V. What to Expect and What’s Needed With Regard to Environmental Crime
Societal concerns regarding oil prices and global warming have encouraged citizens to become more environmentally conscious. Increasing oil costs have resulted in large SUVs becoming less visible on U.S. roadways and automakers developing alternatives to fossil-fueled vehicles. Recycling efforts are popular, as evidenced for instance in the marketing strategies of numerous large corporations who wish to appeal to environmentally friendly consumers. These and related developments bode well for the future of the environment.
Continuous protection of the environment, particularly through addressing environmental crime, is dependent upon many factors. The following addresses several issues of consideration with regard to effective environmental protection, with an emphasis on addressing environmental crime. While not a comprehensive list, these items will undoubtedly have significant impacts on environmental protection, including the prevention, detection, and enforcement of environmental crimes.
A. Scholarly Attention
Traditional crimes are highlighted by the media in news reports, on television, and in movies. Media coverage of environmental crime is much less obvious in society. For instance, empirical research on environmental crime doesn’t go back much further than the mid-1980s and early 1990s, as there were few empirical studies of environmental crimes prior to this time. Such skewed coverage of crime distorts public perceptions regarding the nature, seriousness, and frequency of both environmental and street crime. Increased research focus on environmental crime, including responses to such offenses, will presumably contribute to more effective regulation of the environment.
From a research perspective, the study of environmental crime is seemingly overshadowed by issues of conventional crime. To address this limitation, additional research on environmental crime could, among other things, assess the applicability of theoretical explanations of crime with regard to environmental offenses; identify challenges environmental crimes pose to the criminal justice system (e.g., evidence collection procedures, jurisdictional issues, etc.); highlight the harms associated with environmental crime; and observe the impact of particular sanctions imposed on environmental crime offenders. To be sure, environmental crime is an understudied, yet important area of focus.
The dearth of environmental crime research can be attributable to a historical lack of data available to researchers. In other words, there is little historical research in this area simply because researchers struggled to obtain data. Accordingly, it is important that useful environmental crime and related data be collected and made available to researchers to analyze and possibly impact policy practices. The EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies have made substantial progress in disseminating data that can be used to study environmental crime.
Arguably, researchers can no longer cite the lack of data as a reason for neglecting the study of environmental crime. Researchers suggest that the EPA and state environmental regulatory agencies should continue their current data collection process and provide more detailed and helpful information. Increasing the extent to which the EPA and other agencies collect data will undoubtedly require additional resources. Nevertheless, the future for the study of environmental crime seems promising, as the EPA and other environmental regulatory agencies have made considerable progress in providing data for environmental crime researchers and have offered grants and various forms of support for empirical evaluations. The increasing popularity of computer mapping programs, the continued development of academic studies/programs on environmental issues, and the ease with which environmental crime data can be collected online, among other factors, point to increased levels of environmental crime research in the years ahead.
Several obstacles could prevent enhanced levels of environmental crime research. Of particular importance is the government practice of removing “sensitive” information from public access. Concern for homeland security resulted in public agencies throughout the United States removing what were deemed sensitive documents from public access. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, prompted fears about additional attacks and the subsequent removal of information that could contribute to the study of environmental crime, although much information remains freely accessible. Time will tell if the heightened concern regarding terrorism continues and additional information is removed from public access.
The perpetuation of interdisciplinary studies is critical to the continued momentum of environmental crime research. The historical lack of cooperative work among researchers in various fields must be addressed if the study of environmental crime is to reach its potential. The various disciplines involved with the study of environmental crime dictate that more collaborative efforts are needed.
In simple terms, sustainability refers to the practice of continuously producing the necessities of human life with little to no harm to the environment. Sustainability, which involves substantial long-term planning, relies on effectively managing society’s material and energy needs and wants. Such management requires cooperation among various government agencies, with the goal of maximizing and replenishing natural resources. Accordingly, sustainability requires collaborative and cooperative efforts from various agencies and disciplines, and effective enforcement of environmental laws to protect against continued harms to the environment.
How can sustainability be practiced, and ultimately achieved? The answer to this question is quite complex; however, many efforts are currently underway as society moves closer to sustainable living. For instance, as mentioned earlier, recycling efforts are becoming increasingly popular. Recycling bottles, paper, and other products prevents the continued destruction of environmental resources. The manufacturing and driving of automobiles that don’t rely on fossil fuel provide additional examples. Automakers are currently seeking and increasingly producing alternatives to fossil fuel–powered vehicles in response to public demand. The use of reusable grocery sacks, as opposed to the environmentally harmful plastic bags, is another example of efforts toward sustainability, as is the effective prevention of environmental crime and enforcement of environmental laws.
