Crime can be defined best as a violation of the criminal law. Looking behind most criminal statues, however, we can generally catch a glimpse of the concept of harm. Criminal activity, such as theft and assault, most of us would agree, is harmful to others. Some crimes, however, such as drug abuse, prostitution , gambling, and pornography, are sometimes referred to as "victimless crimes," or social order offenses, because the harm they cause is not readily identifiable at the individual level.
Today a whole new class of criminal offenses is emerging base upon the notion of environmental damage. In what may be the best known environmental catastrophe , the Exxon Valdez, a 1,000 foot supertanker, ran aground in Alaska in 1989 and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil over 1,700 mile of pristine coastline. Animal life in the area was devastated. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported decimation to salmon spawning grounds, the death of 580,000 birds (including 144 bald eagles), and the demise of an unknown, put presumably vast amount of sea life (22 whales were known dead, along with 5,500 sea otters). The initial cleanup involved over 10,000 people and cost more than $1 billion. Damages were estimated as high as $5 billion, and Exxon, in an agreement which was later rejected by a federal court, agreed to pay $1 billion in restoration fees. In the end, Exxon only had to pay $507.5 million in punitive damages. It was a blow to all who were effected by the oil spill, the settlement only amounts to 1/5 of the 2.5 billion cost of the cleanup.
While the Exxon Valdez incident is still in the fore front of national consciousness 20 years after the fact, environmental crimes of all proportions are a common occurrence. Such crimes range from ecological terrorism, like that waged against Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, to small-scale recycling offenses which are frequently committed (sometimes unknowingly) by individual citizens. As ecological awareness continues to expand, new prohibitions are legislated and previously unheard-of offenses created.
Today, a highly concerned society stands increasingly ready to define abuse of the environment in criminal terms. As a consequence, words like "curbside criminals," "recycling police," and "garbage crime," are becoming commonplace. Most States, for example, have in place, a recycling law which mandates stiff sanctions, including fines and jail sentences for violators. While human beings have insulted the environment since before the dawn of history, it has only been in the past 20 years, as our dependence on the planet has become progressively obvious, that such activities have been ascribed criminal status. Hence the question: What taken for granted aspects of our contemporary everyday lives will become subject to criminal sanctions in the next 20 years?