II. What Is Environmental Crime?
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. For the purposes of this research paper, environmental crime is defined as any act, or attempted act, committed against the environment that violates statutorily defined laws.
Environmental crime is often viewed as a form of white collar crime, particularly when considering that the actors involved in committing the illegal act often represent corporate interests. However, it is possible for individuals who don’t necessarily fit the mold of a white collar criminal, or are not committing crime on behalf of a business or corporation, to commit environmental crime. For instance, the individual who illegally disposes of his or her used car battery in a secluded area wouldn’t necessarily be considered a white collar criminal, yet he or she is certainly committing an environmental crime.
Similar to traditional crimes, environmental crime is committed by various groups and individuals in society. As noted, corporations are responsible for much environmental crime, particularly with regard to pollution and the disposal of hazardous waste. Individuals and small businesses also engage in environmental crime, for instance, when they illegally dump hazardous materials or simply engage in littering. Organized crime syndicates also engage in environmental crime, such as through illegally disposing of toxic and biohazardous materials for other enterprises.
Much crime and justice research effort and policy making are directed toward traditional crimes such as rape, robbery, burglary, and drug offenses. These and related offenses are certainly important to study and address; however, a strong argument could be made that environmental crimes are equally important. Even so, environmental crime remains understudied. Much of the discrepancy in the attention devoted to the two forms of crime (environmental crime and traditional crime) stems from the differences between the acts and the actors involved in each type. For instance, as mentioned, the harms resulting from environmental crime are often indirect. Environmental crimes also differ in that they are often committed by corporations. Further, environmental crimes differ from traditional crimes in that multiple individuals are often involved in their commission, and identifying who is responsible may be difficult. Identifying the perpetrator(s) of traditional crimes is often more easily done.
There are many other differences between environmental crimes and traditional crimes. For instance, environmental crimes are typically more multidimensional than traditional crimes. To illustrate, investigating an environmental crime requires specific skills and knowledge not often needed during investigations of traditional crimes. Environmental crimes often involve multiple victims, whereas traditional crimes typically involve one offender and one victim. Further, environmental crimes are often committed outside of the public’s view. For example, the public may be unaware that a factory is producing an illegal level of pollution. Finally, environmental crimes differ from traditional crimes in the legal responses they generate. For instance, environmental crimes are often considered civil matters that result in financial penalties, while traditional crimes are processed in criminal courts. In sum, environmental crime is different from traditional crimes in many ways, yet the two types of crime are similar in that they both pose notable threats to society and are responsible for substantial harms. Perhaps most critical to any discussion of environmental crime are the legal aspects associated with harming the environment.