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date: 22 October 2017

Green Criminology, Culture, and Cinema

Summary and Keywords

Since first proposed by Brisman and South, green cultural criminology has sought to interrogate human-environment interactions in order to locate meaning. Within the broad framework of green cultural criminology, work has emerged that follows visual criminology in looking to the visual cultural register for insights into the intersections of crime, harm, justice, culture and the natural environment. This article turns the green cultural criminological gaze towards motion pictures, by considering how cinema can serve as a central and essential site of the cultural production and communication of knowledge and meaning(s) that inform human interactions with the natural environment. Indeed, environmental crimes, harms, and disasters are constructed and imagined and represented in cinema, and the films discussed in this article illustrate the ways in which the environment-culture connection in the contemporary cinematic mediascape has influenced public discourses concerning environmental change and harm. This article begins by examining the capacity of documentary film to raise public awareness and generate shifts in public consciousness about environmental harms. From here, it explores cinematic science fiction representations of apocalyptic climate disaster, noting the power of the medium in communicating contemporary anxieties surrounding climate change. Finally, filmic communications of a central category of interest for green cultural criminology—resistance to environmental harm—are described, in addition to the various ways that resistance by environmentalists has recently been represented in popular cinema. The films discussed throughout—including An Inconvenient Truth, Cowspiracy, The East, If A Tree Falls, Night Moves, and Snowpiercer—are not an exhaustive sampling of contemporary representations of environmental issues in cinema. Rather, they represent the most salient—and are among the most popular—moments of contemporary cinematic engagement with the nexus of environmental harm and culture. This article concludes by contending that a green cultural criminology should continue to look to the visual register because sites of cultural production often overlooked by criminology (e.g., cinema, literature) can reveal significant and essential information about the moments in which environmental harm, justice, and culture intersect and collide.

Keywords: cinema, climate change, documentary film, environmental crime, environmental harm, green criminology, green cultural criminology, justice, meaning, resistance


In the space opera film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), Kalique Abrasax, a member of an intergalactic noble family, remarks, “In your world [Earth], people are used to fighting for resources like oil and minerals and land. But when you have access to the vastness of space, you realize, there’s only on resource worth fighting over—even killing for. More time. Time is the single most precious commodity in the universe.”

Although Kalique’s character is fictional, her observations are accurate on two levels. First, people (on Earth) do fight for resources like oil and minerals and land (see Brisman et al., 2015; Goyes, 2017). Second, time is, indeed, a precious commodity. The difference between Kalique’s world and ours is that without access to resources like oil and minerals and land on other planets, the availability of those resources on Earth—and thus our time on Earth—may be limited. To put it another way, human rapacity for Earth’s resources threatens humanity’s long-term survival and future on this planet.

Across the natural and social sciences—and at points of overlap and convergence—various researchers, scholars, and writers have exposed political inertia, failures of regulation, and avoidance of corporate, state, and personal responsibility regarding environmental harms and threat with regard to preservation of the environment. For many years, criminology stood on the sideline, leaving the study of environmental crime, harm, law, and regulation to researchers in other fields. But over the past few decades, a growing—and now substantial—body of work concerned with harm and risk to the environment has emerged, such that within criminology concerns about environmental harms, crimes, and damage are now being given a more prominent place in the field.1

Research in the area of “green criminology,” as it has come to be known, spans the local to the global and has included work on: agriculture and food; animal abuse and animal rights; air, ground and water pollution; climate change; food; and poaching and trafficking of flora and fauna (see, e.g., Beirne, 2009; Beirne & South, 2007; Bisschop, 2015; Burns et al., 2008; Clifford, 1998; Edwards et al., 1996; Ellefsen et al., 2012; Farrall et al., 2012; Gaarder, 2011; Hall, 2013, 2015; Lemieux, 2014; Lynch & Stretesky, 2014; Maas et al., 2013; Nurse, 2013, 2015, 2016; Sollund, 2008, 2015; South & Beirne, 2006; South & Brisman, 2013; Stretesky et al., 2014; Walters, 2011; Walters et al., 2013; White, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013; White & Heckenberg, 2014; Wyatt, 2012, 2013). Green cultural criminology seeks to bring together green criminology and cultural criminology, and to identify points of overlap. If cultural criminology is, as Ferrell (1999, p. 396), explains, “an emergent array of perspectives linked by sensitivities to image, meaning, and representation in the study of crime and crime control,” then green cultural criminology might be conceptualized as an emergent array of perspectives linked by sensitivities to image, meaning, and representation in the study of green or environmental crime and environmental crime control. Accordingly, green cultural criminology (1) considers the way(s) in which environmental crime, harm and disaster are constructed, represented, and envisioned by the news media and in popular cultural forms; (2) dedicates increased attention to patterns of consumption, constructed consumerism, commodification of nature and related market processes; and (3) devotes heightened concern to the contestation of space, transgression, and resistance to analyze the ways in which environmental harms are opposed in/on the streets and in day-to-day living (Brisman, 2015, 2017a, 2017b; Brisman & South, 2012, 2013a, 2014, 2015a, 2017a, 2017b; Brisman, in press a, in press b, 2017b; Brisman, McClanahan, & South, 2014; see also Brisman, 2014; Brisman & South, in press; Mazurek, 2017; McClanahan, 2014; Schally, 2014). This article focuses on elements in the first of these. More specifically, it develops a green cultural criminological analysis of cinematic constructions and representations.

