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Getting into deep water. Coastal land loss, environmental harm and state-corporate crime
Co-authors: Staci Strobl & Julie Viollaz
Cover photo: Access road to Isle de Jean Charles (Lieselot Bisschop, 2016)
Coastal land loss brings to mind images of beaches giving way to the sea but the consequences reach far beyond the coast line. Wetlands, estuaries, freshwater marshes, and bays can also be lost to the sea. This harms coastal regions’ fauna and flora, and impacts its communities and their economy. Although coastal land loss has been a chronic issue for several regions worldwide, it has become acute in the last few years. The attention is often on coastal mega cities like New York City or Mumbai, but many smaller communities are also at risk. This blogpost focuses on the Mississippi river delta, a region which has lost an average of 55 km2 of land per year in the last 80 years. Many citizens have retreated from this region because they no longer see a viable future for themselves or their families.
The fate of people living on Isle de Jean Charles, a small island located in Terrebonne Parish in the Louisiana bayou (US), is especially dire. Whereas the island was about 160 km2 in 1950, it is now barely 1.2 km2. This island faces regular storms and flooding on top of seasonal hurricanes. The levee system and floodgates are not sufficient to save the Isle. In 2016, the US Department of Housing and Development (HUD) granted 50 million USD to relocate the whole community together: the 24 remaining families and an additional 48 families that had already moved since 2002. Many of its current and former inhabitants are members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the Houma Nation Native American tribes.
There is much disagreement about the causes of coastal land loss and about whether particular people, communities, governments, or corporations should be held responsible. None of the human behavior associated with land loss in Louisiana has been adjudicated criminally because most of these activities, from oil extraction to insufficient levee protection, are legal.
None of the human behavior associated with land loss in Louisiana has been adjudicated criminally because most of these activities are legal
To gain insights into the underlying dynamics of coastal land loss, theories focusing on crimes of the powerful are useful. In our study about Isle de Jean Charles, we focus on environmental harm, building on two overlapping theoretical avenues. On the one hand, we use the state-corporate crime framework as originally developed by Kramer, Michalowski and Kauzlarich in 2002 and fine-tuned by Tombs in 2012. State-corporate crime theory sheds light on how the aligned interests of public and private elites lead to human rights abuses and environmental harm. These harms are often subject to rationalization or denial by power elites. On the other hand, we look at this topic through a green-cultural criminology lens, as advocated by Brisman and South in their 2015 book. This green-cultural criminological focus allows us to analyze the social construction of environmental harm and crime. We examine how various stakeholders talk about coastal land loss and its causes in order to understand how their narratives have shaped responses to the regional environmental problem.
Photo: Ghost trees near Isle de Jean Charles (Lieselot Bisschop, 2016)
The cause of Isle de Jean Charles’ land loss most often mentioned in media accounts is climate change (e.g. National Geographic; New York Times; The Guardian). Citing climate change as the cause seemingly blames the entire industrialized world for the problem, while at the same time insuring that no one in particular is held responsible. This dynamic is why the green-cultural criminology’s focus on the social construction of environmental harm and crime is vital to coming up with realistic responses to or accountability mechanisms for these harms and crimes.
Inadequate corporate environmental responsibility and insufficient governmental oversight makes coastal land loss criminological relevant
A complex interplay of dynamics between government and corporate actors has contributed to coastal land loss. Understanding who is harmed, how they are harmed, and by whom is not possible without examining the economic, political and social context of Isle de Jean Charles. The role of oil and gas extraction has compounded the problem of coastal land loss making the region more susceptible to devastating losses than other similar low-lying areas around the world. Only once this interplay is clear, can policy makers and governments produce solutions that hold those responsible accountable. This is also relevant for other places in the world that are facing the same fate with disturbingly similar causal dynamics: the Wadden Sea (the Netherlands), and the Sundarbans delta (India and Bangladesh). Corporate responsibility for environmentally unfriendly oil and gas industries, coupled with insufficient governmental oversight, makes coastal land loss a very relevant topic for criminologists.
If you are interested to learn more about this, please check the following journal article: Bisschop, L., Strobl, S. & Viollaz, J. (2017). Getting into deep water. Coastal land loss and state-corporate crime in the Louisiana bayou. British Journal of Criminology, advance articles https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azx057