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Marx famously remarked that, in moments of crisis, people “anxiously conjure up into their service the spirits of the past, assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.” In the Eighteenth Brumaire, the national heroes of the French revolution were evoked in support of a bourgeois republic that eventually descended into authoritarianism. In the 21st century, systemic shocks are routinely accompanied by rituals of hyper-nationalism that provide cover for the recuperation of capital’s reign. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the current epidemic has only magnified the spirit of xenophobia and amplified the battle cries of nativism around much of the world. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the American Right, using the time-honored disguise of concern for public health, has deployed coronavirus to legitimate and deepen its myriad anti-immigrant projects: continuing the construction of “the Wall,” ICE enforcement, and immigration hearings, while turning-away amnesty seekers and suspending most green cards. At the same time, specters of neo-Malthusianism and social Darwinism have re-appeared from an apparently different ideological register, proclaiming the virus to be Nature’s way of fighting against humanity’s unsustainable ways. What are the ideological and organizational forms through which these two pathways into the current pandemic of hate converge and diverge? Grappling with this question is necessary in order to confront the varied manifestations of the contemporary politics of exclusion.
Public Health and Immigration Politics: The Naturalization of Closed Borders
The boundaries between the “mainstream” and the “far” Right, long blurry, have become virtually non-existent during the Trump administration. Though reactionary rhetoric varies in the intensity of its racism – for example, the far-Right speaks of the “Kung Flu” and Republicans of the “Chinese Virus” – the despicable attempts to use the coronavirus to scapegoat those of Asian ancestry are present across the entire spectrum of the Right. Moreover, both the anti-immigrant groups who testify at Congressional hearings and those who spread their hate in the dark corners of the online world have delighted in suggesting that the crisis could open up political space for a policy long-thought impossible: the closure of borders. The white supremacist American Renaissance recently crowed that “borders are suddenly back in fashion everywhere.” Pat Buchanan has giddily suggested that this confirms a timeless truth about humanity: “[w]hen a crisis comes, be it a war in which the survival of the nation is at stake or an epidemic where the health and survival of our people is at stake, we take care of our own first.” Rich Lowry of the National Review concludes that the nativist Right has been right all along: “[w]e are all restrictionists now.”
The use of public health crises to amplify the case for restrictionism is nearly as old as American immigration policy itself. Stephanie DeGooyer and Srinivas Murthy observe that “[t]he 1882 American Immigration Act, which excluded entry to all ‘persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,’ scapegoated Irish, Italian, and Chinese immigrants for decades as infectants to the nation.” In Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America, Alexandra Minna Stern (2005) argues that in the early 20th century, eugenic ideals of racial superiority became hedged within public health responses to infectious disease. A quarantine was put into place in border towns – migrants were stripped naked, checked for lice and typhus, showered in a mixture of soap, kerosene, and water, and vaccinated for smallpox. A Mounted Quarantine Guard was established in 1921 to find those migrants who tried to bypass the quarantine stations. The powers of the Mounted Guard were soon transferred to the newly established Border Patrol, but the quarantine process went on until WWII (2005, 62-66).
A crucial point here is that the attempts to manage migration that emerge in the midst of public health crises become institutionalized – creating physical infrastructures; giving rise to, or expanding the reach of, bureaucratic agencies; and, perhaps most importantly, recreating social norms that persist long after the crisis is over:
“The border quarantine helped to solidify the boundary line that had previously been much more nebulous and, in doing so, helped to racialized Mexicans as outsiders and demarcate Mexico as a distinct geographical entity despite topographic and climatic similarity. It not only intensified racial tensions in the borderlands, it also catalyzed anti-Mexican sentiment on a national level and fueled nativist efforts to ban all immigration from the Southern Hemisphere.” (Stern 2005, 67)
There is another facet of Stern’s analysis worth recalling today: that early conservationists played important roles in forging the articulations between eugenics and public health, and – more broadly – in fostering linkages between movements to protect nature and those aiming to protect the (white) nation from forces of pollution, both perceived and real. Nature has long been a constitutive element of American nativism.
