There are several ways to define environmental crime. From a legal perspective, one could define environmental crime as harms committed against the environment that are in violation of statutorily defined terms. Philosophers may expand this definition to include environmental harms that do not fall under legally proscribed guidelines. The varied interpretations of what specifically constitutes environmental crime generate particular challenges for many groups, including industry leaders, environmentalists, criminologists, and politicians.
III. Environmental Law
Societal recognition of, and concern for, environmental issues waxes and wanes according to various factors and developments. For instance, recent concerns about global warming and increased costs of oil have contributed to enhanced societal concerns for environmental issues. Similar concern regarding oil shortages in the 1980s generated public concern for environmental issues, including the need for alternatives to fossil fuel–operated vehicles. The term environmental issues encompasses many different issues, including protection of the environment, sustainability, and environmental crimes. The last of these is the focus of this research paper.
Scientific and academic focus on environmental issues has contributed to the emergence of environmental studies as a distinct academic discipline. Such programs typically require an interdisciplinary approach to address the varied nature of environmental science. Studying environmental crime demands an interdisciplinary approach that includes fields such as biology, criminology, criminal justice, economics, sociology, chemistry, and psychology. Accordingly, criminologists have much to contribute to the study of environmental issues, primarily due to the significant occurrence of environmental crimes. Unfortunately, the study of environmental crime is in its infancy and much work remains to be completed.
Annually, far more people are killed from environmental crimes than from traditional homicides (Burns & Lynch, 2004), and millions more suffer ill effects from environmental harms. Yet, the study of environmental crime is largely absent from the criminal justice and criminology research literatures. Medical and environmental scientists, as well as sociologists, have studied various aspects of environmental harms; however, there is scant coverage of the crime- and justice-related elements of environmental harms in the research literature. Criminologists have long studied traditional, or street crimes, often at the expense of environmental crime and other white collar offenses.
Environmental harms have traditionally been recognized by much of society as simply “the costs of doing business.” Fortunately, such acts are increasingly being recognized as the crimes they are. Most attention devoted to environmental crimes highlights the direct, visible, or primary harms associated with offenses against the environment. However, the initial, or direct harms stemming from environmental crimes often signify only a small portion of the associated harms. Many environmental crimes have substantial secondary, or indirect harms that may initially go unnoticed. Accordingly, these harms are sometimes not attributed to the criminal act.
Take, for instance, the harms associated with polluting a lake. The most obvious and direct harms associated with such an act may be the death of the fish in the lake or the discoloration of the water. Consider, however, the secondary effects such as individuals consuming the contaminated fish, swimming in the dirty lake, and drinking the polluted well water located close by the lake. These secondary harms from polluting the lake, which may very well result in serious illnesses or deaths, may not appear for years. The initial disconnect between the crime and the recognizable harms will likely result in any penalties for the offense being significantly disproportionate to the associated harms.
The term environmental crime has been used somewhat loosely thus far in this research paper. The following section discusses what, specifically, constitutes environmental crime. From a legal perspective, a crime cannot occur without a related law. Accordingly, the discussion of what constitutes an environmental crime is followed by an overview of environmental law. Laws serve little purpose if they aren’t enforced; thus, the section on environmental law is followed by coverage of enforcement efforts pertaining to environmental crime. The final section of this research paper addresses several issues likely to impact the future of the environment and, specifically, environmental crime.