To be sure, the films selected here do not represent the entire landscape of cinematic moments of engagement with the environment-justice nexus. Instead, these films represent the contemporary environment-culture mediascape and are ones that have had a significant impact on public discourses surrounding environmental harm and change. Criminological attention to film as an important site of cultural production is, of course, nothing new. Rafter (2006), Rafter and Brown (2011), Yar (2010) and others taking up crime and justice as central sites of inquiry have established the relevance of film for criminology. The present aim, then, is to follow previous criminological engagement with film to establish film’s relevance for an explicitly green cultural criminology.

Representations of environmental harm are relevant not only to a green cultural criminology as an academic inquiry. The cultural production of the meanings of environment-human relationships also structure and inform the various ways people conceive of and think and feel about—as well as act toward, interact with, and make decisions regarding—the environment. Mediated representations of human-environment relationships and environmental harm, then, are relevant to green cultural criminology precisely because they continue to capture the public imagination, with books, films, and other cultural products engaging with the various topics and themes presented by an increasingly threatened and unstable biosphere. Among these cultural products of representation are several distinct approaches to the representation of issues relating to environmental harm in film. First, we discuss the capacity of documentary film to raise public awareness about environmental issues and generate public consciousness about environmental harms. This is followed by a consideration of film as a powerful medium for the presentation of apocalyptic science fiction (specifically, cinematic climate disaster). Thereafter, the ways in which various film genres present resistance and responses to environmental harm are presented—some revolutionary, others reformist or reactionary. Cinema, however, is just one of many media through which constructions and representations of environmental degradation are produced and consumed. Furthermore, even within this field, far more categories of movies representing and depicting environmental harm and destruction could be delineated than are noted here, and—even within these three categories—far more examples exist than are examined here. Thus, this article is a trailer rather than a feature presentation.

Documentary Film and Public Awareness of Environmental Harm

Documentary films, such as the much-lauded An Inconvenient Truth (2006), have had a significant impact on public understandings of climate change, in particular, and of human relationships with the natural environment, more broadly. Research conducted following the release of An Inconvenient Truth found that the film increased public willingness to attribute global climate change to human activity by as much as 9% (Kohut et al., 2008), while other studies determined that viewing clips from the film left audiences feeling increasingly empowered to act to reduce carbon emissions to slow climate change (Beattie et al., 2011). An Inconvenient Truth, then—and other documentary efforts depicting and exploring various issues of environmental harm (some of which are discussed below)—can be understood as providing a vital form of media representation. Such media offer audiences and the public scientifically validated facts2 about environmental harm, as well as reasons why—and mechanisms by which—such facts have been obfuscated, as in the film Climate of Doubt (2012), for example, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Tapped (2014).

In January 2017, eleven years after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, former Vice-President Al Gore and his colleagues premiered a new film—An Inconvenient Sequel—to emphasize the continuing urgency regarding the need for action to address climate change. In terms of the cultural power of forms of media regarding truth claims, this release occurred at an interesting moment, coinciding with the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States and the ushering in of a new age of “alternative facts” (see, e.g., Broich, 2017; Fandos, 2017; Graham, 2017).

Returning to An Inconvenient Truth, we should stress that the impact of the film was not limited to public awareness of climate change and the attendant public willingness to respond. The film also inspired several other documentary efforts that engaged with issues of environmental harm and human-environment interaction that were, in many ways, made “real” in the public imagination by An Inconvenient Truth. Among these, one prominent example that has seemingly enjoyed the same sort of power to capture public attention and spark conversations about environmental harm and change is Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014). Kip Anderson, the director and protagonist-narrator of Cowspiracy, locates his film in a conversation started by and around An Inconvenient Truth. Moreover, Anderson—in the first two minutes of the film—describes his own entry into environmental interest and activism as a direct result of An Inconvenient Truth. While Anderson’s film is, indeed, a film “about climate change,” it diverges from An Inconvenient Truth in that it avoids an exhaustive and comprehensive cataloging of the causes and anticipated or already realized effects of climate change, focusing instead on the impact of animal agriculture on the global climate.

