Schar School Professor Louise Shelley’s New Book Shows How Illicit Trade Is Damaging the Environment

By Buzz McClain

From left, Louise Shelley discusses her book, ‘Dark Commerce,’ with Alan Bersin. Photos by Buzz McClain/Schar School of Policy and Government

An audience of more than 75 students, faculty, staff, and those who work for public agencies and private firms affected by the world’s dangerous black markets turned out for a Monday afternoon talk at George Mason University’s Arlington Campus, a talk that took in some 4,000 years of illicit trade in 90 minutes.

Louise ShelleyThe standing-room-only conversation was about the new book, “Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy Is Threatening Our Future” (Princeton University Press), by Louise Shelley, director of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center, or TraCCC for short.

The moderator for the discussion was Alan Bersin, who, as the former Assistant Secretary for Policy and International Affairs and chief diplomatic officer in the Department of Homeland Security, was on pretty much equal footing with the author, adding his own insights and experiences to Shelley’s answers to his questions.

While Shelley light-heartedly referenced how “Dark Commerce” examines 4,000 years of trade—basically, with the invention of money—much of the focus of the discussion and the book was how illicit trade is affecting the global environment. The world’s most vulnerable ecologies are suffering on an enormous scale and at a catastrophic pace, Shelley suggested, and governments and corporations are often at the center of the illegal trade.

“This much harm to the planet cannot be caused by just organized crime,” she said, indicating the large-scale participation of dishonest authorities necessary to perpetuate the illicit activities.

Bersin asked how Shelley manages to reveal secrets that are hidden from the rest of the world by nefarious—and treacherous—entities. She responded that when she presents papers or publishes op-eds in the world’s press, those who have knowledge of the issues correct her when she is astray. As her sources deepen, so does the investigative work. Bersin concluded that Shelley is “putting together a puzzle to shed light on this phenomenon” of illicit trade.

Alan BersinThe best way to stem the corruption that is destroying ecosystems around the world is to remove the tools, not necessarily the criminals, used to commit the crimes, said Shelley. “If you take down a kingpin it only makes room for another kingpin,” she said.

Instead, attack them by disabling websites and dismantling corrupt banks, among other things. But then, she added, that would require the cooperation of governments and other authorities—which may be entangled in the very illicit trade that’s targeted.