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The Anthropocene and criminological theory

Published onNov 30, 2022
The Anthropocene and criminological theory

Extensive resource extraction serving a fast-growing global human population has, on the one hand, brought about rapid economic growth and prosperity, while on the other hand has caused climate change, pollution, destruction of ecosystems and species extinction. As a result, a geological transition is underway in which the earth is shifting out of the Holocene epoch (that is, time since the last ice age) to a post-Holocene era. This new era is characterised by degraded environmental conditions that differ significantly from the ‘safe operating space’ (see Rockström et al in the suggested readings) that humans, along with all other species, have depended upon for their wellbeing and survival. A proposed term to identify this new era, the Anthropocene, emphasises how humans have impacted these developments as they transitioned from being ‘insignificant animals’ to being a significant ‘geological force’ (refer to Holley and Shearing) over the past couple of centuries.

Ontological and epistemological developments that recognise the human/non-human entanglements that the Anthropocene foregrounds, have challenged conceptions that posit the existence of two sui generis realities, namely a social world studied by social science and a natural world studied by natural sciences, in favour of a single socio-material reality. In understanding the rapidly increasing impact of human activities on the natural world, considerable attention has been paid to urban-based industrialisation – particularly the extraction and use of fossil fuels – and its effects on global climate change and rising sea levels.

Less front and centre have been the broadly conceived ‘rural’: countryside and ocean-based industrial developments such as extensive land and ocean-based harvesting of minerals (industrial-scale mining) and food production through industrial-scale fishing, as well as industrial-scale agriculture and aquiculture. This (over)harvesting of resources has been facilitated by the largely uncoordinated and poorly regulated use of a plethora of technological advancements, most recently artificial intelligence. Technological advancements have also been employed to mitigate or adapt to the effect of humanity’s ever-increasing consumption of natural resources.

These planetary developments have profoundly changed rural terrains, and the non-human and human lives that exist within them. For example, lifestyles associated with agriculture and aquaculture have been fundamentally impacted as food production methods have become increasingly industrialised; a development that has negatively impacted biodiversity. At a human level, these developments have been associated with a massive migration to cities and dramatic shifts in the lifestyles of humans living within rural landscapes and seascapes. Terrains have been fundamentally altered by, among other things, mining, loss of topsoil, desertification, widespread toxins and a host of other developments (refer to the IPCC climate change report in the suggested readings for more).

Recognising the significance of this transition, criminological attention is increasingly shifting from criminal, unlawful behaviours to harmful, immoral behaviours. Environmentally focused criminologists, for example ‘green criminologists’, have focused attention on the regulatory arrangements that have sought to shape, and have shaped, geologically significant socio-economic developments that have resulted in local and global harms. This includes proposed arrangements to criminalise, as ‘ecocide’, the ‘wilful destruction of natural environments’ (Crook et al is a valuable reading).

A central criminological concern that impacts both urban and rural terrains has been a concern with human and non-human rights, injustices and inequalities. A crucial area of concern has been the fact that those least responsible for these ‘ecocidal’ developments so often have borne the burden of Anthropocene impacts, in part because of exploitative systems of colonialism that continue to structure global inequalities. Similar concerns have been raised with respect to non-human entities, by thinkers who assign equal rights, roles and agency to humans and non-humans as part of one socio-material reality. A notable development here has been the incipient emergence of the idea that non-human entities can, and should, have legally recognised rights: for example, the recognition of rivers as rights-bearing entities in constitutional provisions.

The Anthropocene requires epistemological shifts that recognise human influences on ecological systems, with which they are entangled. This has implications for the new harms, risks and injustices that have emerged as a consequence of these socio-material entanglements. There is a pressing need to include more diverse perspectives, if we are to successfully move beyond the conceptual framings, and associated practices, that have shifted ecological systems beyond the ‘safe operating space’ of the Holocene epoch. These developments, and the emerging responses to them, that may well include criminalisation, are having, and will have, profound implications for rural practices and lifestyles and the possibilities for equality and justice that extends beyond humans.

Suggested readings

Crook, M., Short, D. and South, N. (2018) ‘Ecocide, genocide, capitalism and colonialism: Consequences for Indigenous peoples and global ecosystems environments’, Theoretical Criminology, 22(3): 298–317.

Holley, C. and Shearing, C. (2018) ‘Thriving on a pale blue dot: Criminology and the Anthropocene’, in C. Holley and C. Shearing (eds) Criminology and the Anthropocene, London: Routledge, pp. 1–24.

Holm, N. and Taffel, S. (2017) Ecological entanglements in the Anthropocene, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) (2019) ‘Summary for Policymakers’, in P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo, Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi and J. Malley (eds) Climate change and land: An IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Available from: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/11/SRCCL-Full-Report-Compiled-191128.pdf [Accessed 2 July 2021].

Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., Persson, A., Chapin, F., Lambin, E., Lenton, T., Scheffer, M., Folke, C., Schellnhuber, H., Nykvist, B., de Wit, C., Hughes, T., van der Leeuw, S. and Rodhe, H.J. (2009) ‘Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity’, Ecology and Society, 14(2). Available from: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/ [Accessed 1 July 2021].

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