If An Inconvenient Truth, then, is a documentary about climate change, Cowspiracy is a climate change documentary about animal agriculture. Cowspiracy engages with a variety of issues raised by animal agriculture—including industrial expansion and animal welfare—through the public conversation(s) about climate change presented by An Inconvenient Truth. Throughout Cowspiracy, Anderson questions and ultimately confronts several high-profile environmental interest and activist groups, noting the silence of groups like Greenpeace, Oceana, Rainforest Action Network and the Sierra Club on the environmental harms caused by animal agriculture as a significant—if not a dominant—source of human impacts on the global climate.

In many ways, Cowspiracy is also a film about resistance and responses to anthropogenic climate change and environmental harm. The film’s message is clear: Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth warned us about climate change; animal agriculture is a major contributor to climate change; mainstream environmental groups are mostly silent on the issue. (Anderson implies that many environmental groups and organizations have been pressured by the animal agriculture industry to focus their attention elsewhere; the only solution to climate change, in Anderson’s view, is in the widespread adoption of a vegan diet.)

Like An Inconvenient Truth before it, Cowspiracy made a significant contribution to the debate and profile regarding issues associated with environmental harm, in general, and climate change, more specifically, encouraging discussion of the best ways to respond. Indeed, the film has garnered attention for its effect on public discourse and consciousness (see, e.g., Homewood, 2015), with Garcia (2016) noting that “emphasis has been given to the methane produced by cattle with the release of the film Cowspiracy.”3 The film’s own website encourages readers to submit stories of their own adoption of a plant-based diet inspired by the film, while the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), urges members to hold “Cowspiracy viewing parties” for friends and family, going so far as to frame hosting such parties as an “action” on par with the other forms of direct action activism that the group champions (PETA, 2016). Homewood (2015) notes that Cowspiracy offers the “compelling and liberating … idea that you can start changing the world NOW, by simply deciding to change your diet.” Here, documentary films have the somewhat unique power to both inform the public and capture the public imagination, demonstrating the power of such films to serve as the cultural vanguard of public interest in, and engagement with, environmental issues.4

Climate Disaster Cinema and Societal Collapse in Film

Documentary films can provide audiences with examples of environmental harm and the causes and consequences thereof.5 In some of the genres discussed below, different forms of presentation of dramatic—and increasingly prescient—warnings about the future of human-environment interactions engage the audience.6

As the Earth’s climate continues to change as a result of anthropogenic forces, and as the relationships between humans and the broader natural world that contribute to climate change and other forms of environmental harm become progressively more relevant and prominent in the public imagination, efforts to make sense of and grapple with the meaning(s) of those relations and interactions through the tools of cultural representation also appear to be proliferating. Indeed, there seems to be a sharp rise in the production—or, at least in the popularity—of films that take on themes of ecological apocalypse and the dystopic social conditions that follow (Schmidt, 2014). This increase represents an acceleration of a trend rather than an entirely new development (South, 2017). For example, from the first atomic bomb “mushroom cloud” images, cinema and popular science fiction has embraced themes of fear, panic and the unknown associated with radiation and mutation. Writers like Rachel Carson (1962 [2002]) made an impact beyond their own texts by inspiring cinematic warnings about the threats to nature posed by pesticides and dependence on chemicals. Intellectual, political and military exercises in futurology in the 1960s spurred interest in dystopic futures of overpopulation, the recycling of human remains as food, and the need to look to space for new worlds to inhabit (see generally Brisman, 2015). All of this would seem to suggest that there has not been a shortage of messages about environmental threats. Were these comfortably accommodated, their “reality” denied, because they seemed too much like fiction and speculation?

While societal collapse has long been a popular cinematic theme (see generally Linnemann et al., 2014), it seems to be the case that the uninterrupted advance of anthropogenic climate change—and, perhaps more importantly, public knowledge of climate change—has increased cultural interest in exploring human-environment interaction through the processes and forms of cultural production. The increase in public awareness following the release of films like An Inconvenient Truth, discussed above, has opened the door further for cultural (and, in particular, cinematic science fictional) engagement with various dimensions of human-environment interactions. That these moments of engagement so often employ intensely apocalyptic themes and settings indicates that perhaps such visions of the ecological future (or, in some cases, present) are becoming less fantastical and more predictive or even descriptive to consumers of popular culture.

