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Zemiology… and why environmentalists need to know it.

In the previous post I briefly introduced Green Criminology, explaining how this exciting branch of criminology raises awareness of environmental harms and ‘crimes’ and seeks to hold those guilty - whether through deliberate methods or neglect - accountable. This often means focusing on the rich and powerful including governments and transnational corporations. In the previous blog I kept interchanging between harms and ‘crimes’, and that is what I will discuss in this blog, introducing you to the idea that what is defined as ‘crime’ really needs to be challenged if we are to pursue environmental harms more rigorously through the criminal justice sector, media and society in general. This includes introducing you to zemiology, the study of harms. I believe that those interested in protecting our environment should learn about zemiology and challenge our current focus on ‘crimes’, instead focusing on harms including those committed against the environment.

In the previous post I briefly compared the number of people who are murdered each year in England and Wales (approximately 650) to those who die in the UK due to poor air quality (36,000). Again, I am not overlooking or dismissing the devastation caused to families and friends when a loved one is murdered. What I am asking you to do is consider how much attention is paid by politicians and the media to the former rather than the latter. Politicians compete to be the most vocal and assertive in addressing violent crime, whilst the media runs with the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ mantra, often focusing in detail on the offender or victim. Think about all the TV crime dramas currently available to watch.

Now consider the issue of air quality in London which, as said, is estimated to kill up to 36,000 each year and, for the first time, has been linked by a coroner to a death[1]. Ella Kissi-Debra who lived in Lewisham was only 9 years old when she died in 2013. Only with the determination of her mother has a second inquest linked her death to air pollution, specifically to nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from diesel cars and particulate matter which breached World Health Organisation (WHO) safe guidelines. Worldwide, the WHO estimates 7 million people die from air pollution and 9 out of 10 breathe air that exceeds their guidelines[2].

Although there has been increased focus on air pollution over recent years, it still merits little attention in comparison to the ‘if it bleeds it leads’ media approach discussed above[3]. Harms against the environment do not always generate the attention they deserve, partly because there is no single individual to blame and partly because ‘crimes’ rather than ‘harms’ appear to generate the excitement our 24/7 media desires. And yet ‘crimes’ often affect relatively few people compared to environmental harms that impact the lives of millions.

So why the greater attention on ‘crime’ than harm? People in power typically represent the rich and powerful who have their own thoughts on what is a ‘crime’ and what is not. For example, how many of you reading this would like a ‘crime’ to exist for those who keep animals locked away in factory farms, never seeing the light of day throughout their short lives before they are killed for food. Or would like a ‘crime’ to exist for all those responsibility – whether through neglect or deliberate means – for polluting our air? The fact is that many wealthy companies and industries are responsible for the supply and demand of farm animals throughout the world that contributes to climate change and world hunger, but the harms it is responsible for go ignored. For example, the rearing of crops to feed animals destined for meat is inefficient; whilst millions go hungry around the world, huge amounts of land are cleared to feed animals destined for fast food outlets, even though the same land could feed ten times more people if grown for human consumption[4]. Animal farming contributes significantly to climate change, 14.5% of total greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN[5]. Destruction caused to the Amazon in order to provide red meat is said to be responsible for 90% of its deforestation, destroyed to make way for the rearing of cattle destined for meat-based diet. Governments are hardly going to prevent wealthy companies from carrying this out by labelling it ‘crime’ given their extensive powers and wealth – and links to one another, including the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas whose income includes contributions from Shell International and Centrica[6]. Or Greenpeace recording ten former political employees recruited by oil and gas companies demonstrating the revolving door between the two[7]. A chart detailing further links has been produced by Global Justice Now, entitled the ‘Fossil fuel web of power’[8]. Attempts to curb the influence of fossil fuels are inhibited by these links, Spinwatch director Tamasin Cave stating, ‘sometimes its interests are seen as synonymous with the British state’. The UK Treasury has already awarded £2.3billion worth of tax breaks to the oil industry.

Instead, many governments typically focus on ‘crimes’ that often focus on the poorest in society or those less well off. For example, consider the imprisonment of women. Currently there are just over 3000 female prisoners in England and Wales, yet the Justice Select Committee stated how the majority ‘do not pose a significant risk of harm to public safety’[9]. ‘Crimes’ varied but included ‘offences of violence against the person and theft’. However, ‘over a third of all women offenders were prosecuted for TV licence evasion (37%)’[10]. The same report linked women’s offending to mental health issues, debt, lack of or poor education and violent and coercive relationships.

So how can we challenge this? If you focus instead on harms rather than ‘crimes’ it helps to reveal the misdirection embedded within the criminal justice system, focusing on small numbers of ‘crimes’ rather than concentrating on significant harms worthy of our full attention. It also encourages more questions be addressed as to the nature of the harms, who is carrying them out, why they are carrying out, and how we can hold them accountable for the damage they cause. This includes whether damage is caused deliberately, as in the case of the Amazon’s deforestation, or through neglect, failing to act more stridently on tackling air quality. Zemiology is important for those interested in protecting the environment given it allows the causes of so much devastation to be centralised as it deserves, resetting our criminal justice sector away from demonising often the poorest in society to holding accountable the powerful and wealthy.

Thanks for readingJ

Tracey x

Interested in learning more?

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] [2] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

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