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I do not usually write about environmental issues, but I have reflected and read recently on zemiological perspectives with regard to social harms caused by excessive consumerism, and those in powerful positions who are determined to deny the impact of this on the planet. I examine this to some degree in my year two module on ‘Outsiders’, to ask students to think about their own consumer habits, perceived needs and also, the admiration and aspirations associated with wealth. I try to do my bit – I recycle, I am eating more vegetarian meals, but I also drive pretty much everywhere, and it is clear I could do more. However, I really do sympathise with those who ask whether concerned individuals can actually make a difference. This seems impossible in light of the scale of CO2 emissions from industrialised countries with high productivity and an unrelenting focus on increasing GDP. We also see football field sized areas of trees being cut from the Amazon rainforest on a daily basis, plastic in our oceans and food chains, and just recently, found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. As consumers, we can perhaps demand change, shift our consumer habits to use more recycled materials, move towards using sustainable resources where we have the choice and contribute to broader campaigns for change.
But this can feel insignificant in the light of world leaders denying there is a problem, refusing to invest in alternative energy resources and therefore, enabling the plundering of Earth’s resources. I am not sure what it will take to change our behaviour – I am hopeful younger generations, groups like Extinction Rebellion and campaigners such as Greta Thunberg mean governments who refuse to engage with the need for change will find themselves consigned to the past, with a legacy of being very much on the wrong side of history. I hope in 10 years time we can talk about being taken to the brink and pulling back, recognising the harms being caused, meaning we focus more on the welfare of the planet and less on accruing wealth and goods. Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand recently spoke out about changing the priorities of her government in a pre-budget speech, which demanded a focus on environmental change through developing a low emissions economy and considering the welfare of citizens alongside economic growth. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, who serves as the U.S. Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district presented her ‘Green New Deal’, to the US Congress, receiving both criticism and praise for the bold ideas – the central premise being the need to ‘reject economic orthodoxy to confront climate change’ (Guardian, 2019). Those facing harms of climate change have been and still are disproportionally represented by developing countries, less powerful states who struggle to get their voice heard, compared to world leaders who still focus on GDP and their own interests. Now that climate change is affecting North America and Europe more consistently, with rising temperatures and extreme weather patterns, we might start to see a response to these calls for change.
It is serendipitous that I write this during the British Society of Criminology conference at the University of Lincoln, where green criminology has a clear presence and profile. By following the twitter feeds @BscGreenCrim and @BSCLincs_19, we can see a range of issues being explored under the remit of #greencriminology, which has sparked my interest further and made me regret not going this year – there is always next year at the University of Liverpool! The papers include an examination by John E. McDonnell (2017) on Genocide and Green Criminology, looking at the case of the ‘Merauke integrated food and energy estate’ – a quick search reveals a project billed as increasing self-sufficiency and wealth for Indonesia is actually a ‘land grab’ and displacement of indigenous populations, alongside deforestation and numerous other impacts, all to produce food for export. Rowland Atkinson reiterates this theme examining the impact of the over consumption of the global rich on urban life – at the conference and in an extensive list of research studies. Angus Nurse examines environmental crimes committed by corporations (Nurse, 2017), who are no doubt propped up by consumer habits which demand choice and value, at the expense of creating pollution and waste which poisons our air, oceans and rivers and, as with climate change, disproportionately affects the less powerful. Finally, a shift to another fascinating area of research was presented by Tanya Wyatt, exploring the link between wildlife and drug trafficking, the former being cited as a leading cause of animal extinction (Wyatt, 2016).
Another article which then caught my eye, came from the Guardian, by Chris Packham, detailing the plans for companies who want to mine the ocean floor, the largest ecosystem on the planet, which Packham describes as ‘quite clearly an awful idea’. It amazes me that this is even been discussed as a possibility, but in light of the behaviour of some of our world leaders, perhaps this displays my own naivety as to just how far some will go to create wealth. There has to be a tipping point, a point at which we simply ask, what is more important to us? The stuff we buy? The acceptance of states enabling the use of the Earth’s resources, no matter the cost to us? The article describes oceans as the last ‘industrial frontier’, but it is also clear that more us of need to fully understand how vital they are to the health of our planet – they regulate our climate, provide food and an ecosystem which if damaged or even lost, would have serious consequences for all of us. The signs of change are there, and it is clear alongside the small efforts we make ourselves, we also need to start holding governments to account on this issue.
Atkinson R (2019) Necrotecture: lifeless dwellings and London’s super-rich. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.
Guardian Editorial (2019) The Guardian view on a Green New Deal: we need it now, The Guardian.