Admittedly, apocalypse and dystopic social conditions are not new cultural themes (see, e.g., Brisman, 2015). It is easy to imagine that humanity has likely always engaged in fantasies of its own demise (see Brisman & South, 2013b).7 In cinematic and literary representations of environmental and social apocalypse, collapse can come from many directions: celestial impact, disease, nuclear events, or alien invasion. Most striking, though, is the increasing cultural interest in engaging with what is, in the contemporary moment, the most salient and imaginable of the sources of collapse—the destruction of the natural environment due to human acts and omissions. Owing to the ability of films like An Inconvenient Truth to contribute to public knowledge of issues like climate change, audiences are (rather ironically) also consuming cultural products that engage with and explore themes of collapse flowing from environmental destruction. A cinematic genre has emerged in response to the desire for cultural representations that capture the social anxieties of a public attuned to the dynamics of environmental harm: climate disaster cinema.8

Climate disaster, as a cinematic theme, is most frequently science fiction. In the various climate disaster science fiction films that have captured audiences, it is easy to locate reflections of various political ideologies, degrees of scientific knowledge of climate change, and social anxieties. Snowpiercer, the 2013 film adapted from a 1982 French graphic novel (Le Transperceneige) and directed by Bong Joon-ho, represents a significant entry into the growing canon of climate disaster cinema. Set in the not-so-distant year of 2031, the film depicts a dystopic future in which climate change has made the Earth uninhabitable by humans (and, presumably, all life), save for those aboard a train—the titular Snowpiercer—that perpetually circumnavigates the planet, with the front cars occupied by an elite class and the rear cars occupied by a captive and oppressed working class. The clear message in Snowpiercer is one that would resonate with Balem Abrasax, Kalique’s brother, in Jupiter Ascending, who at one point remarks, “every human society is a pyramid, and … some lives will always matter more than others. It is better to accept this than to pretend that it isn’t true”—or with Maria and Freder, separated by the spaces of labor and leisure in Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian film Metropolis.

In Snowpiercer, as the passengers in the rear of the train grow increasingly discontented with mere survival, a revolutionary spirit foments and takes hold, and these oppressed passengers revolt. Led by the predictably tall, strong, white male—Curtis Everett—they fight their way to the front of the train, ostensibly to confront Minister Wilford (Ed Harris) the madman at the wheel, a transportation magnate-cum-quasi-God and the train’s creator. Curtis (played by Chris Evans, most recognizable not as the Christ-like proletariat revolutionary that he depicts in Snowpiercer, but as the diametrically different patriotic superhero, Captain America, as well as the Human Torch in the Fantastic Four franchise) and his followers are propelled forward as much by a desire for vengeance as any hope for a better future for humanity—a future that, as it is implied throughout their mission, can result only in the final destruction of all remaining human life. Snowpiercer, then, presents a particular vision of climate change and the ensuing total environmental collapse that is decidedly pessimistic, assuming that optimism means the hope of human survival; here, relief from the pains and anxieties of dystopic conditions following climate collapse comes not from humanity’s resilience but from its destruction.

The climate event that leads to the conditions presented in Snowpiercer is not, in a strict sense, climate change itself, as was the case in the 1995 film, Waterworld. Instead, Snowpiercer’s vision of collapse comes from human efforts to geoengineer a solution to climate change that backfires, causing the emergence of a new global ice age.9 Here, the assumptions made by Director Bong about the willingness and interest of audiences to engage with climate change reveal something significant: Bong’s Snowpiercer assumes that its audience accepts the science of climate change. In the dystopic world of the film, the ecological reality of climate change is a given, with the remaining questions relating not to the scientific validity of the issue but to the various approaches available to respond to climate change. Snowpiercer therefore presents openly revolutionary solutions. From the construction of a perpetually moving vessel to contain the last of humanity, to the eventual insurgency onboard, Snowpiercer’s post-climate change world is something entirely new. As Frase (2014) notes, Snowpiercer not-so-subtly argues that any “revolution which merely takes over the existing social machinery rather than attempting to transcend it” is fundamentally limited.

In many ways, then, Snowpiercer is a film not only about climate change but also the response (or possible response) to it. While examples of previous films that depict a climate-change apocalypse are abundant—from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001) to Waterworld, noted above—Snowpiercer deviates from the central themes of most climate science fiction precisely because it imagines revolutionary responses to environmental collapse. To be sure, Snowpiercer, with its perpetual motion engines and globally linked railroad tracks, is fundamentally a work of science fiction. But the world that Snowpiercer imagines, one in which purely scientific and technological solutions to climate change not only fail but actually exacerbate the issue, is more speculative than it is unimaginably fictitious.10 In this case, the engineering fix in the film comes in the form of a fictional chemical released into the atmosphere by jets, a touch that briefly engages the contemporary anxieties surrounding so-called “chemtrails” held by some “conspiracy theorists” (see generally Oliver & Wood, 2014).

