Betsy Hartmann: An Environmentalist Essay on the Greening of Hate

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The rhetoric of some population and environment groups is edging dangerously toward the same arguments used by proponents of the greening of hate.

by Betsy Hartmann

(This essay appears in Greenwash: Nativists, Environmentalism and the Hypocrisy of Hate, a report published in July 2010 by the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

I first encountered the greening of hate — the scapegoating of immigrants for environmental degradation — when I was invited to debate Virginia Abernethy of the Carrying Capacity Network at an environmental law conference in Oregon in 1994. Although the topic was population, I quickly realized I wasn’t debating a fellow environmentalist or family planning advocate, but rather an anti-immigrant activist for whom population and carrying capacity were euphemisms for circling our wagons and closing our borders. It turns out Abernethy is a member of the white supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens. She opposes racial “mixing.”


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My encounter with Abernethy was just one small tip of the iceberg of an organized right-wing movement against immigrants that cloaks itself in green language to lure environmentalists into the fold. Its main claim is that immigration, by increasing U.S. population growth, drives environmental degradation, causing traffic congestion, urban sprawl, water shortages, forest loss, and greenhouse gas emissions, to name a few. When immigrants come to the U.S., the argument goes, they adopt American lifestyles and consumption patterns, so they should stay home in their poor countries where they have a lighter ecological footprint. Typically, anti-immigrant groups move seamlessly from portraying immigrants as an environmental burden to painting them as an economic burden on taxpayers, schools, hospitals and other public services.

First, some facts to put population growth and immigration into perspective. The U.S. population is currently 308 million and could reach between 399 million and 458 million by 2050. While immigration accounts for approximately one-third of U.S. population growth, natural increase accounts for the other two-thirds. Because the U.S. has a relatively youthful population, births continue to outnumber deaths, though that could change as the population ages. Future levels of immigration are hard to predict and will depend to a large extent on the state of the U.S. economy. For example, immigration levels have decreased since the beginning of the current recession.

On a global scale, it’s worth noting that the population “explosion” of the previous century is over. In the last few decades, population growth rates have come down all over the world so that the average number of children per woman in the developing world is less than three and predicted to drop to two by 2050. The momentum built into our present numbers means that world population will continue to grow to about nine billion in 2050, after which it is expected to stabilize. The challenge before us is to plan for the addition of that three billion people, wherever they are located, in environmentally sustainable ways.

The “keep them at home” refrain of the U.S. anti-immigrant movement assumes an automatic connection between immigration-related population growth and environmental degradation. But no such automatic connection exists. Take the issue of urban sprawl. In New England, where I live, sprawl has increased while population has decreased, a phenomenon that is occurring in many other urbanized areas in the U.S. experiencing population loss. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are two examples. “Smart growth” advocates identify the main causes of sprawl as poor land-use planning, zoning regulations and tax laws — not population growth and immigration. In other words, it’s not so much the number of people that matters, but how they live. As for all those traffic jams supposedly caused by immigrants, it’s America’s crazy love affair with the automobile, cheaply priced gasoline and lack of public transport that are at the real root of the problem.

The argument that it’s better to keep poor people in poor countries so they consume less is just plain wrong on a number of counts. First, it diverts attention from the urgent need to address overconsumption: with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. presently consumes 20% of its resources. Whatever the rate of immigration, well-off Americans need to change their lifestyles for the future of the planet.

Second, the assumption that immigrating to the U.S. necessarily turns people into super-consumers is a spurious one. Many immigrant communities bring with them traditions of greater respect for the environment. In my hometown of Amherst, Mass., Cambodian immigrants helped spur a revival in community gardens. In nearby Holyoke, Puerto Rican immigrants are revitalizing the depressed city in one of the most successful urban renewal and agriculture projects in the country, Nuestras Raíces (Our Roots).

Third, protecting the environment does not mean you have to keep people poor. Contrary to anti-immigrant rhetoric, it’s possible to raise incomes and improve the environment at the same time. In the U.S., “green jobs” and “green recovery” programs represent a win-win strategy to provide decent employment and incomes, improve energy conservation, support green technological innovation, and fight global warming. All over the world, in rich and poor countries alike, people are using the climate crisis as an opportunity to link ecological goals with new kinds of economic and technological development that raise living standards without razing the environment.

