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What is green criminology?

Green criminology is an exciting branch of criminology focusing on environmental harms often committed by the most powerful in society.

Although I didn’t start out as a green criminologist, my interest has grown as I’ve become more aware of how this branch of criminology can raise awareness of environmental harms and crimes. This blog post will briefly introduce you to green criminology and point you in the direction of further reading. In my next post, I will broaden out the debate to examine zemiology, the case for focusing not on ‘crimes’ but harms (that explains why I put speech marks round ‘crime’), thus encouraging greater accountability over the rich and powerful who often control natural resources.

Green criminology broadly examines environmental harms and other aspects one would expect from the discipline of criminology - offences, perpetrators and victims of environmental ‘crimes’ - including types of policing and punishment. As with all academic disciplines, there is huge debate about what green criminology specifically is. Broadly, it concerns itself both with the laws that protect the environment and animals, as well as harms caused both deliberately and through neglect, an area I find much more interesting and believe is the more important issue. Why? This means that harms currently outside the remit of ‘crime’ can be addressed as such, allowing much greater accountability over damage and harm caused to the environment, although the ability of our legal system to protect against harms still resides in the hands of politicians who don’t have a great track record of centralising environmentalism (more of that in the next blog).

The term Green Criminology was first used in the 1980s by Nigel South[1]. This followed a number of years of criminologists raising awareness about the need to focus on environmental harms, particularly in the 1970s with the onset of nuclear power linked to environmental devastation. One key inspiration behind the growth of green criminology was the devastation caused in Bhopal, India in 1984 when 40 tones of poisonous gas leaked. Known as the ‘world’s deadliest industrial disaster’[2], the gas affected 500,000 people, scorching the throats and eyes of thousands of people and leading to birth defects, The American company behind it, Union Carbide, were there to make pesticides given India’s cheaper labour and production costs which also allowed them to bypass many health and safety requirements. To this day, the site remains uncleared and the chief executive Warren Anderson has never been held to account despite the issuing of arrest warrants by the Supreme Court of India. Green criminology often focuses on the role of the powerful and their links to ‘widespread and long-term environmental damage’[3]. Those who hold power include governments and transnational corporations who, both deliberately and through neglect, commit extensive environmental harms seemingly without being held to account, such as the example of Union Carbide reveals.

According to Rob White (2008), there are three areas that explain green criminology’s main focus – environmental justice, ecological justice, and species justice[4]:

Environmental justice: This examines the unequal access to environmental resources, questioning who and why certain people have access to natural resources whilst others don’t. This also examines why it is often the poorest communities that suffer when environmental damage is caused.

Ecological justice: This is about putting aside our humancentric attitudes that centre our focus predominantly on humans, and examines the interaction between humans and the environment, looking at the world through an ecocentric lens instead (focusing more broadly on nature rather than only humans).

Species justice: Again, moving away from a humancentric focus, it recognises the rights of non-human animals, setting aside long-held beliefs that humans, often based upon intelligence, are worthy of greater rights. In the view of Beirne and South (2007), it encourages non-human species to be valued as all living beings should. Rights that minimise suffering are argued to be required when considering all animals, non-human or otherwise.

In focusing on social harms rather than solely ‘crimes’, green criminology falls into critical criminology and can be an exciting opportunity to challenge current thinking on ‘criminality’. This encourages a move away from focusing on the relatively small number of crimes that often gain the most media attention (often committed by the poorest in society), to focusing on the devastating consequences of environmental harms and ‘crimes’ (often committed by the most powerful). For example, there are approximately 650 murders a year in England and Wales whilst 36,000 die linked to poor air quality[5]. Devastating as the impact of murder is on family and friends of victims (and this point in no way seeks to diminish that), media and political focus on the former vastly outweighs attention given to the latter despite the greater harm caused by air pollution, not just affecting those who die but also through illnesses caused by poor air quality.

This is why green criminology is so exciting, allowing attention to be focused on harms that often go vastly unreported or simply taken for granted in a capitalist society, for example, the manner in which animals are reared through intensive farming, or lack of importance given to improving the air we breathe. In the next blog I’ll introduce more on shifting attention from ‘crime’ to harms. In the meantime, interested in learning more about green criminology? Here are some resources I recommend, including a free course provided by the Open University.

Thanks for reading:)

Tracey x


The Open University offers a free course, entitled ‘Green Criminology’, introducing you further to some of the points discussed above:

The Literary Hub has compiled ten ‘trailblazing environmental books’ they recommend:

Here’s a list of publications by Professor Nigel South, the man who coined the term ‘green criminology’ and who has been raising awareness of environmental harms for many decades:

[1] Professor Nigel South is based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex [2] [3] [4] [5]

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