When Environmentalism Meets Xenophobia

When Environmentalism Meets Xenophobia

When Environmentalism Meets Xenophobia

The conservative conservation movement’s dark history of racism and eugenics.


On his prime-time show in August, Fox News host Tucker Carlson declared that his opposition to immigration partly stems from his deep love for the environment. Instead of banning helium balloons, plastic straws, and other “things that bring ordinary people joy,” Carlson suggested, liberals would be better advised to get tough on immigration. “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration: It produces a huge amount of litter—a huge amount of litter,” Carlson said. “And I mean that with total sincerity.”

Carlson’s comment was mostly lost amid the uproar over the separation and indefinite detention of migrant children and their families at the US-Mexican border. But those who did catch it found themselves a bit confused about his point. “It’s unclear whether Carlson was equating migrants themselves with trash or making an assumption about the litter they produce when they enter the country,” wrote Salon’s Rachel Leah. “The latter seems odd, and the former undoubtedly bigoted and hateful.”

Odd as it may seem, though, Carlson was indeed implying that undocumented immigrants pose a serious threat to the country’s ecosystems. In doing so, he was continuing—perhaps inadvertently—a century-old tradition of American politicians, philanthropists, and public figures blaming immigrants for the country’s environmental woes.

In the latter decades of the 19th century, outspoken nativist environmentalists lobbied for restrictions on hunting and for the creation of national parks, all while warning of the dangers posed by “inferior” people from Southern and Eastern Europe and advocating policies that would prevent them from coming to the United States.

The marriage of nationalism and environmentalism isn’t exclusive to this country. In Latvia, the Union of Greens and Farmers, the liberal-conservative Unity party, and the right-wing populist National Alliance have teamed up to form a center-right coalition. In the United Kingdom, conservatives are trying to win over young voters by banning plastic drinking straws and microbeads. In Mexico, the Ecologist Green Party has become better known for its corruption than for its environmental activism: In 2004, Jorge Emilio González Martínez, the party’s current leader and the son of its founder, Jorge González Torres, was caught discussing a $2 million bribe to secure permits for the construction of a new hotel in Cancún, which would have required the destruction of nearby stands of mangrove trees. (González Martínez later claimed that he was actually attempting to expose corruption himself.)

In most cases, these alliances do not originate in a genuine desire to protect the environment; rather, they seek to make right-wing policies more palatable. In the United States, however, the environmentalist and anti-immigration movements originated in tandem and were often led by the same people.

Madison Grant, an Ivy League–educated lawyer whose family dates back to the earliest days of the colonial era, exemplifies how closely these movements have been linked. His father descended from one of the first settlers in 17th-century New England, his mother from the first colonists in New York. Grant was close friends with early conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Fairfield Osborn, and George Bird Grinnell, and he used his wealth and connections to champion their cause. He co-founded a half-dozen conservationist groups, including the National Parks Association, the Save the Redwoods League, and the New York Zoological Society, and despite never having held office, he drafted legislation prohibiting the “unsportsmanlike” hunting of game. He was also instrumental in creating a number of national parks, including Denali National Park in Alaska and Everglades National Park in Florida.

At the same time, Grant dabbled in racist pseudoscience: He co-founded the American Eugenics Society, served as president of the Eugenics Research Association and vice president of the Citizens’ Committee on Immigration Legislation, and, in 1916, published The Passing of the Great Race, a since-discredited racial history of the West that Adolf Hitler once referred to as his “Bible.” In it, Grant argued that the peoples of Europe could be divided into three distinct races: Nordic, Mediterranean, and Alpine. The Alpine race, largely made up of Central Europeans, had an “essentially peasant” character and was not fit to rule; the Mediterraneans had a sluggish attitude and “feeble” build. Only the Nordics, who hailed from Northern Europe, constituted the purest form of the white race.

