Crime and pollution

The way in which many political conservatives are obsessed with crime but unconcerned about environmental degradation strikes me as strange and internally inconsistent. It seems to me that pollution and crime are generally objectionable for the same reasons, and that the justification for the state making effort to reduce both is similar as well.

The two types of crime that are most relevant here are those that involve financial harm and those involving physical harm to a person. Burglary is an example of the first sort, while assault is an example of the second. When someone commits a burglary or assault, they are choosing to assert their will on an innocent victim, who suffers either in terms of lost goods or in terms of personal injury or death. The state recognizes this assertion as unfair and something to be avoided, and creates and enforces criminal sanctions as a mechanism for discouraging these behaviours. We see situations in which groups of criminals have complex organizations that produce large revenues through crime as exceptionally objectionable, and exceptionally worthy of intervention by the state.

When a company or an individual chooses to emit toxic substances into the air or the water – or when they choose to dangerously alter the climate – they are imposing the same sort of harm on the general public that the burglar or the assailant does. The acid rain resulting from the operation of a coal-fired power plant could cause economic harm, such as when it kills fish or trees. Pollution also causes personal injury and death.

So how can many conservatives call for ‘cracking down’ on crime, while simultaneously criticizing environmental regulations and promising to scale them back for the benefit of business? The most plausible explanation seems to be an unwillingness of inability to look beyond the most immediate consequences of an action. When a man in a mask stabs another man and takes his wallet, it is clear what has taken place. The full consequences are less clear when a mine or factory seems to be producing useful products, generating profits, and producing employment – while simultaneously hurting or killing people through the production of toxic by-products or contribution to dangerous climate change.

From a more psychological perspective, perhaps the difference in intention is given undue weight by those who do not see crime and environmental damage as morally comparable. Perhaps criminals bear more moral responsibility because they recognize that their behaviours inescapably involve undeserved harm imposed on others. Of course, the same is true of educated polluters. It is no longer credible to claim that dumping mercury into the water or carbon dioxide into the air doesn’t harm people, or that people who choose to carry out these economic processes do not choose to produce these outcomes.

Perhaps the difference in viewpoint is logically connected to the way in which the recognition of interdependence undermines libertarianism. If you are determined to believe that people have an absolute right to undertake certain activities – such as driving in cars, flying in planes, or raising large numbers of pigs in industrial factory farming circumstances – then you must either deny the reality that these activities harm other people or implicitly argue that the people doing the harming have a right that takes precedence over the right that by-standers have to avoid being harmed.

Obviously, I don’t think either of these arguments are very convincing, which brings me back to my initial point. It doesn’t make much sense to get all hot and bothered about crime and to manifest that concern with tough new laws and longer sentences while simultaneously ignoring the harm that pollution causes to people and pressing for less restrictive regulations on polluting activities. If we respect the right of people not be be harmed by criminals, we should also respect their right not to be harmed by polluters.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Crime and pollution”

  1. But criminalization (the social and legal process where activities are labelled criminal – crime is not an objective or pre-existing category) targets the poor and disadvantaged, whereas pollution is largely the result of actions by the rich, at least directly (corporations owned by rich people who sell products to people who may or may not be rich). Insofar as political conservatives are concerned with defending the interests of the wealthy, and I’d say this is a very large part of what they do (and that conservatives is a bad label insofar as many of the neoconservative and neoliberal policies have introduced rapid and substantial changes) it makes perfect sense for them to want to punish criminals and not polluters. The conservatives are being consistent, in their own way.

  2. There are some decent reasons why those on the right are relatively unconcerned about pollution.

    Dire predictions that pollution or deforestation or rampant consumerism were going to destroy everything have been failing to come to pass for decades. Arguably, more people than ever are living cleaner and healthier lives than ever before, and they largely have economic growth to thank for that.

    People also underestimate the public value of what corporations do. People grumble about Wallmart and the elimination of mom & pop retail stores, but they certainly appreciate being able to buy goods cheaply and have money left over for other things.