Cinematic Representations of Resistance to Environmental Harm

The discussion of the film Snowpiercer explored one particular climate change scenario but also introduced a third theme: the forms of resistance and responses (some revolutionary as in Snowpiercer, others reformist or reactionary) to environmental harm as represented in various cultural productions. The East (2013), Night Moves (2013), and If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011) are three recent films that take up similar themes with dramatically different results.

The East tells the story of Sarah (Brit Marling), a career-driven and ambitious young operative for a secretive corporate security firm that seemingly borrows its structure and culture from the CIA, who is assigned to infiltrate and investigate a shadowy cabal of anarchist activists calling themselves The East. The members of The East are considered a threat by the firm’s clients, a consortium of large pharmaceutical entities worried that their employees might meet the same fate as those shown in the film’s opening sequence, in which an oil executive’s home is attacked by The East. Sarah embarks immediately on her mission, flippantly leaving behind her fiancé with a vague story about an assignment in the Middle East, but only after using a potato peeler to slice the tread off the soles of the Birkenstock sandals—that everlasting icon of environmental resistance—given to her by her boss as a gift to help her “blend in” with members of The East. Almost immediately, Sarah finds an “in” with The East in the form of Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), a freight train-hopping traveler, who rescues Sarah from an encounter with railroad police and shows her the wonders of dumpster diving for donuts.11

The group accepts Sarah, with some minor reluctance from the group’s alpha female, Izzy (Ellen Page), who sees Sarah as a threat to her (possibly romantic) relationship with Benji (Alexander Skarsgård), the group’s leader. While intended as a reasonable Hollywood depiction of direct action in defense of the environment, rather than a documentary, the most egregious flaw of the film rests with the way in which the film’s writers (Zal Batmanglij & Brit Marling) constructed their characters. The characters participating in the misguided—but noble—resistance movement seeking social and ecological justice are driven not by a sense of the importance of justice or commitment to a broader environmental, ethical, or moral cause, but rather by personal (and frequently romantic) concerns. The group’s resident physician, Doc (a nod to the character “Doc” in Edward Abbey’s novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)), is seeking to take down the pharmaceutical giants because he has been stricken with a neurological disease following the use of one of their antibiotics. Izzy is seeking revenge on her estranged father, who happens to be an executive with one of the targeted firms. Eve (Hillary Baack), a deaf member of the cell, has seemingly been convinced that she is unlovable outside of the insular social confines of The East. Benji, it turns out, is motivated first and foremost by his own guilt surrounding an inheritance. Sarah, who ultimately begins to adopt some of the radical political spirit of the group, only does so out of her blossoming romantic feelings for Benji. This is not to suggest that radical activists do not possess motivations other than dedication to their cause or that radical activists are not, at times, drawn to particular groups because of social dynamics (e.g., belonging, camaraderie, romance). But by overemphasizing the non-political aspects of The East’s work and by creating characters seemingly without any ecophilosophical orientation, Batmanglij and Marling make the activists seem petty, shallow, and one-dimensional. The end result is a film that seems not to understand that radical direct-action resistance can—and frequently does—issue forth for reasons that transcend the persona—a stark contrast to the powerful and provoking Academy Award–nominated documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011), discussed below.

While Batmanglij and Marling’s muddled script fails to perform the sort of genre play they were clearly hoping for and thus serves an injustice to the movements and characters they romanticize, their most glaring failure comes to light as the end credits begin to roll. Sarah, now fully committed to the social and environmental justice goals of The East cell, but equally wary of its tactics, devises a plan to leave her job, go rogue, and travel the globe to convince other corporate security operatives and environmental regulators of the myriad injustices stemming from quotidian corporate activity. As the credits continue, the audience is treated to what Batmanglij and Marling seem to see as true (and, seemingly, likely) justice, as headlines detailing various regulatory crackdowns on corporate environmental malfeasance flash, each a direct result of Sarah’s ability to find, confront, and win the heart of regulatory actors. In these final moments of the film, the ideology of its writers is laid plain: for Batmanglij and Marling, radical resistance is useful only insofar as it can produce a narrative that reveals social and environmental harms; the task of addressing those harms is best left to the regulators of a liberal state. While this bland and status-quo-enforcing moral lesson is much more palatable to a public with varying degrees of concern with issues of ecological and environmental justice—an audience likely to be uneasy with the prospect of direct action—the film ignores completely the near-total failure of regulatory agencies to prevent, mitigate, or prosecute instances of environmental harm and crime. Research within green criminology has frequently described the ways that current regulatory models fail systemically in their efforts to address environmental harm (see, e.g., Block, 2002; de Prez, 2000; du Rées, 2001; Elliott, 2007; Gibbs et al., 2010; Green, Ward, & McConnachie, 2007; Kramer, 2013; Leighton, 2015; Rothe, 2010; Ruggiero & South, 2010; Snider, 2010; Stretesky, 2006; Van Erp & Huisman, 2010; White, 2002, 2008)—a fact that seems to elude the film’s writers.

