As Citylab’s Brentin Mock wrote last year, Grant was also a eugenicist and white supremacist. His book, The Passing of the Great Race, served as a bedrock of American and European pseudo-scientific racism until the second world war. Hitler quoted often from Grant’s writing in speeches and allegedly corresponded with him. (F. Scott Fitzgerald also implies Grant’s work is a favorite of Tom Buchanan’s in The Great Gatsby.)
But Grant’s influence was not just theoretical: He had a material and long-lasting influence on U.S. immigration policy. His statistics and “expertise” informed the quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned almost all Asians and Arabs from migrating to the United States. It also placed quotas on the entry of southern and eastern Europeans. These rules effectively prevented many Jews from escaping Nazi Germany, and they were not fully repealed until the Immigration Act of 1965.
It may seem a casual coincidence that an American conservationist was also smitten with racism. But Grant’s views on the environment were inseparable from his adoration for eugenics. When he helped found the Save the Redwoods League, it was out of the same loyalty to the pure.
“To Grant, the redwoods were threatened with ‘race suicide’ in the same ways that whites were,” says Hultgren. “These folks really saw national purity and natural purity as being interconnected.”
This was true also of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist project, which birthed the U.S. National Park Service. In a 1909 government report commissioned by President Roosevelt—A Report on National Vitality, Its Wastes and Conservation—the economist Irving Fisher spends a full chapter on “Conservation by Heredity.”
“President Roosevelt has pointed out that ‘race suicide’ is a sign and accompaniment of coming decay,” Irving writes. “A race that can not hold its fiber strong and true deserves to suffer extinction through race suicide. The decline of our Puritan stock ... need not alarm us if we can replace it with a new influx from the West or from the vigorous stocks of Europe.”
Hultgren notes that many environmental groups have now reversed their old anti-immigration positions. In 2013, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, and 350.org all embraced comprehensive immigration reform.
And—of course—most contemporary advocates of immigration restrictionism do not make racial arguments or share Grant’s zeal for eugenics.
But the occasional overlap between conservationist and restrictionist rhetoric persists. The Federation for American Immigration Reform and other anti-immigration groups have recently used green-style arguments to push for new legal limits. A magazine ad from the early 2010s argued:
With every new U.S. resident, whether from births or immigration, comes further degradation of America’s natural treasures. There’s not much we can do to reclaim the hundreds of millions of acres already destroyed. But we can do something about what’s left.
Stephen Colbert picked up on a TV commercial from the same coalition while in-character on the Report.
“Yes, immigrants cause global warming,” he said. “Saving the planet by demonizing immigrants give liberals and conservatives something they can do together. Now, when a liberal yammers on about the record heat we had this winter, a conservative can say: ‘Let’s save the environment by building an electrified border fence that runs on alternative energy.’”
These “Solar Death Panels,” as his chyron put it, made for a laugh line in 2012. In 2017, they constitute a serious U.S. policy proposal.