Environmental Harm and the Political Economy of Consumption

By White, Rob | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Environmental Harm and the Political Economy of Consumption


White, Rob, Social Justice


Introduction

THIS ARTICLE ARGUES THAT ADEQUATE STUDY OF ENVIRONMENTAL HARM MUST proceed from sustained analysis of the basic institutions and structures of contemporary capitalism. The central question at the core of environmental degradation and destruction is the organization of human subsistence and the relationship of this to nature. The article thus demonstrates the centrality of capitalist political economy to the construction of the substantive problem (environmental harm) and to the limitations of existing regulatory regimes in relation to this problem.

To illustrate the theoretical issues and complexities in this area, the specific focus will be on "consumption" relations. I will discuss the relationship between production and consumption, the developments underpinning the extension of "consumerism" in capitalist society (e.g., privatization and commodification), and the symbolic place of consumption and its association with the realization of surplus value by capital (e.g., production of meaning, identity, and desire). Each of these areas has implications for the conceptualization of environmental problems and for how to regulate or respond to environmental harm.

Criminology and the Study of Environmental Harm

By its very nature, the study of environmental harm raises issues pertaining to the proper domains of criminology as a field of inquiry. For example, from the point of view of conceptions of "harm" and the regulation of environmental activity, there is rarely a specific, or adequate, criminal justice response to the issues. There is enormous variation in how we conceptualize the problem and devise appropriate and effective measures to limit, reduce, or abolish certain types of environmental harm depending upon the philosophical framework within which analysis and intervention take place (see, for example, Halsey and White, 1998). The actual interplay between civil and criminal remedies also warrants close attention, as it represents attempts to deal with substantive issues through measures across a range of regulatory areas (Gunningham et al., 1995).

Major issues relating to environmental harm include its definition in criminological terms and the nature of responses to such harm. The politics of definition are complicated by the politics of "denial," in which particular concrete manifestations of social injury and environmental damage are obfuscated, ignored, or redefined in ways that re-present them as being of little relevance to academic criminological study or state criminal justice intervention. Similar to the denial of human rights violations, environmental issues call forth a range of neutralization techniques on the part of nation-states and corporations that ultimately legitimate and justify certain types of environmentally unfriendly activities. For instance, "green washing" media campaigns misconstrue the nature of collective corporate business regarding the environment (Beder, 1997). The arguments of critics of particular kinds of biotechnological development are attacked and delegitimated (see Hager and Burton, 1999; Hannigan, 1995), as in t he case of those who question the nature of genetically modified food (Hindmarsh, 1996). For governments, denial of harm is usually associated with economic objectives and the appeal to forms of "sustainable development" that fundamentally involve further environmental degradation (see Harvey, 1996).

At the heart of these processes of denial is a culture that takes for granted, but rarely sees as problematic, the proposition that continued expansion of material consumption is both possible and will not harm the biosphere in any fundamental way. Some aspects of denial are consciously and directly linked to instrumental purposes (as in firm's or industry campaigns to delegitimate environmental action surrounding events or developments that are manifestly harmful to local environments). …

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