If The East is the mindless action-espionage entry into the emerging canon of films about radical environmental activists,12 Night Moves (2013) is its taught thriller counterpart. Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Reichardt and Jonathon Raymond, Night Moves stars Jesse Eisenberg and Dakota Fanning as two mismatched radical environmental activists who enter into a plan with a third activist, played by Peter Sarsgaard, to blow up a hydroelectric dam in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. The trio is hoping that the successful execution of their plot will serve two purposes: to restore the dammed valley to its natural ecological state and to “get people thinking.”

Following the planning phase of the group’s action, the film makes the case (through a clumsily placed scene in which a group of radical environmentalists pepper a sympathetic documentarian with questions following a film screening) that “there are no big solutions” to the assorted contemporary problems of environmental harm. For the three central activists, this rings true: they do not see the destruction of the dam as a solution, but instead as a starting point, something to “get people thinking.” This is, perhaps, the film’s biggest strength. While The East tells audiences that regulation plus informed and thoughtful corporate actors can and will fix the current ecological situation without engaging in any fundamental changes in the ways that humans relate to one another and the broader environment (a position that is woefully bereft of an informed understanding of the limitations of such “business-as-usual” capitalist solutions), Night Moves simply notes that such “solutions” are unlikely if not foolhardy. Night Moves then dispenses entirely with considering or presenting any “solutions” whatsoever. In Night Moves, the activist-protagonists are much more believable: they are idealistic but not stupid, and they understand the limitations of both direct action sabotage (ecotage) and the alternatives.

Night Moves begs comparison to The East, with the latter appearing to be stale and thoughtless in its representation of environmental issues and activists. While Night Moves shines favorably next to The East, it falls into many of the same traps as The East. In both films, environmental activists are portrayed as always perilously close to senseless violence against other humans, and any women involved in direct action are presented as dishonest, disposable, and only engaged politically as a form of resistance to their fathers,13 not to the global problems of environmental harm and impending ecological collapse. Ultimately, despite its efforts to show the complexities of environmental harm and resistance, Night Moves offers the same sort of simplified and palatable responses to environmental harm as found in The East. In Night Moves, however, the “solutions” to environmental harm are not simply regulatory but hinge on the spread of an ecologically informed sustainable capitalism. While not as troubling as the message in The East of corporate responsibility as a panacea, the sort of ecologically-minded social and environmental relations presented by Night Moves as a useful response to global environmental disaster are nevertheless fraught with problems. Sustainable capitalism is, as many have argued, largely a myth. For example, as Allen White (2012) has described, arguments for sustainable capitalism fall into the trap of “focusing on symptoms of the current system rather than its structural flaws.” The global totality of the contemporary environmental situation flowing from those structural flaws is not likely to be addressed simply and only by the local-scale solutions of sustainable agricultural production championed by Night Moves.

If Snowpiercer and other climate disaster films are the speculative representation of the real environmental issues validated in public discourse (to some extent) by works like An Inconvenient Truth and other scientifically-grounded documentary efforts, The East and Night Moves are the speculative and fictitious representation of the equally real social world of resistance to environmental harm. That world—the world of “radical” environmental activism and its inhabitants—is captured in the 2011 film If a Tree Falls: A Story of The Earth Liberation Front. If a Tree Falls, directed by Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman. If a Tree Falls describes the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—the group that undoubtedly served as the inspiration and model for the activist cells depicted in The East and Night Moves—through the story of Daniel McGowan, an ELF affiliate who took part in radical resistance to environmental harm. The film employs extensive interviews with McGowan and other “Elves,” those affected by ELF actions, and law enforcement personnel, alongside archival footage, to tell the biographical story of McGowan, who was eventually arrested and charged with a host of offenses including arson and conspiracy, each with a “terrorism enhancement” that threatened to extend his sentence to life in prison.

