Monetary punishments only work as a deterrent for poor people. For the wealthy, fines are just the cost of doing business.
This happens across the entire legal system, too. To someone living at or below poverty level, parking fines actually work — you think twice about parking illegally if it’s going to get you hit with a $200 fine. For someone who can afford to lose that money, the world looks different. There are no illegal spots, just spots that cost more to park in than others.
If that sounds outlandish, look at this bullshit here:
Developer In Takoma Cuts Protected Heritage Tree, Over Protests From Neighbors
The title buries the lede a bit. This wasn’t a bunch of nosy neighbors protesting the felling of a tree. This was a developer outright breaking the law in a way that impacts an entire community, and that community attempting to stop them.
Looking deeper, you can see where the parking space analogy comes into play:
“‘Get off my property, I’m going to cut this tree down,’’ Giancola recalls him saying. Neighbors told the owner that cutting the tree was illegal, Giancola says.
“He said, ‘I don’t care. Everybody does it, all developers do it. We pay the fines, nobody cares,’” Giancola says.
Eutsler says the property owner is facing as much as $72,000 in fines for cutting down three protected trees — the heritage oak, and two smaller “special trees.”
It’s the same thing. Only, instead of talking about a $200 parking space, we’re talking about a fine potentially over $72,000.
And it doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter?
“If by removing a protected heritage tree, you can add substantial square footage to a building, you’re probably able to simply recover the cost that the fine imposes,” says Eutsler.
So, in short, wealthy developers are incentivized to break the law, because doing so lets them squeeze another couple hundred square feet out of a property. That allows them to absorb the cost of the fine, and then some.
What’s even more laughable is that this is, at the moment, completely unpreventable. The channels that handle this aren’t empowered to actually stop it from happening. Forestry has to wait for the trees to be felled, and then the fines (the completely pointless fines that developers don’t care about) are levied.
The thing is, bigger fines wouldn’t even necessarily help. Making them proportional to the perpetrator’s income would, as well as keep poor families from being bankrupt by a minor infraction. The angry treehugger in me, however, wishes it was a jailable offense. If Forestry can’t order them to stop work, then they need to be stopped somehow. (I should note that I’m not in favor of the carceral state. However, in the absence of a law that would allow the forestry department to stuff perpetrators into burlap sacks, I figure you need to work with what’s available.)
This isn’t even necessarily about the trees themselves, as much as I hate seeing a 100-year-old oak fall. It could’ve been a street sign instead. It could’ve been a tree that was getting ready to fall over. It could be anything, and the fact that money allows people to break the law with impunity would still be abhorrent. Fines don’t work to deter crime except for at the poorest levels of society, but poor people aren’t the ones going around dumping hazardous materials, lying about safety, or chopping down heritage trees.
I could get into the urban heat island effect, the importance of old trees as micro-ecosystems unto themselves, the deleterious impact of urban deforestation, or that people of color (especially women) bear the brunt of the impact of poor conservation and climate change, but I don’t think anyone has that much time.
Just remember. Environmental destruction isn’t a faceless, unstoppable phenomenon. It’s perpetrated by people, and they have names.