    Arguably, the left has consistently overestimated how harmful pollution and environmental degradation are, while also underestimating the amount of good done by the private sector. That leads to sensible arguments for weaker environmental protection in situations where economic growth and personal prosperity can be improved.

  3. Sarah,

    I hope the explanation isn’t as simple as that, though there is certainly an element of truth in your ‘criminals are generally poor, polluters are generally rich’ hypothesis.

    I think the general public still fails to recognize that pollution causes real suffering and death in the same way crime does, and that lack of factual understanding leads to part of the moral disjoint in how crime and pollution are seen.

  4. Anon,

    Dire predictions that pollution or deforestation or rampant consumerism were going to destroy everything have been failing to come to pass for decades.

    There is some truth to this. There are plenty of examples of people being excessively pessimistic. That said, the most evenhanded and cautious analyses of climate change are still very frightening. There are undeniably ecological problems looming that seriously threaten human welfare.

    Keeping climate change from getting much worse is a major and highly convincing argument for increased regulation.

    Arguably, more people than ever are living cleaner and healthier lives than ever before, and they largely have economic growth to thank for that.

    A big part of the explanation for this is the success of the environmental movement, in areas like installing scrubbers to reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power stations, regulations on what can be dumped into rivers, and so on.

    To a very large extent, examples where environmental conditions have improved provide arguments in favour of regulation.

    People also underestimate the public value of what corporations do. People grumble about Wallmart and the elimination of mom & pop retail stores, but they certainly appreciate being able to buy goods cheaply and have money left over for other things.

    This big difference between pollution and cheap DVD players is that the cheapness of DVD players immediately affects the behaviour of the people making, buying, and selling them. By contrast, pollution is usually an ‘externality’ that is not reflected in prices. Certainly, corporations provide goods and services of value – and people are rightly willing to pay for that value.

    What is necessary is to create regulatory structures that make consumers and corporations take into account the effect of their choices on third parties, as well as on the natural world.

  5. The conservative government keeps pushing hard to sell oil from the tar sends, but doing so is even more unethical than selling drugs. After all, drugs might ruin the life of the people who take them. And the lives of their family, perhaps. But the tar sands could ruin the whole planet.

    How about a mandatory minimum jail term for peddling them?

  6. November 13, 2011, 11:19 pm
    The Gulf of Morality

    “There’s a gulf as wide as the ocean between the average politically active conservative and the average politically active liberal. We don’t just have political differences; we view the world through very different eyes.” So wrote John Hawkins, who runs Right Wing News, at the beginning of the year.

    He’s right. The left thinks so too. George Lakoff of the linguistics department at the University of California at Berkeley argues that “conservatives believe in individual responsibility alone, not social responsibility. They don’t think government should help its citizens. That is, they don’t think citizens should help each other.”

    Rush Limbaugh counters that “the left, the Democrats, can do anything — they can employ strategy and policy which is destructive — and be excused for it on the basis that they had good intentions. And, by the way, that’s how they skate on virtually every bit of destructive policy, which is every policy they have.”

    I could go on, but you get the idea. Left and right look at each other with disdain and incredulity: what planet are these people from?

  7. Liberals generally “believe that offenders should be provided with counseling to aid in their rehabilitation.”

    On all of the above statements, conservatives — no surprise — disagree with liberals. They believe that employees who “contribute more to the success of the company” should “receive a larger share” of the pie and they value “social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.” The differences of opinion on war and peace are extreme, reflecting the importance of the hawk-dove split between the parties. Many on the right agree with few qualms that “war is sometimes the best way to solve a conflict” and that “there is nothing wrong in getting back at someone who has hurt you.”

    Conservatives believe “that ‘an eye for an eye’ is the correct philosophy for punishing offenders,” and they endorse the view that “the ‘old-fashioned ways’ and ‘old-fashioned values’ still show the best way to live.” It feels wrong to them when “a person commits a crime and goes unpunished.” From the beginning, “respect for authority is something all children need to learn.”

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