While The East and Night Moves offer caricatures of “radical” environmentalism and activists, If a Tree Falls offers a glimpse of the real people involved in direct action in defense of the environment. The film’s greatest strength, it comes as no surprise, is in its willingness to confront complex issues and allow them to remain complex. The simple solutions of The East (regulatory reform) and Night Moves (sustainable capitalism and the continued ecological exploitation of capitalist relations) provide a potentially dramatic narrative—with good guys and bad guys—that does not contemplate the nuances of and tensions within the contemporary environmental moment. If a Tree Falls, of course, does not offer any tidy solutions to environmental problems. It does, though, illustrate quite nicely the inconsistencies of how legal architectures approach environmental activism, the ecological perils of unfettered production and consumption, and the individual and social effects of recognizing and acting on the feeling that something is deeply wrong in human-environment relations. Throughout If a Tree Falls, the audience is treated to an array of images of social and environmental harm and conflict. The clear-cut forest and militarized police response to activists captured in the film poke at apocalyptic anxieties just as effectively as Snowpiercer. There is something significant about mediated cultural representations of environmental harm in comparing these various examples: not only are audiences willing to learn about environmental issues, as proven by the success and impact of documentary and educational films like An Inconvenient Truth, they are increasingly willing to have the ecological anxieties of the contemporary moment prodded by films like Snowpiercer and The Colony, massaged by films like The East and Night Moves, and challenged by documentaries such as If a Tree Falls.


This article began with a quotation from Jupiter Ascending, the science fiction film in which the human species on Earth and other planets has been established by families of transhuman and alien royalty for the sole purpose of later “harvesting” the resulting organisms (humans) to produce a type of youth serum for the elites. Thus, perhaps it is fitting to conclude it with another set of lines from the same film. Balem Abrasax (alien royalty) tells Jupiter Jones (a human): “Life is an act of consumption …. To live is to consume and the human beings on your planet [Earth] are merely a resource waiting to be converted into capital, and this entire enterprise is just a small part in a vast and beautiful machine defined by evolution, designed to a single purpose: to create profit.”

The discussion of the themes of indulgence and consumerism that run through the other films discussed in this article has aimed to demonstrate how a green cultural criminological approach can help to reveal how environmental meaning is made and communicated by cultural production. While the focus has been on documentary and science fiction film, with a few examples of each, such a tendency should not be limited to the analysis of cinematic representations of human-environment interaction. Cultural criminology has, since its emergence, taken up the presentation and representation of the issues of harm, crime, and justice through an engagement with various cultural products. Despite this, cultural criminology has yet to give adequate attention to film and literature—be it fictional or popular nonfiction.14 While a comprehensive overview of the cinematic and literary moments that engage with the various dynamics of human–environment relationships is beyond the scope of this article,15 both film and literature (particularly, the novel) continue to serve as an immeasurably significant site of environmental ethos. Just as filmic representations of environmental harm are not the only significant site of the cultural production and communication of meaning, neither is the novel. As suggested at the outset, a host of media can be added to the list, including music, photography, poetry, and visual arts. Green cultural criminological attention to—and interest in—the visual has begun to increase, resulting in a growing engagement between green cultural criminology and visual criminology’s photographic inquiries (see generally Brisman, 2017b; Natali, 2010, 2016; Natali & McClanahan, 2017). Here, visual images that take up the various issues of human-environment interaction, environmental harm and crime, and other ecological relations also contribute significantly to the meaning-making of cultural production. A green cultural criminology will pay close attention and be sensitive to image, meaning, and representation in the study of environmental harm and crime. As so much of the communication of environmental harm and crime occurs increasingly on the visual register (Natali & McClanahan, 2017), it is essential that green cultural criminology engages thoroughly with various visual fields to locate and interrogate the meaning, significance, reasons for, and possible responses to, various environmental harms.

Further Reading

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(1.) The identification of a point at which it could be said that an environmentally-orientated or green criminology emerged is not as straightforward as might be thought. While attempts have been made to chart its emergence (see e.g., South et al., 2013; South, 2014), a comprehensive overview has been a challenge, in part, because of a different “cultural” problem: the dominance in international publication of the English language and the lack of available translations. On this, see Goyes & South, 2017.

(2.) This is not to say that all documentary efforts relating to environmental harm “get it right” or offer accepted scientific data. There are contrarian documentaries, such as Global Warming: Doomsday Called Off (2004) and The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007) that are essentially ideologically driven infomercials masquerading as cinematic accounts based on fact. The presence of these films, though, does not call into question the importance of films like An Inconvenient Truth or Cowspiracy, or their accuracy, although it can make efforts to distinguish the presentation of the science of climate change from market-oriented propaganda.

