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.