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Are We Environmental Criminals?

Are we responsible for the environment? What is environmental crime?

Sexual harassment is very much in the news. For women, it was a fact of life long before being named as such (just forty years ago); but harassment has been a topic of moment in the media only sporadically since 1991: the hearings into Anita Hill’s treatment by Clarence Thomas, the Clinton and Trump Presidencies, and now scandals right across the culture industries and into British politics.

The gift of feminist critique and activism has been to raise these issues again and again, both in high-profile instances, such as the ones we mention above, and in everyday life. Trenchant lawmakers, attorneys, judges, and other feminists have criminalized some conduct, and brought harassing behavior in general into question.

Feminism has also contributed to ecological awareness, and eco-feminism has inspired us to consider environmental crime, also a relatively new and controversial concept, albeit lacking the celebrity aspects that are currently highlighting sexual harassment.

On an individual level, environmental crimes can cover deliberately putting the wrong category of refuse in recycling bins (finable in some states and municipalities) and moral rather than felonious offences, such as unnecessary travel, or putting one’s own pleasure over collective needs. In terms of corporate crime and official malfeasance, examples include—among many others—unsustainable farming, pork barreling via the annual Farm Bill, and locating waste dumps near under-privileged neighborhoods.

One of the disciplines that intersects with psychology—criminology–alerts us to green felonies from the past, the present, and the future (if the legislative reach of criminality is extended). Recent crimes encompass notorious incidents that endanger the environment, such as the Bhopal disaster, the Exxon Valdez, Hout Bay Fishing, and Hooker Chemicals, and hunting wildlife outside the provisions of the Endangered Species Act. Possible future felonies might include the use of fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases; releasing pharmaceuticals into the environment; deploying nanotechnology willy-nilly, without due concern for its potential impact; and our old friend, electronic waste.

Illegal e-waste dumps are the principal destinations for the television sets, smart phones, radios, refrigerators, printers, laptops, and reading tablets that people in the US, Canada, Japan, Western Europe, and Australia cavalierly throw away. The chief locations for unsafe recycling of these toxic dumps are China, India, Brazil, Ghana, Nigeria, and other places that are very far indeed from our studies, kerbsides, desks, and cars. Although the Basel Convention prohibits the export of such waste, the US, amongst other major polluters, is not a signatory. We are offending international law whilst not even subscribing to it.

Apart from our legislators, who refuse to ratify this treaty, who is to blame for dispatching toxic waste to other countries? Numerous parties are responsible: producers like Apple; customers such as schools, jails, universities, cable companies, search engines, big-box stores, workers, and consumers; local governments responsible for so-called recycling; and exporters and importers. Thanks to the Hong Kong customs authorities, we know, for example, that US companies send e-waste abroad while pretending that it emanates from the Arab world, Latin America, and Africa.

This is where official and corporate eco-crime implicates all of us, as readers and authors. We form part of a long, almost invisible trail that winds inexorably towards disease and pollution that extend far beyond our zip codes.

Our responsibility is twofold. The first is ignorance of the ways in which we enable eco-crime via the system of built-in obsolescence, whereby devices and software are designed to require replacement on a routine basis to keep profits up. We fail to understand that the pleasure we derive from an abundance of throwaway things results from a typical corporate practice: over-production.

Second, we don’t think about our phones or laptops as having complex lives that bring them into being then destroy them, because their life cycles only matter when they are in our hands. The same applies to slaughtered animals and plastic bags in oceans—from the moment our pleasures are created, through to their disposal, the only thing of importance is our enjoyment of them.

These consuming habits make us unwitting accessories to the ecological crime of e-waste. But we are also implicated in illegal violations of privacy and security, because e-waste generates cyber-crime.

Almost all the e-waste in Lagos and Accra comes from the US and Britain. Personal data from hard drives is harvested there and reused—private photos, social-security numbers, financial information, and school reports, for example. “Wiping” a drive before it is exported isn’t a viable form of protection, as the Pentagon and Northrop Grumman discovered when a multi-million-dollar deal for secret aviation systems and clandestine data about NASA, Homeland Security, and others was bought via a recycled hard drive in West Africa for less than the price of a family’s seats to a ball game.

As citizens and consumers, we need to step up—as individuals with our own decisions to make as customers and users, and as a collective—to insist that our lawmakers sign the Basel treaty and finance its implementation.

If some of us don’t care about the environment, or the people whose lives are destroyed by the toxicity we send their way, perhaps we care about our privacy and the nation’s defence secrets.

More from Toby Miller, Ph.D., and Richard Maxwell Ph.D.
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