Yet the Nordics, Grant believed, were an endangered species in the United States, their existence threatened by intermarriage and by the immigration of Slavs, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Italians, and Jews. As he explained in The Passing of the Great Race: “The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a Negro is a Negro. The cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”

These days, Grant’s dual concerns—conservation and eugenics—might seem like an unusual mix, especially given a political context in which the party of immigration restriction is also the party of deregulation and climate-change denial. But according to Jonathan Spiro, who published the definitive biography of Grant in 2009, these seemingly antithetical ideals were perfectly consistent at the dawn of the 20th century.

For Grant, Spiro explains, eugenics was a way of ensuring the survival of those who had made the United States a prosperous country, while conservation was a way of preserving the land with which nature—and natural selection—had endowed them. “Grant dedicated his life to saving endangered fauna, flora, and natural resources; and it did not seem at all strange to his peers that he would also try to save his own endangered race,” Spiro wrote in his introduction to the provocatively titled Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. Or as he told me recently: “You and I might disagree with the politics of the immigration-restriction movement 100 years ago, but their love of nature was genuine.”

Grant and his allies considered immigrants an “infestation,” Spiro continued—outsiders who had no respect for American laws or culture or for the country’s natural beauty. They believed that the influx of undesirable immigrants at the turn of the 20th century was the impetus for declining birth rates among native-born Americans, particularly those “old stock” Nordics who could trace their lineage to the colonial era. “One argument was that immigrants are litter and vermin,” Spiro said. “The other argument was that we need to protect our natural resources. That’s the redwood trees, the American bison, the bald eagle, and the blond-haired, blue-eyed white male. These guys were genuinely trying to protect the best and brightest species, whether it’s the redwood tree or the Nordic male.”

In the end, Grant was successful on both counts. Using the same quiet lobbying that gave us national parks, hunting restrictions, and wildlife refuges, Grant and his associates pushed for legislation that sharply limited the number—and, more importantly, the “quality”—of immigrants to the United States.

In February 1917, just three weeks before President Woodrow Wilson authorized the creation of Denali National Park, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which included a provision barring illiterate immigrants from entering the country. One bill was the result of Grant’s conservationist lobbying; the other was the pet cause of the Immigration Restriction League, which he served as vice president.

Grant’s most decisive legislative victory, however, came with the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, which, through quotas on nationality, mandated that the bulk of new immigrants must come from Western and Northern Europe. Known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the law stipulated that the number of immigrant visas issued would be 2 percent of the total for each nationality present in the United States as of the 1890 census. Grant and his associates chose 1890 because that year marked a decisive turning point in both the number and the national origin of people coming to the United States. It was after 1890 that Grant’s ideal immigrant, the Nordic male, started being outnumbered by the “inferior” working-class immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe.

The notion of a small coterie of nativists’ wielding such an outsize influence on federal immigration policy should sound familiar to anyone who follows the news. However, these days it’s not the American Eugenics Society pushing restrictionist policies, but rather the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), and NumbersUSA. Much like the network of Grant-affiliated anti-immigrant organizations in the 20th century, today’s most prominent nativist groups can be traced directly to one rich white man: John Tanton, an elderly ophthalmologist and former Sierra Club official from Michigan.

Before Tanton became the “mastermind behind the organized anti-immigration movement,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center dubbed him in 2002, he was concerned with overpopulation on environmentalist grounds. Tanton chaired the Sierra Club’s National Population Committee and served on the board of Zero Population Growth in the 1970s. He started FAIR in 1979 with the intent of persuading liberals and moderates on the need to restrict immigration (though a founding member conceded that “we didn’t convince anybody.”)

John Hultgren, a professor of environmental politics at Bennington College and the author of the 2015 book Border Walls Gone Green, believes that Tanton, like Grant, is sincere in his environmentalism. “He is somebody [who got] involved in the population-reduction movement…out of a desire to protect nature,” Hultgren says.

But Tanton’s love of all things natural dovetailed nicely with his other pet project: eugenics. Carly Goodman, a historian of immigration and US foreign relations, notes that Tanton “had particular ideas about the environmental impacts of certain kinds of people.” In Skirmish in a Wider War, an oral history of his life and career, Tanton argued “that certain cultural values supported a conservation ethos,” Goodman says, and “that environmentalism was a value characteristic of American society that he suggested could be traced to the tenets of ‘Western civilization.’” (Tanton also insisted, Goodman adds, that Latin Americans and Southeast Asians “don’t have the same sort of conservation ethic we have here.”)

