13. Green Criminology

13.1 What is Green Criminology?

Dr. Gregory Simmons; Dr. Mark Vardy; and Dr. Rochelle Stevenson

Lynch (1990) was the first to use the term green criminology. He articulated the core ideas of this critical perspective, arguing that

[m]any issues (e.g., racism, sexism, crime, environmentalism, etc.) can be related to economic, political and class interests, and more specifically, to the ability of powerful groups to manipulate and use race, class, gender, and the environment to preserve the basis of their power (Lynch, 1990, p. 1).

Lynch (1990) points out not only the role of power in crimes against the environment, but also how such crimes disproportionately affect individuals based on race, class, and gender. To this, we would add species and nature, as green criminology expands the notion of victimhood to include animals (plus sentient beings like fish and insects) and the environment.

South (2014) offers a simple definition of green criminology: “the study of crime, harm and injustice related to the environment and to species other than humans” (p. 8). Though this definition of green criminology may appear simple, there is much nuance contained within. Such nuance is made visible in Brisman and South’s (2019) definition:

Green criminology refers to the study of environmental crimes and harms affecting human and non‐human life, ecosystems and the biosphere. More specifically, green criminology explores and analyses: the causes, consequences and prevalence of environmental crime and harm, the responses to and prevention of environmental crime and harm by the legal system (civil, criminal, regulatory) and by nongovernmental entities and social movements, as well as the meaning and mediated representations of environmental crime and harm (p. 1).

While it may seem complicated, to better understand the scope green criminology we can break this definition down to a few core components:  a focus on environment, animals and humans; a focus on crime; a focus on harm; and a focus on injustice.

A Focus on Environment, Animals, and Humans

Much of traditional criminology is anthropocentric (human-centred), as theories and research focus on humans both as perpetrators of criminal actions as well as victims of crime. In contrast, green criminology broadens this view to include the environment (water, land, air, and plants) as well as non-human animals, including wild, farmed, and domestic animals. Green criminology moves away from a strictly anthropocentric perspective to a more encompassing view of who could be a victim of crime or harm. We discuss environmental victimisation further below in the section ‘Green Criminology and Victimisation.’

A Focus on Crime

Green criminology is a perspective on crime, meaning behaviour deemed illegal, such as that within the Criminal Code or prohibited actions in regulatory laws like the Canadian Environmental Protection Act or the Species at Risk Act. Green criminology not only looks at breaches of law, but also who is breaking the law, and how the justice system responds to such breaches. Green criminology is a critical perspective and calls attention to the role that power plays in determining both the laws and who is deemed to have violated those laws.

The example of industrial animal agriculture is useful here. The Criminal Code prohibits unnecessary pain, suffering or injury of animals, as noted in s. 445.1(1). However, the animal agriculture industry itself shapes the codes of practice, including welfare standards, via the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), which is composed of a variety of interest groups and provincial ministries. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for inspecting animal agriculture facilities, is also represented among the members of the NFACC. In essence, the animal agriculture industry itself determines what is “necessary” pain and suffering for the animals within their control, creating a loophole for corporations to continue to treat animals poorly. Green criminologists call attention to gaps in law, highlighting the loopholes that favour corporations and industries at the expense of animals and the environment (Campbell et al., 2016; Girard et al., 2010; Long et al., 2012).

A Focus on Harm

Green criminology embraces a zemiological approach, which entails the study of social harm (Naughton, 2007). As part of the focus on harm, green criminologists pose these critical questions: Who determines what is harmful? and Who defines what is criminal? These questions centre the issue of power, as in who has the power to construct definitions of environmental crime, who has the power to resist definitions of harm, and importantly, who and what are harmed by these actions.

Indeed, many actions that are legal are harmful and have more widespread impacts than “street” crime. Long et al. (2012) point out the harm caused by legal practices within the coal industry, such as the environmental devastation caused by strip mining and the chemicals used in processing coal. Such devastation not only negatively affects the air and water, but also plants, animals, and humans living in areas near coal mines. Furthermore, many normal practices within animal agriculture are harmful to the animals and workers within the industry, as well as the wider environment (Fitzgerald, 2015; Sewell, 2020). Benz (2019) discusses the water situation in Flint, Michigan, highlighting the legal (and money-saving) decision to switch the drinking water supply from the clean Lake Huron to the polluted Flint River in 2014 (see Michael Moore: Flint water crisis ‘a racial crime’). After several years of recorded high levels of contaminants in the water system, and the slow replacement of the pipes coupled with promises of safe water, people in Flint still cannot drink the water from their taps, or trust the water is safe.