“Green living,” which involves a demonstrated concern for the protection of environmental resources, is becoming more popular as society moves toward sustainable living. Much work remains for society to ensure that the necessary environmental resources will be available for future generations. Nevertheless, current concerns for sustainability, the enforcement of environmental laws, and every small effort individuals make toward environmental protection contribute to a more promising future.
C. Enhanced Enforcement Efforts
Consider a society in which there was a notably inappropriate level of social control. For instance, imagine what it would be like if street crimes were regularly dealt with in a piecemeal fashion, and the penalty for serious crimes such as rape and robbery was a warning, or perhaps a fine that provided little deterrent to offenders. What if police patrol efforts were announced, and those caught committing serious crimes were simply granted an opportunity to discontinue their criminal behavior? Such a situation would undoubtedly generate substantial public outcry and the need for enhanced social control efforts. Why, then, has society not effectively voiced concern over environmental crime and responses to it?
Society has not voiced substantial concern about environmental crime primarily because of the differences between environmental crime and street crime. For instance, as noted earlier, environmental crime is often viewed as the “costs of doing business,” and strong political interests often shield the true effects of environmental crime from the general public. Significant enhancements are needed for the effective enforcement of environmental laws.
Such enforcement is complex, however, and involves various groups, the criminal justice system, and enhanced legislation. Citizens could contribute, for example, by voicing their concerns and helping to identify harmful practices. Law enforcement agencies could become more cognizant of, and responsive to, harmful environmental practices. Stricter laws, including the increased use of criminal penalties as opposed to civil sanctions, would contribute to the enforcement of environmental laws, and the courts could increasingly recognize and treat environmental harms as something more than “business costs.” Further, correctional agencies could focus less on incapacitating those convicted of environmental crimes and more on deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Needless to say, addressing environmental crime effectively is going to take commitment on behalf of many individuals, groups, and government and industry leaders.
As noted, recent concern about terrorism and homeland security could contribute to the enhanced enforcement of environmental laws. Federal law enforcement efforts seemingly became better organized with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and many state, county, and local law enforcement agencies have redirected their efforts toward identifying terrorist activities. These efforts, in turn, could substantially contribute to dealing more effectively with environmental crime as law enforcement agents become increasingly involved in the day-to-day activities of citizens and businesses alike. For instance, law enforcement efforts that result in the intrusion into industry for the purposes of national security could potentially expose environmental harms, or at the very least deter violators who perceive a greater sense of vulnerability given the government’s enhanced interest in their practices.
D. Political Change and Support for the Environment
Environmental protection in the United States is heavily dependent upon the actions of the federal government, and is particularly influenced by the president and the party affiliation of those controlling Congress. For instance, the president has substantial impact on environmental protection simply through being able to choose the administrator of the EPA. Historically, Republicans have promoted less regulation than Democrats, primarily due to Republicans maintaining greater support of industry. However, politicians are dependent on the public for votes and support, and in theory they respond to public opinion.
Environmental issues are regularly among the topics of discussion and debate in political elections, particularly those at the national level. Voters are often able to develop a better understanding of political candidates through recognizing how those who wish to be elected consider environmental issues. Those in support of environmental protection applauded former President Bill Clinton when he chose the environmentally friendly Al Gore for vice president. In contrast, those who were concerned about the environment were discouraged to see George W. Bush be elected to the presidency and even more discouraged when he chose Dick Cheney as vice president. Both Bush and Cheney have strong ties to industry, which signaled to environmentalists that they were going to be faced with numerous challenges during Bush’s presidency.
E. Increased Globalism
Addressing environmental crime will require much greater cooperative and collaborative efforts among countries as international commerce and more general interaction increasingly occurs. Such a change poses particular challenges to current enforcement efforts regarding domestic environmental crimes. International cooperation requires, at minimum, agreement by all involved parties that work is needed to protect the environment. Getting numerous countries with diverse cultural backgrounds and varied economic interests to agree on environmental crime prevention and resolution efforts is a daunting, albeit necessary task.
The need to consider issues beyond national boundaries is becoming popular in many countries, and global environmentalism is increasingly an area of concern. For instance, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, demonstrated the overall move toward global considerations of environmental issues. The summit involved a series of workshops, presentations, and exchanges between international organizations, industries, and various interest groups. Further, the fact that the EPA maintains an “Office of International Affairs” suggests that environmental concerns are not simply restricted to the United States, and the federal government recognizes the need for international efforts to protect the environment. Nevertheless, the United States, as a world leader in production and manufactured goods, faces specific challenges and maintains particular responsibilities that must be addressed with consideration given to environmental protection. Much work remains in the area of international environmentalism.