The motives behind Tanton’s conservationism begin to explain why FAIR and its spin-off organizations ended up having a much bigger influence on 21st-century immigration policy than on environmental matters. The Center for Immigration Studies was launched in 1985 with the purpose of making “the restriction of immigration a legitimate position for thinking people,” as Tanton put it; the CIS’s reports are often cited by anti-immigrant politicians and media groups, as well as by members of the Trump administration. In 1997, Tanton associate Roy Beck founded NumbersUSA, which helped to torpedo President George W. Bush’s proposed amnesty bill for undocumented immigrants in 2007 by reportedly sending senators more than 1 million faxes in opposition. More recently, lawyers from FAIR’s Immigration Reform Law Institute drafted Arizona’s SB 1070, the 2010 law that made it easier for local police in the state to ask people for proof of citizenship during routine interactions.

Under Trump, this influence has grown exponentially. The Tanton network has drafted versions of controversial policies like the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the defunding of sanctuary cities. And as Brendan O’Connor reported for Splinter in July, it has helped place allies in key administration posts: Kellyanne Conway previously worked as a pollster for FAIR, the CIS, and NumbersUSA; Stephen Miller has regularly cited work from all three organizations; and US Citizenship and Immigration Services ombudsman Julie Kirchner was FAIR’s executive director from 2007 to 2015.

The recent resurgence of nativism has made these groups’ invocation of environmental arguments unnecessary; Republicans, it seems, no longer need to disguise their racism as part of a greater concern about the fate of cute pandas and baby elephants. “When Tucker Carlson makes absurd statements about needing to close up the border to prevent desert ecosystems from being trashed, I don’t see him persuading a lot of moderates or liberals, or certainly not the left,” says John Hultgren, noting that groups like the Sierra Club and Earthjustice have taken a decidedly pro-immigration stance in recent years.

Rather, nativist conservationism could find a more powerful vehicle in the geopolitics of climate change. This approach may prove more seductive to younger generations as the consensus grows over the dangers of global warming, and as fears over climate migration start to shape national immigration policies.

The countries most responsible for global climate change—the United States and the member states of the European Union—will likely feel fewer and less-catastrophic immediate effects than do impoverished countries in the Global South. And many of the people most vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change hail from the very countries that right-wing nativists have deemed racially and culturally inferior.

John Tanton dedicated his life to limiting birth rates in and immigration from these same countries. Now, when the effects of climate change are finally upon us, his ideological heirs will have the nativist infrastructure he built at their disposal, to keep the world’s poorest people from fleeing its worst effects.

Already, these groups are hard at work. For the past eight years, NumbersUSA representatives have manned an Earth Day booth at the Texas state fairgrounds. “NumbersUSA reminds attendees about the main reason why the sustainability goals of the first Earth Day in 1970 still haven’t been met—massive population growth forced by congressional immigration policies,” president Roy Beck wrote in a blog post this year. In a recent column for the International Journal Review, Beck similarly claimed that “federal immigration policies undermine eco-friendly goals” by “forcing a massive expansion of the sheer number of the American people.” A 2010 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center termed such arguments the “greenwashing” of hate.

The Center for Immigration Studies—whose tagline is “Low-immigration, Pro-immigrant”—has an entire section of its website dedicated to immigration’s effects on the environment and population growth overall. In a fact sheet released on Earth Day, FAIR called immigration the “‘elephant in the room’ ignored by most environmental groups.”

Spencer Raley, a research associate and staff writer at FAIR, said the group’s environmentally related immigration concerns are mainly focused on urban and suburban sprawl. In an e-mail, he wrote that Las Vegas—whose metro area is home to more than three-quarters of the state’s population—was a good example of a city whose population had “exploded” thanks to immigration, “resulting in lost desert landscape and a water supply issue so severe that the Southern Nevada Water Authority is now paying landowners $3 per square foot to replace their lawns with desert landscaping.” (Never mind that Nevada’s foreign-born population was less than 20 percent of the state’s total between 2012 and 2016, or that just over half of Nevadans owned their own homes during that time. Raley might be better served blaming city planners and landowners for lawn maintenance—or, on second thought, perhaps not.)