(3.) While large-scale factory farming is a significant contributor of greenhouse gases—a point made clear in another documentary film, Vegucated (2011), it bears mention that, according to Garcia, Cowspiracy’s emphasis on bovine methane production relies on an understanding of animal agriculture that mistakenly universalizes North American practices, ignoring the significant differences in animal husbandry—and its impacts—as practiced outside of North America.

(4.) If we take documentary films such as Climate of Doubt, Cowspiracy, An Inconvenient Truth, and Tapped as revealing and analyzing moments of state-corporate crimes against the environment (see, e.g., Lynch et al., 2010; South, 1998; Smandych & Kueneman, 2010; see generally Kramer et al., 2002; Michalowski & Kramer, 2006), we can understand these films as moments of “popular criminology” (Rawlings, 1998; Rafter, 2007; see also Kohm & Greenhill, 2013) in that they engage in and contribute to the production of “discourse[s] parallel to academic criminology and of equal social significance” (Rafter 2007, p. 404). One of our reviewers encouraged us to explore further the ways in which both popular criminology and green cultural criminology contemplate the social significance of certain kinds of representation. While we are grateful for this suggestion, we leave this avenue of inquiry for another time and occasion.

(5.) A review of the research does support the vast majority of the assertions made in An Inconvenient Truth (although some have suggested that the film is intended to inspire action first and present the science second see, e.g., Quiring, 2007). Notably, however, the contentions made in An Inconvenient Truth have been contested by a small but vocal group of climate contrarians and deniers (see Brisman, 2012; Brisman & South, 2015b, 2015c; Wyatt & Brisman, 2016).

(6.) For a discussion of post-apocalyptic or dystopian novels and their depictions of the relationship between environment and conflict for the purpose of emphasizing “what is at stake and warn us of what is to come if we do not change our ecocidal tendencies,” see Brisman (2015, p. 303).

(7.) For an overview of the emergence of the central and persistent themes of apocalyptic science fiction, see Sontag (1965).

(8.) For a history of the emergence of themes of apocalyptic climate change, see generally, Buell (2010). Similarly, there is also an emerging interest in literary fiction that explores issues of climate change, collapse, and apocalypse—a genre dubbed “cli-fi” literature (for a discussion, see, e.g., Glass, 2013; Johns-Putra, 2016; Tuhus-Dubrow, 2013).

(9.) The Colony, a 2013 film directed by Jeff Renfroe—one which also falls squarely into the climate disaster genre discussed here—also locates its own collapse event in geo-engineering efforts undertaken to slow or reverse a warming planet.

(10.) For a more thorough consideration of some of the issues embedded in technological and militarized solutions to climate change, see McClanahan and Brisman (2015).

(11.) Here, the writers of the film display either ignorance of or disregard for reality: that Luca would accept that a young woman who is expertly hopping freight trains and otherwise exuberantly taking part in a politicized traveler culture was not aware of the potential bounty of donut shop dumpsters is entirely doubtful. As Ferrell (2006; see also Brisman, 2010, Brisman & South, 2014) has noted, dumpster diving is not a practice limited to politically resistant cultures; as such, the film suffers by asking viewers to accept Sarah’s ignorance of the practice or—even worse—Luca’s unquestioning belief in Sarah’s lack of awareness. Luca, nonetheless, takes Sarah under his wing, after some cursory concerns over her character are handled in a particularly unbelievable sex scene in a gas station restroom, taking her to meet the other members of The East in their squat-cum-headquarters.

(12.) For an example of green cultural criminology’s engagement with radical environmentalism, meaning making, and direct-action activism, see, e.g., Brisman (in press a); Cianchi (2015).

(13.) In both The East and Night Moves, the role of patriarchal social relations in relation to environmental harm is diminished. Notably, environmental destruction is closely related to patriarchal social structures (see, e.g., Seager, 1999; Mies & Shiva, 1993; Salleh, 1997; Warren & Erkal, 1997; McClanahan & Dunn, 2016). Notably, the micro-level issues of troubled, individualized, and gendered familial relationships presented in the two films fail to reflect the prevalence and power of much larger, macro-level patriarchal attitudes and relations that have wreaked violence on ecosystems and nonhuman life, as well as to women and children.

(14.) Exceptions to the absence of literary forms in the field of cultural criminological analysis, however, exist. For a notable example, see Linnemann (2015), which not only notes the dearth of literary analysis in cultural criminology, but works to inject the field with attention to the literary as a significant site of cultural production and representation.

(15.) For an example of a green cultural criminological engagement with literary representations of environmental harm, see, e.g., Brisman, 2015, in press a, in press b; Brisman and South 2015a; Brisman, McClanahan, and South, 2014.