By Staci Strobl
Although it probably should come as no surprise given the pace of climate change, the headline "Farewell to the Arctic" on the cover of the latest issue of The Economist caused me pause. Yes, we are losing an entire region as we know it, a region that due to environmental feedbacks loops warms at twice the rate of other regions on Earth. By 2040, there will be no summer sea ice in the region. As the ice melts, overall sea levels rise and cause catastrophes in low-lying areas across the planet.
It should be a crime, I muttered, but that's clearly more of an emotional reaction than one that makes much sense. Crimes as we generally define them in contemporary nation-states, and international law, must have perpetrators and victims, demonstrable behavior that can be proven at trial. In the case of global warming, everyone and no one is responsible on some level. Who is the who that has driven the use of hydro-carbons and how many infinite behaviors have contributed? Certainly rich countries have done more harm than poorer ones, corporations more than individuals. But it's not so simple. A criminal framework in the conventional sense cannot define and respond to the apocalyptic end of the Arctic.
Or can it? Environmental criminological theory has been working on this question of crime defintion for some time. Although most criminologists would not necessarily frame the loss of an entire region as a single crime, many more discrete phenomena also suffer from being under-criminalized in current frameworks. For example, the collusion between state and corporate interests in over-logging the Tasmanian forest was not defined as a crime, in fact the behavior was all perfectly legal for decades. This particular example led criminologist Rob White to argue for redefining criminal behavior in terms of harms, and along the way he found numerous other examples to support this way of thinking. And he focuses on harms not just to people, as is generally the case in the law, but harms to wildlife and the environment as well.
This is an important theoretical contribution. If we don't bring crime back to harms, using levels of harm-- holistically speaking-- as an analytic category, we politicize and corporatize even the theoretical study of crime. We put on blinders both anthropocentric and capitalist-o-centric. It seems if we are going to be theoretical about things, we should be more open-minded.
A harm-based approach makes very clear that non-violent drug offenders have been over-prosecuted and punished in many nation-states, and corporations polluting our air and water very, very under-prosecuted. It also fits nicely into a more classic disposition, that of Robert Quinney and peacemaking. Focusing on suffering as the true problem with criminal behavior, and then moving from there, allows us to see the state and corporations as potential offenders just like anyone else. It also allows us to see animals as bona fide victims of destructive human behavior. It also brings in an instrumental Marxist disposition calling out the very serious crimes of capitalism and anti-environmentalism and wagging a finger at penal codes which disproportionately spill their ink on interpersonal violent offending.
The Economist, unlike me, is, of course, not too worried about capitalism even as it worries about the Arctic. In the online version of the "Farewell to the Arctic" article, this sub-heading appears: "Commercial opportunities are vastly outweighed by damage to the climate [in the Arctic]." I appreciate its counter to the narrative that international trade can boom in an Arctic not blocking container shipping with massive icebergs [an argument that seems to be just tragically doubling-down on the whole planetary debacle], but the statement also belies a tragic disregard for the polar bear melted off her perch and villages in the Sundarbans washed away by sea level rise. Those things really should be crimes. If only.