Right-wing pundits have also begun sharing photos of the “trash” left by migrants along the US-Mexican border. Fox News covered the issue in 2008, and NumbersUSA released a fact sheet about it in 2011. Environmental groups say this “litter” is mainly clothing, food, and supplies that migrants had to discard. In fact, the effects of this trash “pale in comparison to the ecological damage that the border walls are doing already,” Hultgren says.

Though the CIS and similar organizations go to great lengths to publish seemingly dispassionate reports on what they claim are the objective drawbacks to immigration, their bloodless nativism is giving way to a resurgence of out-and-proud xenophobia and biological determinism. Ann Coulter recently warned The Daily Caller’s readers that they’d soon have to make a choice “between a green America and a brown America,” asserting that the problem isn’t just “the number of people traipsing through our wilderness areas; it’s that primitive societies have no concept of ‘litter.’” Concern for the environment, Coulter wrote, is “a quirk of prosperous societies. The damage to our parks shows these cultural differences.”

Like the nativists of the Progressive era—and in a sharp contrast with the CIS’s pseudo-objective data-based approach—Coulter and her ilk frame their anti-immigration arguments as a key factor in the larger culture wars. Immigrants, for Coulter, are more than just unwelcome new bodies whose existence in this country diverts resources away from native-born Americans; they’re a scourge—both unwilling and, more importantly, unable to adapt to American culture. They aren’t just polluting our “wilderness areas”; they’re polluting our society.

Steve Bannon, who previously served as President Trump’s chief strategist, once asserted that Muslim immigrants are biologically incapable of assimilating to Western culture. “These are not people with thousands of years of understanding of democracy in their DNA coming up here,” Bannon opined on his radio show in 2016.

This cultural and biological essentialism isn’t limited to the immigration debate; it has seeped into every facet of political life, both in the United States and abroad. Brazil, for instance, recently elected Jair Bolsonaro, a proto-fascist who has described Afro-Brazilians as “not even good for procreation.” Bolsonaro also said that he’d be “incapable of loving a homosexual son” and that his (straight) sons were at no risk of falling in love with black women “because my sons were very well educated.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported in October that the Trump administration is attempting to narrowly define gender as a “biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.” A paper published by the White House Council of Economic Advisers that same month, “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” claimed that Nordic-descended Americans make more money than their non-Nordic counterparts because low wages are not a part of “Nordic culture.” (Sound familiar?)

Similarly, in March, New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan published a defense of a Harvard geneticist who suggested that race and IQ are correlated, and that differences in the material conditions between races and genders can be partly attributed to each group’s inherent, immutable characteristics. “I think of myself as moderately conservative,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s both undeniable to me that much human progress has occurred, especially on race, gender, and sexual orientation; and yet I’m suspicious of the idea that our core nature can be remade or denied.”

Those who claim to be concerned about immigration similarly focus on the fertility of nonwhite immigrant women. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” Iowa Representative Steve King tweeted last year, referring to the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who pushed for the Netherlands to ban Muslim immigrants long before Trump was elected to office. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.”

Yet even as organizations like FAIR and the CIS co-opt green rhetoric, the anti-immigrant right isn’t doing the environment any favors. Trump, who has repeatedly denied that climate change is man-made and permanent, nominated Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, to be secretary of state in December 2016. The Trump administration’s environmental policy has been to roll back as many protections and regulations as possible. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency repealed the Obama-era rules on methane. The Department of the Interior approved the first offshore wells in the Arctic in October, a few weeks after the EPA disbanded its air-pollution review panel.

What all this reveals is the true motive of the environmentalist-nativist nexus. Whether its members are sincere or merely opportunistic, the “endangered” species they care most about preserving is bipedal and fair-skinned—Nordic, even.

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