From Eco-Fashy to Conservative-Classy: The Shifting Terrain of Environmental Exclusion
The strange intersections between conservationism and nativism do not stop at the eugenics era; environmental concerns lay at the foundation of the modern American anti-immigrant movement. Anti-immigrant leaders – like John Tanton (who founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Social Contract Press, and Center for Immigration Studies), Roy Beck (founder and President of NumbersUSA), and Michael Hethmon (senior counsel of the Immigration Reform Law Institute) – came to the restrictionist movement via the environment. And their position on immigration was echoed by a broad range of environmental activists and scholars, including: long-time Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower, deep ecological hero Edward Abbey, ecologist-cum-eugenicist Garrett Hardin, scholar-activists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, and Senator and Earth Day organizer Gaylord Nelson.
The proximate source of this relationship was a shared commitment to population reduction; however, the facile slippage from population reduction to immigration restriction was enabled by a deep-seated commitment to nationalism. This nationalism was routinely legitimated with the aid of environmental thinkers: Hardin’s “lifeboat ethics” and “cultural carrying capacity” naturalized nation-states and their existing cultural composition as the only political units capable of surviving in a social Darwinian world. The Ehrlichs’ Population Bomb (1968) painted a stark picture of socio-ecological crisis in which racial strife threatened to tear national communities asunder; and Abbey (1988) bemoaned the increase of a “culturally-morally-genetically impoverished” Latin American population who supposedly lacked the deep civilizational values that engender enthusiasm for wilderness and reverence for its non-human inhabitants (43). Unsurprisingly, Hardin sat on the Board of Directors of both the Federation for American Immigration Reform and The Social Contract Press, while the Ehrlichs served on the Board of Advisors for FAIR before eventually moderating their position. The misanthropy of Abbey’s faction of Earth First! was even more reprehensible, opposing not only immigration but all foreign aid, and supporting mandatory sterilization for those with “genetic defects.”
Environmental organizations – both mainstream and radical – have fought for decades, with varying but significant degrees of success, to distance themselves from their nativist pasts: eventually supporting comprehensive immigration reform with a path toward citizenship, opposing border walls, and continuing to integrate environmental justice into their political activism. Still, in the midst of coronavirus, scattered memes, tweets, and Facebook posts drew on the historical legacy of misanthropic environmentalism, celebrating the return of Nature amid the human quarantine. “While we are panicking about COVID-19,” reads one widely-shared meme, “mother earth is healing.” A more shocking – and popular – tweet read: “Coronavirus is the Earth’s vaccine. We are the virus.” There is, of course, nothing wrong with searching for a silver lining amid the despair of the moment, and this is as good a time as any to reckon with the sad realities of ecological decline. However, these examples promote a causal narrative devoid of power relations, in which a universal humanity is responsible for “our” unsustainable present, and the suffering created by COVID-19 is Nature’s justifiable way of striking back. Putting an academic gloss on this “revenge of Nature” genre, Robert Kaplan re-upped the dubious claims from his Atlantic essay of twenty-five years ago, asserting that due to population-induced disturbance of the environment, “pandemics will continue to be a natural accompaniment to a neo-Malthusian world.”
It is important to point out that the current rash of anti-humanist environmentalism is not coming from prominent environmental groups, but individual environmentalists, small environmental non-profits, Facebook groups dedicated to Nature appreciation, orthodox geopoliticos, and – in one case – white supremacists trying to impersonate Extinction Rebellion. This mirrors a broader trend: while there continue to exist a smattering of local environmental activists vocally railing against immigration, those advancing eco-nativist politics today are generally on the political Right: eco-fascists taking up arms against climate-induced threats to the Heimat, and far-Right parties attempting to instrumentally appropriate the climate crisis to serve their broader anti-immigrant agenda.
The organizational and ideological linkages between the American environmental movement and the anti-immigrant movement have been, by and large, severed. These two pathways to hate that emerged in tandem have finally come apart. At our present moment, the danger is less that environmentalists will be led astray; it is that the Right will find a ready-made package for its existing ideological predilections as it moves beyond overt climate denial to a climate politics premised on social exclusion for the Earth. Trump’s militant anti-environmentalism notwithstanding, there are already a subset of white supremacists, neo-fascists, and nativists (but I repeat myself) who are deeply anxious about the destabilization caused by climate change, and who have a storied history of environmental restrictionism to draw upon in finding a way to reconcile their anti-immigrant and environmental commitments.
