, journalists and politicians all feature in high-profile criminal trials, it might be surprising to consider that white collar, corporate, state and war crimes are relatively recent additions to the substantive subject matter of criminology.

Given the fact that ‘crime’ is both socially and politically structured (and therefore subjective), many criminologists have suggested more objective bases for the ‘discipline’. The sociology of deviancehas long overlapped with criminology. In a rejection of its somewhat arbitrary nature (at least when we take a big step backwards and consider variations in criminal law across different countries and different cultures at different points in history), a human-rights perspective has been suggested a better benchmark than criminal law. Avoiding legal (if not political) connotations completely, another proposed development has been for criminology to focus instead on social harm. With the idea that harmful acts inflicted on others might be worthy of the label ‘crime’, we find criminology, like the dictionary, recognises there might be more to ‘crime’ than the criminal law.

Let us now take the other half of the question. ‘Green’, of course, refers to having consideration for the natural environment. But even here there is a range of interpretations as to what exactly this encompasses. Is ‘green’ just a recognition of a natural environment existing, or does it suggest a nature that we care about? Is there (or should there be) a duty to care (or, in a more legalistic formulation, a duty of care)? What do we mean by ‘natural environment’ anyway? The (ever diminishing) wild areas of the world or also rural areas where humans harness nature (including farmlands and fisheries and forests)? Urban areas contain nature, and a true understanding of the science of ecology demonstrates that the natural world cannot be separated from the world of human society. What about animals that are taken out of their natural environments – pets, livestock, zoo animals, lab rats – are these still subject to a green perspective, or is care for animal welfare or animal rights a separate (but overlapping) debate?

What do we make of the political connotations of the word ‘green’ when used in this sense? ‘Green’ political parties are becoming increasingly influential in many parts of the world, including in the powerful economies of Europe and Oceania. Even in the United States and other countries where small parties do not feature on the electoral map (and those where meaningful elections do not feature at all) green issues are widely discussed. This is understandable – agree with them or not, if the scientists are right, unprecedented environmental challenges loom ever-larger on the horizon. Regardless of the science and the politics, millions of people experience the consequences of environmental catastrophes on a regular basis. But ‘green’ politics still carries a somewhat negative image in parts of the public conscience. There are suggestions of affiliation to hippie ideals – with all the connotations that implies. Even without this, there is a worry that ‘greens’ will focus on environmental issues to the detriment of our social and economic wellbeing. Green ideologies certainly do not seem to fit well (although some argue they can) with the dominant neo-capitalist political and economic thinking of the industrialised world: go green and say goodbye to technological and economic development and high standards of living.

Let us put aside the semantics. Returning to the question at hand, we can give the following answer. Green criminology is, indeed, the meeting point of criminology and environmental issues. In its narrowest, but least contentious, conceptualisation, green criminology concerns itself with the breach of laws designed to protect the environment or animals (such as laws restricting pollution, or prohibiting hunting). Given that environmental protection is one of the fastest growing areas of both international law and (for example) UK criminal law this narrow focus is more than enough to justify a specialist Green Criminology. In a broader definition, green criminology is concerned with social and individual harms caused by or through the wilful or negligent damage of the environment. In its broadest sense, green criminology is concerned with all types of harm inflicted on the environment caused by human activity, whether or not there are obvious human victims.

Within the broader analytic framework of traditional criminology, harms to the environment are ‘crimes’, and green criminologists seek to understand both how these happen and where, when and why they occur. Green criminologists also focus on those who commit these crimes (the ‘criminals’ of mainstream criminology) and who (or what) suffers when crimes occur (‘victims’). We draw on criminological traditions of policing, punishment and crime prevention to consider how best to respond to environmental harm and environmental offenders; we take concepts inherent in criminal justice to develop ideas about social, environmental and ecological justice.

Green criminology can – and does – include all of these perspectives. Although green criminologists may disagree about the limits of their discipline they are largely agreed about its core: some of the ways that man interacts with nature are so harmful as to be worthy of the label ‘crime’.

Even More About Green Criminology…

Gary Potter has also written an article titled “What is Green Criminology” that was published in November 2010 in Sociology Review.You can download of view this article here: What is Green Criminology?

Sociology Review has graciously given us permission to make this article, “What is Green Criminology” by Gary Potter, available to download. Please visit their website for more information on their journal.