What would an environmentalism that engages with the contemporary realities of migration look like? John Hultgren exposes connections between anti-immigrant politics and environmentalism.

The U.S.-Mexico border at California and Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
Here, author John Hultgren asks: What would an environmentalism look like
that engages with the contemporary realities of migration?
Image via Creative Commons.

Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University

What do Donald Trump, Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki, and British naturalist Sir David Attenborough have in common?

They have all recently argued for strengthening restrictions on immigration.

This might seem strange. Suzuki and Attenborough are progressive environmentalists, while Trump is a hardcore conservative. In the United States, it seems odd to hear of “progressive” environmentalists embracing immigration restrictionism, a policy position typically championed by the political right. A recent Pew Research Center report found that there is a sharp partisan split on immigration among the American public, with Republicans being far more likely than Democrats to suggest that immigrants are harming society. Indeed, anti-immigrant sentiment has become so vociferous on the right that President Obama recently criticized Republican candidates for their “un-American” remarks, noting that such views run “contrary to who we are.”

Many American environmentalists are well aware of contentious debates over immigration that have periodically raged in groups like Earth First! and the Sierra Club.

Still, they would likely argue that viewing environmentalism as central to immigration restrictionism is an overstatement.

It isn’t.

Anti-racist organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for New Community have long pointed to The John Tanton Network of anti-immigrant groups—highlighting the role that the former Sierra Club and Audubon Society member played in forming restrictionist groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Center for Immigration Studies, and the Social Contract Press. The point that is often overlooked here is that Tanton is not alone in his environmental restrictionist sentiments—far from it. Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, is a former environmental journalist who has written extensively on the supposed environmental impacts of immigration. Philip Cafaro, the President of Progressives for Immigration Reform, is professor of environmental ethics at Colorado State University. Michael Hethmon, senior counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, has been described as entering into the immigration restriction movement out of fears that “immigrants would overburden the environment.” The list could go on.

A typical move among many environmentalists when confronted with these facts is to distance themselves from these restrictionist activists. They aren’t really environmentalists, the narrative goes, but are “greenwashing nativism”; in other words, they are appropriating environmental logics to advance their xenophobic positions. But how about others who have embraced environmental restrictionism, such as deep ecological hero Edward Abbey? Or ecologist Garrett Hardin? Or environmentalist David Brower? Or Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson? Or ecological economist Herman Daly? Their environmental bonafides are more difficult to dismiss as mere greenwashing.

The “problem” of immigration points to a problem of environmental thought. Environmentalists lack an adequate understanding of how “cultural” norms of sovereignty, nationalism, and race intersect with “natural” ideals of wilderness, ecosystems, and carrying capacity. The result is a paradox: on one hand, most environmentalists have social commitments to ideals of liberal equality, multiculturalism, and in some cases, social justice; on the other hand, they continue to conceptualize nature through the very same lenses of these restrictionist environmental activists. In this sense, by displacing racism, nationalism, and xenophobia into the realm of “culture”—by arguing that restrictionists aren’t real environmentalists but are actually driven by social commitments to racism, nationalism, or sovereignty—environmentalists fail to confront the ways in which commitments to nature can be complicit in producing social exclusion. How strange it is that our efforts to “speak for nature” have so frequently been tinged with a language of nationalism.

My argument is that we environmentalists shouldn’t shy away from these historical intersections. Analyzing how genuine environmentalists have embraced restrictionist politics not only provides us with a more complete understanding of the machinations of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement, it can also prod us into reflexive self-examination—which might help us figure out how to construct a more effective environmental practice oriented around socio-ecological justice. For example, what would an environmentalism that engages with the contemporary realities of migration look like? One that focuses on the transnational political economic processes that cause migration, rather than barricading national borders; one in which wilderness remains sublime but agricultural fields, sweatshops, and desert crossings are also transformed into sites of political intervention; one that envisions how threats to prized local rivers, forests, and lakes are connected to social and environmental threats abroad? This would be an environmentalism that could better resist the structures causing socio-ecological injustice, and that could more effectively build alliances with other social movements.

The good news is that environmentalists are moving in this direction. In 2013, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and 350.org all announced their support for a path to citizenship for immigrants. Earth First! went even further in rebuking the logic of borders, making a strong case that they represent “a scar on the earth.” The bad news is that as climate change intensifies and begins to disrupt profit-making as usual, immigration restriction could well re-emerge as the low-hanging fruit in efforts to build a more sustainable United States— a “simple” solution that doesn’t require “us” to revamp political institutions, forms of production, or consumer practices. As migrants and refugees, driven by prolonged droughts, extreme weather events, and rising seas change the composition of existing forms of nationalism, this reality becomes all the more likely. Progressive environmentalists might be gradually moving away from restrictionism but, faced with a changing political landscape in which overt racism and xenophobia are no longer socially acceptable, restrictionists are increasingly relying on logics articulated from within environmentalism to advance their anti-immigrant agendas. For environmentalists like me, this means that we share a greater obligation for resisting anti-immigrant logics and for forcefully re-envisioning what an environmentalism would look like that tears down walls rather than builds them up.

Further thought: As the world turns its eyes on Paris, the relationship between climate change and the current refugee crisis will attract significant attention. Amid the French state of exception, will refugees be constructed as threats to the nation-state? Or will environmentalists work to further develop transformational coalitions with migrant and refugee rights’ organizations? This latter possibility offers hope—only by rethinking who we environmentalists are can we truly confront the structural forces producing socio-ecological injustice.


John Hultgren is author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America. He is lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University.

“Strong, provocative, and insightful. . . John Hultgren advances the field theoretically through his critique and integration of competing perspectives on sovereignty in environmental politics.”
—John M. Meyer, author of Engaging the Everyday: Environmental Social Criticism and the Resonance Dilemma

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