Green Crimes

What comes to mind when you think of 'green' crime? You may have seen it in the news or on TV, but recently, green crime has been spoken about more and more regularly. Why is this such a distinct and increasing type of crime?

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Table of contents

    In light of modern climate change issues, the topic of green crime has never been more relevant.

    In what follows, we will look at the sociology of green crime and focus on:

    • The definition of green crime in sociology
    • Examples and types of green crime
    • The scope and importance of green crimes
    • Some green crime statistics and a case study on green crime

    Green crime in sociology

    In this section, we will take a look at the definition and scope of green crime from sociological perspectives.

    Definition of green crime in sociology

    The term ‘green crime’ was first coined by MJ Lynch (1990), who defined it as:

    Harms caused to living beings through the creation of environmental hazards existing at local and global levels".

    Much like any sociological concept, there is no single widely accepted definition of green crime.

    In fact, in recent times, the definition of green crime has been intentionally broadened to include more factors that harm the environment. However, in its simplest form:

    Green crime refers to crimes committed against the environment.

    Scope of green crime

    The broad definition of green crime is reflective of the many effects of globalisation, which has resulted in crimes ceasing to be limited to a single country or jurisdiction. Rather, crimes like these transcend boundaries and cover multiple jurisdictions.

    Ulrich Beck (1992) argues that we have entered what he calls a 'global risk society' where risks now transcend boundaries and environmental damage is a part of the risks created through modern technology. Thus, green crime is truly global, and it does not necessarily impact any particular race, class or even country. This means that all countries need to work together to tackle this problem.

    Green Crime, Monkey with infant monkey and destroyed forest in the back, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The definition of green crime has been intentionally broadened to include more factors that harm the environment; therefore, the definition of green crime is ever-changing.

    Traditional criminology uses a narrow definition of green crime - it is defined as any activity that breaches a law that protects the environment. In contrast, green criminology argues that green crime includes all types of environmental harm, regardless of legislation.

    It can be said that green criminology is a type of ‘transgressive criminology’ - it breaks the boundaries of traditional criminology and focuses more on the concept of ‘harm’ rather than the concept of ‘crime’ (Lynch, 2003).

    White (2006) took this argument a step further and defined green crime as 'any human action that causes environmental harm'. Clearly, in his opinion, an act did not have to break the law to qualify as a green crime as he based his definition on the ultimate harm that arose from the crime.

    What is considered green crime depends on whom you ask.

    Dumping a small plastic wrapper in the sea while on the beach may not be punishable by law if there are no laws against it (traditional criminology), but it will be a green crime if it inevitably affects fish in the sea (green criminology).

    However, certain acts most definitely count as a green crime, irrespective of the viewpoint we adopt. Some examples of green crime are:

    • illegal trade in wildlife

    • smuggling of ozone-depleting substances

    • illicit trade in hazardous waste

    • illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing; and

    • illegal logging and the associated trade in stolen timber

    What are the different types of green crime?

    In this section, we will take a look at the two major types of green crime.

    Nigel South (2008) classifies green crimes into two major types: primary and secondary.

    Primary green crime

    Primary green crime is a crime that directly harms the environment and its members (humans and wildlife).

    There are four main categories of primary green crime:

    • Air pollution

    • Deforestation

    • Species decline and animal rights

    • Water pollution

    Secondary green crime

    Secondary green crime is a crime that arises out of disobeying rules that seek to regulate environmental disasters. It is also called symbiotic green crime (Carrabine et al., 2004, p. 318).

    An important example of secondary green crime is state violence against environmental groups. Statutes worldwide confer powers on environmental groups and NGOs to hold the government and private parties accountable when it comes to the environment.

    This can include bringing claims against bodies or requesting positive action to better the environment. Thus, state violence against such groups is disobedience of rules made to protect the environment.

    The Environment Act 2021 in the UK allows NGOs to bring derivative claims against a company's directors to ensure the environment has been considered in their decisions regarding the company.

    It may be worth noting that a single act can include both types of green crime - for example, animal rights and the decline of species. The causes of this may be due to the poaching and trafficking of animals (primary) or legal hunting and environmental changes (secondary).

    What is the scope and impact of green crimes?

    In this section, we will aim to understand the increasing scope of green crime and put it in perspective by analysing some recent statistics.

    Recent scientific research suggests that our planet Earth has entered an era of ‘global ecosystem collapse’ caused by human activities such as pollution and excessive consumption (Sato & Lindenmayer, 2018).

    What makes green crime more serious is that, as opposed to corporate or state crimes, its effects are felt not just by a single person but by everyone who is a part of the environment.

    Clearly, the scope of green crimes in sociology has broadened. It is no longer just about environmental harm; it also includes enforcement of environmental laws and the lack of environmental justice (Lovelock & Margulis, 1974).

    While looking at the increasing scope of green crime, we must also remember that even though some green crime effects can be quantified, others cannot.

    How do we calculate the psychological hardship a family faces due to deforestation destroying their livelihood in villages?

    This should be kept in mind when we analyse statistics related to green crime. It may not be surprising to note that, in terms of value, green crime stands as the fourth-largest crime in the world after drug trafficking, counterfeit crimes, and human trafficking (UNEP, 2016). However, a large part of this does not consider the qualitative effects of green crime.

    Nonetheless, the quantifiable statistics of green crime are staggering. The last decade has seen a rise in environmental crimes by an annual growth rate of at least 5–7%, which is higher than the annual growth rate of the global GDP!

    Bordesley: green crime case study

    Green Crime, waste in water with factory in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Industrial waste has become a major problem due to growing production, and courts are not taking favourably to the lawbreakers.

    A recent example of an organisation being held accountable for green crimes is the Weir Waste Services case in Bordesley Green. This was a Birmingham company that created a mountain of rubbish at its Bordesley Green base and breached their environmental permit, and subsequently failed to comply with an enforcement notice.

    Despite being told to remove some of the rubbish, the bosses at Weir failed to do so and continued adding to the pile of rubbish. The court fined the company £46,250, and it was also ordered to pay £50,000 towards the costs of the prosecution.

    Speaking after the case, the Deputy Director of the Environment Agency said that it would take strong enforcement action whenever companies continue to store excessive levels of waste after they’ve been warned and that protection of the environment is of utmost importance.

    This case is a clear example of how important environmental damage is. Green crime is a serious problem not just because of legal duties being breached but because it can damage the environment and those who are a part of it.

    Green Crimes - Key takeaways

    • The term ‘green crime’ was first coined by MJ Lynch (1990), who defined it as: "harms caused to living beings through the creation of environmental hazards existing at local and global levels"

    • White (2006) defined green crime as any human activity that harms the environment, thus taking the transgressive nature of green crime a step further.

    • Beck (1992) argues that we have entered a 'global risk society' wherein green crime is not limited to a particular country but is a global issue.

    • Two major types of green crime include primary green and secondary green crime.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Green Crimes

    What is green crime?

    Green crime refers to crimes committed against the environment.

    What are some examples of green crime?

    Some examples of green crime are illegal trade in wildlife, illicit trade in hazardous waste, illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing and illegal logging, and the associated trade in stolen timber.

    What are the two types of green crime?

    The two types of green crime are primary and secondary green crime.

    What are the five major environmental crimes?

    The five major environmental crimes are:

    1. Illegal trade in wildlife
    2. Illegal trade in hazardous waste
    3. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing
    4. Illegal logging and associated trade in stolen timber
    5. Smuggling of ozone-depleting substances

    How is green crime transgressive?

    Green crime is transgressive as it focuses more on the concept of harm rather than crime. An act can be a green crime if it harms the environment, even if it does not break any laws.

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