13. Green Criminology
Just as it challenges mainstream constructions of crime and criminality, green criminology presses us to broaden our conception of what it means to be a victim of crime. Traditionally, within criminology—and in the public mind, more generally—victimhood is understood in relatively narrow anthropocentric terms (see “Ecophilosophies in Green Criminology”). Think of the common picture of someone on the receiving end of interpersonal violence, perpetrated perhaps at the hands of a stereotypical offender (young, male, racialised), possibly in a dark alley or other “dangerous” setting. In contrast to this common understanding of victimisation, green criminology adopts a more expansive picture of the victim and the context of victimisation, one that aims to address conventional criminology’s neglect of nature and the impacts of environmental harm. In the rubric of green criminology, victimisation is not limited to humans, but also includes other species and even the broader environment. For a green victimology, which White (2018) refers to as “the study of the social processes and institutional responses pertaining to victims of environmental crime” (p. 239), understanding the effect of power on both how we conceive of environmental harm and how we react to it is a central concern.
Consider the workplace. According to the International Labour Organization, each year across the globe, a staggering 2.8 million people die as a result of their job (“UN”, 2019). An individual’s risk of dying or being hospitalised because of unsafe working conditions is considerably greater than that of being a victim of the type of violent crime that attracts the usual attention of politicians, police and the media (Bittle, 2012). And while available evidence suggests that up to 75 percent of workplace fatalities involve illegality on the part of employers, such deaths rarely register in official crime statistics (Tombs & Whyte, 2017). Many such injuries and deaths result from environmental hazards in the workplace – exposure to dangerous chemicals or toxic emissions on the factory shop floor or to pesticides in an agricultural setting, for example. Green criminology sees these workers as victims of environmental crime and injustice.
As consumers, we also may be the victims of environmental wrong-doing. For example, the toxicity of chemical additives in consumer products, such as the fire retardants coated on furniture or children’s toys or the Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances added to food packaging, has long been minimised or actively suppressed by the corporations that produce them (Maron, n.d.; Perkins, 2021). Such substances are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” so-named because, until created by humans, they did not exist in nature and do not naturally break down. They build up in the environment and bioaccumulate in the human body and, even at extremely low levels, are associated with a range of diseases, including cancer and autoimmune conditions. The impacts of consumer products are often exacerbated through greenwashing or the portrayal of a product or service as environmentally friendly and not harmful. (see breakout box below).
More generally, as citizens, we are to some degree all environmental victims. For instance, just by virtue of existing, we all contain in our bodies harmful industrial pollutants, such as dioxins and persistent organic chemicals, many of which have been released into the environment illegally. The limited enforcement of environmental regulations, partnered with legal and legislative loopholes, means there is often little in the way of sanctions or deterrents to such behaviour. Green criminologists tend to view the economic and social power of the perpetrators of such harms, as well as the complicity of governments in their creation (through lax enforcement and permissive regulations), as at least in part responsible for the lack of recognition of this broader victimisation within both criminology and society.
Discussions of abuses of power pair with discussions about justice. Green criminology offers three distinct justice perspectives that often work in harmony to provide a comprehensive picture of green victimisation: the environmental justice perspective, the species justice perspective, and the ecological justice perspective.
In their advertising, marketing and public relations efforts, corporations often present their activities and products as environmentally benign or even helpful. They may claim that they use “environmentally friendly” technologies or that their products are “natural,” “biodegradable” or otherwise “green.” In many cases, these assertions are inaccurate and designed to create a misleading impression in the minds of consumers. This deceptive use of “green” language (or even the actual colour green in packaging) is known as greenwashing.
Examples of greenwashing abound. For instance, the advertising of multinational energy companies mostly focuses on low-carbon sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, when in fact the great majority of these corporations’ annual investment remains in oil and gas (96% in the case of BP, a company that has aggressively promoted its green image). This has prompted campaigns and legal action by environmental groups to ban fossil fuel advertising (Carrington, 2021).
A far-reaching example of greenwashing is that of plastic recycling. Faced with mounting criticism over the environmental consequences of plastic, in the 1980s, manufacturers decided to push recycling to improve their image. They added the now ubiquitous number system (and chasing arrows) on plastic containers and spent millions promoting plastics recycling. Yet while people now diligently sort their used plastic for municipal pick-up, believing that the impact of all that plastic consumption is lessened because “at least it’s recycled,” globally only about 10 percent of plastic actually gets recycled. While some jurisdictions recycle a much higher percentage (e.g., British Columbia), most plastic ends up in landfills or is burnt. Meanwhile, plastic production more than doubled from 1990 to 2010 (Passionate Eye, 2020). In reality, the industry never considered widespread plastic recycling feasible, and for many, the plastic recycling symbol stands as one of the most effective examples of greenwashing (Sullivan, 2020). For more on this example of greenwashing read Is Plastic Recycling A Lie? Oil Companies Touted Recycling To Sell More Plastic.
the study of the breadth of victims (environment, human, and animal) and avenues of victimization related to environmental crime and harm, as well as the institutional and state responses to such victimization
the corporate practice of portraying a product as environmentally friendly or not harmful; for example, using images of plants on a bottle to imply connection to environmental sustainability but the ingredients contain harmful chemicals.