Hillyard and Tombs (2007) point out that “crime” is socially constructed (see 1 What is Crime?), meaning that an action has to be perceived as a crime and defined as a crime, and then the definition must be accepted by society. They also point out, however, that crime serves to maintain power relations…[and] although the criminal law has the potential to capture some of the collective harmful events perpetuated in the suites and in the corridors of the state, it largely ignores these activities and focuses on individual acts and behaviours on the streets. (Hillyard & Tombs, 2007, p. 15)

Corporations have vested interests in defining some actions as criminal and resisting criminal definitions of others. We can again look to the animal agriculture industry to illustrate this fact. Farm and agriculture groups have successfully lobbied against attempts to revise the animal cruelty provisions in the Criminal Code over the past two decades, fearing that a shift in the law would make their “normal” animal husbandry practices illegal (Verbora, 2015). Yet, Canadian provinces are moving toward so-called ag-gag laws; since 2019, Alberta, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, and Manitoba have passed provincial ag-gag laws and amended existing legislation incorporating ag-gag language (see Federal “Ag Gag” Bill Could Punish Negligent Farmers After Amendments at Committee). Ag-gag legislation criminalises undercover investigations of animal agriculture operations, limits whistleblowing, and prohibits the recording of animal agriculture activities (Kramer, 2020). Such laws are supported by the animal agriculture industry as they silence and criminalise groups and people who oppose them and further render the conditions of the production of meat and fur invisible. Green criminologists point out the speciesism inherent in these laws, and how such silencing harms both the animals and the employees who work in these spaces (Fitzgerald, 2015; Kramer, 2020).  See Criminalizing Compassion: How Ag-Gag Legislation Lets Corporations Set the Laws of the Land to learn about the first person to be charged under ag-gag laws in Utah.

Green criminologists call attention to this dichotomy between legal and harmful, and clearly critique the power relations that allow the harmful behaviour of corporations to continue seemingly unchecked (see Environmentalists want Nestlé to stop water-taking in Ontario town amid drought to learn about the actions of Nestle and the town of Aberfoyle, ON).  The focus on harm allows green criminology to expand the idea of what should be considered under a criminological umbrella, as well as expands the conceptualisation of who, and what, can be considered victims of such harms.

A Focus on Injustice

With a focus on harm, and attention to power, green criminology’s concentration on injustice follows naturally. A striking case of injustice persists in the homes of many Indigenous peoples across Canada, where the stark impacts of colonisation and systemic oppression are felt. For decades, multiple Indigenous communities have been living under water advisories, where they must boil the water in order to drink it or bathe. Rather than this being a problem only for remote communities, it is a problem for urban communities as well. For example, the Semiahmoo First Nation only recently ended its 16-year boil-water advisory despite being only five kilometres outside the city of White Rock, BC (about 50 km south of Vancouver), whose residents have always had clean drinking water (Black, 2021). The federal government of Canada has been promising for years to solve the water issue for Indigenous communities, yet the situation continues. According to Black’s (2021) research, “the number of water-borne diseases in First Nations communities is 26 times higher than the national average, and people living on reserve are 90 times more likely to have no access to running water compared to non-Indigenous people in Canada” (para. 8).

Green criminologists call attention to the fact that water is a human right according to the United Nations (see Human Rights to Water and Sanitation), critically analysing the structural inequities systemic racism, and persisting colonial oppressions—that result in such situations.  Indigenous peoples around the world bear the brunt of environmental injustice, from toxic oil contamination in Amazonian Ecuador (Kimerling, 2013; Pellegrini et al., 2020), to dam construction in Brazil (Bratman, 2014), to the toxic waste situation in the United States (Vickery & Hunter, 2016).

Table 13.1: Traditional Criminology versus Green Criminology: Core Components
Traditional Criminology Green Criminology
Scope Anthropocentric – Focus on humans, as perpetrators and victims Non-speciesist – includes environment and animals, both human and non-human
View of Crime Examines breaches of the law as the problem Moves beyond the Criminal Code and regulatory laws, questions the role of power, and asks who is breaking the law and how the justice system responds.
Harm Narrow definition of harm – focus primarily on harms resulting from acts deemed illegal Zemiological – study of social harms, including harms resulting from both legal and illegal actions.  Asks who determines what is harmful and what is criminal
Justice/Injustice Crimes seen as acts committed against the state; does consider marginalization in perpetration and victimization of crime Focus on injustices resulting from actions or inactions of corporations, governments, and individuals.  Calls attention to injustices disproportionately experienced by marginalized groups.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Gregory Simmons; Dr. Mark Vardy; and Dr. Rochelle Stevenson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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