"Many ‘environmental crimes’ still not labelled as illegal or criminal"
Assistant Professor Lieselot Bisschop is a criminologist at Erasmus School of Law (ESL) and the Erasmus Initiative Dynamics of Inclusive Prosperity. She is conducting research into corporate crime and environmental harm and the fine line between the two. How can regulation bring about more sustainable development, less damage and less corruption? And what role can the state and businesses play in this process? "Environmental damage is often externalised. Our goal is to arrive at a more inclusive solution for curtailing environmental harm that involves state agencies, businesses, and NGOs."
This past September, you co-organised the seminar ‘Environmental Crime and Power’ in Gent. You will sit down with Studio Erasmus on 10 December to discuss drug-related crime in the Port of Rotterdam. Are these the subjects of your research?
"The main theme of my research is environmental crime and damage to the environment. It’s an issue that’s close to my heart. I’m also researching corporate crime and organised crime in general. If I were to sum it up, the research is always about the wrongdoings of large – often multinational – corporations, state agencies or organised groups. What makes environmental damage interesting is that the cases often walk a fine line between what’s legal and illegal. Many environmental crimes are still not labelled as illegal or criminal. Or they are here, but not in other places throughout the world."
Should there be stricter environmental regulations for industry?
"Generally speaking, regulations in Europe and the Netherlands are quite strict. But we have a lot of industry and things can go wrong. The question is always whether there was sufficient compliance with the regulations and whether this compliance was properly monitored. Sometimes a business is even set up in such a way that the fine for environmental harm inflicted by the company is part of the business plan."
What’s your role in all this?
"On the one hand, I try to uncover what the drivers are. Which dynamics explain why businesses cause so much environmental harm, illegal or not. And when regulations have been breached, we look at: is this being done by individuals or is it part of the company’s structure or culture? Or does the broader political-economic context provide a reason?
A recent study in Louisiana in the United States examined coastal land loss. Water is increasingly encroaching further inland, and this process is being accelerated due to decades of oil and gas extraction from the ground. We conducted research in one specific area inhabited by Native Americans. What was striking was that land loss was viewed as something resulting from climate change, not from industrial activity, chiefly drilling for gas and oil – something that was quite evidently contributing to land subsidence. It was a special case where social inequality played a role along with environmental problems and the region’s reputation for corruption and revolving doors between government and industry. We tried to identify the factors at play in this dynamic.
Another study deals with shipbreaking; the dumping of ships that have been consigned to the scrap heap. European companies ‘discard’ an old ship and it ends up on a beach in Bangladesh. There is legislation that attempts to counter this, but many of these practices are legal because loopholes in the law are exploited. Exposing this dynamic helps us to also see what we can do to resolve it."
Can the law resolve such substantial problems?
"As a criminologist, I don’t limit my perspective just to criminal law. I believe that solutions have to be found in collaboration with the companies themselves, and by bringing state agencies, businesses and NGOs together."
"There are criminologists who state that pollution is the most serious crime occurring on a daily basis"
Why would a big corporation change its operating routine if what it’s doing isn’t even illegal?
"Let’s look at the example of the artificial turf (grass pitch). This has to be replaced periodically, and a few years ago, it emerged that some Dutch companies were storing this artificial turf on their premises without recycling it, in spite of the fact they were being paid to do just that. But there are also competitors who do follow the rules, but they’re much more expensive. Stricter monitoring of these practices would benefit the more expensive companies, but it would also result in less environmental harm. Sometimes a combination of factors is needed, working together with some companies, NGOs and state agencies, to prevent environmental harm.
These cases always present a real challenge. And if it happens at the international level, such as scrapping a ship, everything gets even more difficult. You can see it: the same schemes that are used to launder money, for example, are also used for dumping ships or ship-generated waste. This is something I find very interesting. In criminology this is sometimes referred to as ‘lawful but awful’."
Is there enough attention for environmental crime?
"It’s covered in our Criminology Master in the courses Globalization, Digitization and Crime, Corporate and White-Collar Crime and Organized Crime. The Bachelor also covers a few environmental cases. Unfortunately, it’s not a subject area in all criminology programmes.
It’s pretty clear what’s going wrong with the world and maybe that’s why it’s becoming somewhat more prominent in the education landscape. There are criminologists who state that pollution is the most serious crime occurring on a daily basis, even though it’s not recognised as such. If your company just exceeds the limits for emitting polluted air each day, then each day you are affecting the health of the people on this planet. Right now, this isn’t yet viewed as a violent crime. Even though the negative effects aren’t immediately apparent, they are significant. Something else that I think plays a role here in the West is that we don’t really experience the full extent of the negative effects; the ‘not in my back yard’ principle."
Isn’t this incredibly discouraging?
"I have frequent contact with people in the field who remain motivated day in, day out. If they can do it, so can I. If a Master student writes a thesis on this topic, then that’s already something you can view as a step in the right direction. Taking it step-by-step, we might be able to find solutions."
In Studio Erasmus on 10 December, you or your fellow criminologist Robby Roks are going to talk about drug smuggling in the Port of Rotterdam. What do drug smuggling and environmental crime have in common?
"In that study we looked at the vulnerabilities at companies and state agencies that facilitate the possibility of drug smuggling. What are the dynamics at play behind the scenes? Essentially, drug smuggling isn’t all that different from environmental crimes. Environmental issues are also often related to smuggling, so you can use some theoretical frameworks for both kinds of crime. And just as with environmental problems, we’ll have to look for solutions to drug-related problems by working together with businesses."