My fear is that the existing nativist logics, evident in the Right’s responses to coronavirus, stand poised to converge with a budding conservative climate politics that conveniently pitches the militarization of borders as a core piece of “our” contribution to combating a warming and unsteady world. In parts of Europe, the toxic politics of climate denial are already segueing into eco-nativist logics that struggle amongst themselves over whether or not climate change is an actual threat or a strategic opportunity, and over how the climate crisis relates to the panoply of environmental problems – e.g. air and water pollution – that plague residents on a day-to-day basis. Climate change looms as a powerful frame in the nativist politics of the future, and anti-immigrant sentiment is likely to flourish in the conservative environmentalism to come. In reality, as Betsy Hartmann has long argued, it’s nothing more than hate with a stylish green veneer; conservative-classy for the age of crisis that is upon us.
With regard to the politics of immigration, our current crisis provides a preview of future struggles. The organizational terrain of nativism will continue to be reconfigured, and the political openings provided by particular conjunctural crises will shift. But – as the health nativism of today reveals – the logics through which anti-immigrant politics advance have a peculiar staying power. In the midst of the climate crisis, the environmental ideas of the past – advanced by Hardin, Ehrlich, Abbey, etc. – could further the conservative ends of today, providing a “solution” to climate change that requires a theatrical reification of borders rather than any sort of substantive environmental program (let alone a reckoning with capitalism). The Right will have at their disposal a network of anti-immigrant organizations that have been advocating such a response for decades.
Fortunately, though, there is also a counter-history of environmentalism that emerged in the midst of previous public health crises. In the late 19th and early 20th century, industrial discharges in urban centers produced environmental problems – like polluted air, filthy water, and improperly disposed solid waste – that heightened the impacts of infectious and occupational diseases within largely immigrant, working class communities. In 1902, amid an outbreak of typhoid fever in Chicago, Alice Hamilton, “America’s first great urban/industrial environmentalist,” (Gottlieb 2005, 83) sought to understand “why the slums had so much more typhoid than the well-screened and decently drained homes of the well-to-do” (Hamilton 1943, 99). Her investigation drew attention to this inequity, galvanized local and state intervention, and “eventually revealed that a sewage outflow…bore a direct relationship to the outbreak of the disease in certain neighborhood wards” (Gottlieb 83-4; see also Hamilton 1943, 98-100). Hamilton’s research on disease was undertaken as part of the broader “settlement movement” in which she was deeply engaged. A resident of Hull-House, she lived and worked alongside the likes of Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, and Alzina Stevens. Their projects included providing immigrant and industrial neighborhoods of Chicago with daycare, public baths, clinics, and playgrounds, campaigning for sewage systems and garbage service, and investigating illnesses and abuses in the workplace (see, e.g., Hamilton 1943, Ch. 4).
The settlement movement, like most, was imperfect and ideologically heterogeneous. Still, at a moment where immigrant workers and their families – stuck in detention centers, continuing to labor in fields and factories, scared to access healthcare, and excluded from state social programs – are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, such early iterations of what we now know as environmental justice activism are instructive. Building on this legacy, the Climate Justice Alliance – a coalition of grassroots labor, indigenous rights, and environmental justice groups – has recently called for a Just Recovery, which includes the provision of universal healthcare, paid sick leave and unemployment, a just transition to a post-carbon economy, and the direct participation of local communities in the creation of “the best care models for their most vulnerable.” Their plan provides a forceful rebuttal to the nativist response to the current coronavirus crisis/pandemic? and underscores the value of those on the frontlines of intersecting ecological, economic, and public health crises – a demographic of which immigrant communities are a crucial part.
The resurgence of misanthropic environmentalism amid the current pandemic is an unfortunate reminder that the tradition of past generations of environmentalists continues to weigh like a nightmare. But the ideals of earlier generations of environmental justice activists are also being adapted into a nascent eco-socialist movement grounded in working class solidarity across borders. Which of these visions will win out is a matter of political struggle. Rosa Luxemburg may have left out the “eco” prefix, but her dichotomy of political possibilities rings as true as ever.
Abbey E (1988)One Life at a Time, Please. New York:Henry Holt and Company.
Ehrlich P(1968) ThePopulation Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
Gottlieb R(2005) Forcingthe Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement. Washington,D.C.: Island Press.
Hamilton, A(1943) Exploringthe Dangerous Trades. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
Stern AM (2005)Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers ofBetter Breeding in Modern America. Oakland: University of California Press.
John Hultgren teaches politics at Bennington College. He is the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-Immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). His current book project, tentatively titled “Putting Anti-Environmentalism to Work,” explores the linkages between American conservatism, the environment, and class formation.