Kenner, D. (2015) Inequality of overconsumption: The ecological footprint of the richest, Working Paper: 2015/2, Global Sustainability Institute
McDonnell, J.E. (2017) Can a genocide lens be of use in our understanding of the effects of the Indonesian Transmigration Program on the Indigenous People of West Papua?, Unpublished essay written for MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Nurse, Angus (2017) Green criminology: shining a critical lens on environmental harm. Palgrave Communications, 3, pp. 1-4. ISSN 2055-1045
Packham, C. (2019) In too deep: why the seabed should be off-limits to mining companies, The Guardian.
Wyatt, Tanya (2016) A comparative analysis of wildlife trafficking in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Journal of Trafficking, Organized Crime and Security, 2 (1). pp. 62-81. ISSN 2374-118X
Amongst all the furore over Brexit, the European elections and the disintegration of the main political parties in the United Kingdom, a small but not insignificant news story crept into the news melee.
‘The number of physically disabled people affected by homelessness in England increased by three quarters during an almost 10- year period’ (BBC, 2019a, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, 2019). It is not merely coincidental that the ‘almost 10-year period’ aligns with the austerity measures introduced by the coalition government in 2010. Measures, continuously pursued by the Conservative Government until October 2018 when Theresa May, the soon to be former prime minister, declared at a Tory party conference that austerity was over adding, ‘the end is in sight’ and there are ‘better days ahead’ (Independent, 2018a). Give her her dues, with the demise of the Tory party, the latter part was an insightful prediction. Let’s not let the Liberal Democrats off the hook though, reluctant bedfellows they may have been in the coalition government, but bedfellows they were, and they had the power to vote down many of the Tory party dictats. They may have curried favour with the electorate during the European elections, but we should not forget their part in the austerity measures.
Alongside the issues of homelessness, we see the use of foodbanks has increased phenomenally (Independent, 2018b), fuel poverty affects over 10% of English households (Independent, 2018c) and social care is collapsing (BBC, 2019b; Guardian, 2018). To put it as simply as possible, the common denominator is the austerity measures introduced by government that directly impact on the most vulnerable in our so-called civilised society. This and previous governments can point to the budget deficit, the ineptitude of the previous government and the economic downturn caused by the banking crisis (The Economist, 2013), but how do they justify the impact of their policies on the disadvantaged and those who can least afford any cuts? Bizarrely, the least vulnerable have seen little or no impact on their standard of living other than perhaps for the middle classes there is the monotonous moan about access to doctors or dentists in a timely manner (the rich don’t even have to worry about this).
In my visits around schools I discuss what we mean by the term crime. Reiner (2007:21) states that ‘[t]he term ‘crime’ is usually tossed about as if it has a clear and unambiguous meaning’, but nothing of course is further from the truth. One of the key ideas I posit is that of harm caused. This of course has its own problems in terms of definition and scope, but it does allow one to focus on what is important. If harm done is a measure of crime, or crime is defined by the harm done then we begin to see the world, actions by government, institutions and individuals in a different light. With this notion in mind, we can start to ask when and how do we bring the greedy and those that abuse their power either intentionally or recklessly to book? Maybe, just as Boris Johnson might well be prosecuted for misconduct in a public office over the alleged lies, he made relating to Brexit (BBC, 2019c), we might see ministers held to account for decisions they make that have catastrophic consequences for thousands of the most vulnerable in society.
BBC (2019a) Homeless and disabled: ‘I’m at my wits’ end’, [online] Available at www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/disability-48433225/homeless-and-disabled-i-m-at-my-wits-end [accessed 29 May 2019].
BBC (2019b) English ‘short-changed on care funding’ [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-48438132 [accessed 30 May 2019].
BBC (2019c) Brexit: Boris Johnson ordered to appear in court over £350m claim, [online] Available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48445430 [accessed 29 May 2019].
Independent (2018a) Theresa May declares ‘austerity is over’ after eight years of cuts and tax increases, (3 Oct. 2018), [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-austerity-end-over-speech-conservative-conference-tory-labour-a8566526.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018b) Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs (24 April 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html [accessed 30 May 2019].
Independent (2018) More than one in 10 households living in fuel poverty, figures show (26 June 2018) [online] Available at www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-uk-figures-poor-bills-cost-households-a8417426.html, [accessed 30 May 2019].
Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (2019) Live tables on homelessness [online] Available at http://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/live-tables-on-homelessness , [accessed 30 May 2019].
Reiner, R. (2007) Law and Order: An Honest Citizen’s Guide to Crime and Crime Control, Cambridge: Polity.
The Economist (2013) The origins of the financial crisis: Crash course [online] Available at www.economist.com/schools-brief/2013/09/07/crash-course [accessed 30 May 2019].
The Guardian (2018) The social care system is collapsing. So why the government inaction? (3 Oct. 2019) [online] Available at www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/03/social-care-collapsing-government-inaction [accessed 30 May 2019].