White Nationalists Discover the Environment

Instead of denying threats to the planet, far-right propagandists seize on them as another means of sowing racial panic.

A view across the border into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Reuters

On Saturday, a gunman killed 21 people at a Walmart in the border city of El Paso, Texas. Minutes before the shooting, a four-page rant seeming to justify the attack appeared online. It includes white-nationalist diatribes about “cultural and ethnic replacement” and an immigrant “invasion.” Horrific and familiar.

But the so-called manifesto includes another theme, which fits less obviously into the white-nationalist script: environmentalism. The American lifestyle is destroying the environment, the author declares. But the answer is not to ask native-born white Americans to change their ways. It is to rid the country of Latinos.

The manifesto references an earlier document written by the gunman who killed more than 50 Muslims this spring in Christchurch, New Zealand. It too offered environmental justifications for white nationalism. Non-Europeans are overpopulating the planet, the Christchurch killer insisted, and killing them will save it.

Manifestos like these should be treated with caution. They are written to win converts. Whether the authors sincerely care about the environment—or are simply trying to woo those who do—is hard to tell.

But either way, these authors see an opening. For years, progressives have hoped the right would acknowledge the environmental dangers menacing the planet in an age of climate change. Now, at least rhetorically, more conservatives are. But instead of endorsing pollution controls and carbon-emissions treaties, many are offering a different answer to environmental danger: Keep nonwhite immigrants out.

What we’re witnessing is less the birth of white-nationalist environmentalism than its rebirth. In earlier periods of American history, nativism and environmentalism were deeply intertwined. The Nation recently reminded readers that Madison Grant, who in the early 20th century helped found the Save the Redwoods League and the National Parks Association, also served as vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, which successfully lobbied to cut off most eastern and southern European immigration to the United States in 1924. Grant, whose 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, proposed a racial hierarchy of European peoples and greatly impressed Adolf Hitler, saw no contradiction between his environmentalism and his racism. To the contrary, wrote his biographer, Jonathan Spiro, he “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.”

Opposition to immigration remained influential in environmental circles throughout the 20th century. The Bennington College professor John Hultgren, the author of Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-immigrant Politics in America, has noted that “from the 1980s into the early 2000s … environmentalists” in groups such as the Sierra Club and Earth First! “heatedly debated the desirability of further immigration restrictions.”

More recently, though, as progressives have coalesced around support for immigration, environmentalists have too. Their evolution has paralleled the American labor movement, which in recent decades has jettisoned its own restrictionist past.

All this has left a vacuum that white nationalists are moving to fill. While climate-change denial remains pervasive on the American right, it grows harder to sustain with each new environmental horror. Meanwhile, opposition to immigration plays an ever-greater role in defining the conservative movement. In June, when Reuters asked Republicans to name their top priority, immigration bested the second highest answer by more than three to one.

The result is a rising white-nationalist environmentalism that blames overpopulation on nonwhite immigrants, insists that they cannot appreciate the ecology of the countries to which they move, and embraces pseudoscientific claims that ethnic groups belong in their native habitats. These contentions are ludicrous. As Hultgren explained to me, “the data suggests that there is no empirical linkage between immigration and environmental degradation, and some studies even suggest a negative correlation.” Large corporations and the wealthy consume the most environmental resources, not poor immigrants.

But rather than support policies that would burden white Christians, more and more figures on the right are using immigrants and racial minorities as environmental scapegoats. The authors of the El Paso and Christchurch manifestos aren’t the only culprits. Ann Coulter once mocked concerns about climate change. But more recently, she’s added it to her arsenal of bigoted arguments. In a 2017 column entitled “Choose Between a Green America And a Brown America,” she argued that“mass Third World immigration is a triple whammy for the environment because: 1. Millions more people are tromping through our country; 2. The new people do not share Americans’ love of nature and cleanliness; and 3. We’re not allowed to criticize them.” Last year she tweeted that “I’m fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders” in the process.

Tucker Carlson seems headed down a similar path. In August of last year he noted, “I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration.” In December, he added that “illegal immigration comes at a huge cost to our environment.” The Federalist chimed in that “Tucker Carlson Is Absolutely Right: Illegal Immigration Is Destroying the Environment.” A former Tea Party activist and Breitbart contributor named Debbie Dooley has even created something called the Green Tea Party, which lobbies for both tougher immigration restrictions and tougher environmental standards.

In Europe, where the environment is a less partisan issue, a new generation of far-right activists offers a glimpse into how the American right may evolve as the global climate disaster worsens. Earlier this year, the 23-year-old spokesperson for Marine Le Pen’s neo-fascist National Rally declared, “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet.” Le Pen herself argues that someone “who is rooted in their home is an ecologist,” while people who are “nomadic … do not care about the environment” since “they have no homeland.” After the far-right Alternative for Germany lost to the Greens in European parliamentary elections this spring, the head of its youth league penned an open letter to party leaders urging them to stop denying that humans are causing climate change. Italy’s populist Five Star Movement is both avowedly environmentalist and nativist.

The white-nationalist environmentalism rising in Europe and the United States exposes the limits of the progressive imagination. Barack Obama promised that the Republican Party’s “fever” would eventually break. The implication was that when conservatives acknowledged the problems that liberals said plagued the country, they would endorse liberal remedies, or at least watered-down versions of them.

It’s not turning out that way. More than any GOP nominee in decades, President Donald Trump accepted the left’s argument that corporate-dominated capitalism was failing American workers. Yet rather than embrace a progressive agenda—higher taxes, tougher regulation, stronger labor unions—Trump has enacted a nationalist one: tariffs on incoming goods and a brutal crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Now something similar may be happening with the environment. Progressives may hope climate change breeds the global solidarity necessary to bridge divides of faith, race, and nation. But white nationalists are trying to win converts with a different message: that in a world of growing scarcity, it’s every race for itself.