But the anti-immigrant movement has only one solution for global warming: stop immigration. Activists claim that when immigrants move to the U.S., they consume a lot more energy than they would at home and so they and their offspring are responsible for growing American carbon emissions. “The United States will not be able to achieve any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions without serious economic and social consequences for American citizens unless immigration is sharply curtailed,” claims a recent report by the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

In other words, let’s build border fences instead of taking steps to conserve energy, switch to renewables and implement a sensible climate policy in step with European nations like Germany and Denmark that are ahead of the curve. Such an approach would bring serious economic and social benefits to American citizens; instead of lagging behind, the U.S. could become a leader in green technology, giving a much-needed boost to the economy.

Moreover, carbon emissions are not linked strongly to population growth in North America (or elsewhere). Writing in the journal Environment and Urbanization, climate expert David Sattherthwaite notes that while North America contributed about 4% of world population growth between 1950-2005, it was responsible for 20% of the growth in global carbon dioxide emissions from 1950-80 and 14% from 1980-2005. Meanwhile, the few countries in the world where population growth rates still remain high, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, have the lowest per capita carbon emissions.

When all is said and done, the anti-immigrant movement’s response to climate change is not all that different from climate deniers who claim global warming isn’t a problem and we should just go on consuming fossil fuels the good old American way. Anti-immigrant groups may pay lip service to the problem of climate change but, like the deniers, they have no interest in finding real solutions.

Given the many holes in their logic, and repeated exposés by hate-watch groups like the SPLC, why is the anti-immigrant movement still able to get away with this environmental charade? To answer that question, one needs to understand more fully the role of population control ideas and interests in the American environmental movement.

As the U.S. conservation movement gathered steam in the early 1900s, so did the eugenics movement, which promoted the view that Nordic and Anglo-Saxon races were genetically superior to all others. Many of the early conservationists were eugenicists who believed in maintaining the purity of both nature and the gene pool. In her book Eugenic Nation, Alexandra Stern describes how influential conservationists in California viewed Mexican immigrants as a serious biological and cultural threat to society and the environment.

Eugenics was eventually discredited in the U.S., but not before thousands of poor men and women had been compulsorily sterilized to remove them from the gene pool. Moreover, eugenics lived on in the environmental movement through the prominence of figures such as the late biologist Garrett Hardin. As late as the 1990s, Hardin was accepting support from the main financer of eugenics research in the U.S., the Pioneer Fund, which the SPLC lists as a hate group. His famous 1974 article on “Lifeboat Ethics” advocated throwing the poor masses overboard for the survival of the elite and targeted immigrants for “speeding up the destruction of the environment of the rich countries.”

The 1960s brought another unfortunate convergence, this time between the environmental movement and population control. By the end of that decade, reducing the population growth of poor countries had become an essential element of U.S. foreign policy. The main motive was not environmental; rather, population growth was seen as retarding economic growth and fomenting political instability, making countries more susceptible to Communist influence. But increasingly, the popular media couched these Cold War calculations in environmental terms to build popular support for American population-control efforts overseas. Images such as the “population bomb” became a lens through which the public and policymakers alike came to view the relationship of poor people to the environment. The overconsumption of the rich and corporate plundering of the planet’s resources were let off the hook as poor women’s fertility became synonymous with the felling of forests, polluting of rivers and desertification of farmland.

In many ways, this focus on population control threw the American environmental movement off track. By shifting the blame elsewhere, to the proverbial dark-skinned Other, it prevented many Americans from taking a deeper look at their own role, and the role of the U.S. government and corporations, in causing environmental degradation at home and abroad. It distorted family planning policy as the provision of birth control became a coercive tool in the war on population growth, rather than a means to improve women’s health and choices. It alienated people of color and immigrants from the environmental movement and left the door wide open to the greening of hate.

Fortunately, in recent years things have changed for the better. In 1994, a worldwide movement of women’s rights activists culminated in the reform of international population policy at the U.N. population conference in Cairo. Access to good-quality, voluntary family planning became part of a broader strategy to raise the status of women. The environmental justice movement challenged mainstream American environmentalists to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color, and the growing voice of immigrants in that movement raised the profile of their environmental stewardship and leadership.

But there is still a long ways to go. The idea of a “population bomb” has suddenly come back in vogue with a vengeance, tied to fears of global warming. The rhetoric of some population and environment groups is edging dangerously toward the same arguments used by proponents of the greening of hate. A recent mass mailing by Zero Population Growth, for example, blames population growth for traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, childhood asthma, poverty, famine, rain forest depletion and global warming. For environmentalists, the real challenge ahead is to remain vigilant about who is saying what and why, and to continue building a broad-based, democratic environmental movement where immigrants are welcomed as part of the solution.

Betsy Hartmann is the director of the Population and Development Program and a professor of development studies at Hampshire College. She is the author of Reproductive Rights and Wrongs: The Global Politics of Population Control.