The dark side of environmentalism

In this issue of the magazine, we publish several articles by leading environmental writers in Ireland on developments in economics and media and the environment over the past 10 years.   It is the magazine’s 10th anniversary and we wanted to reflect on what has been happening in Ireland, and elsewhere, over this decade, expecting that there would be some things that we could celebrate or at least be satisfied with.

At the same time, we would be remiss if we did not also address what we wish was not happening in environmentalism over this period — its dark side.

Of course we wish Donald Trump had not happened, and that he had not been joined by other reactionary political leaders in undermining the good environmental things that have happened.   So it is all the more distressing to find some strands of environmentalism undermining the movement from within.

One of the most contentious issues being manipulated by the Trump administration, and by many European governments, is immigration.  The issue has been distilled as “us” (largely white) against “them” (largely brown), with “us” fighting to keep “them” out of “our” land.  In the US, “them” are brown Mexicans, and other foreigners from south of the border, while in Europe “them” are muslim.

A disturbing expression of this conflict, implicating environmentalism, has surfaced in several of the recent mass shootings (there always seem to be “several” of these shootings).   The shootings were by white men who by all accounts expressed deep anti-immigrant hostilities, reflecting Trumpian tweets.  In El Paso, the suspect complained about unsustainable overuse of paper towels (good environmental position), but added that the best form of environmental action would be mass murder (not so good a position).   In a shooting in Gilroy, California, at a garlic festival, the shooter complained about sprawl (good), but limited it to immigrant-driven sprawl (not so good).

Besides in the US, there was the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, where the shooter called himself an “eco-fascist.”  Not good.




The language of the shooters brings together concerns about immigration and overpopulation (overuse, sprawl).   While these concerns reflect recent developments, and exploitation by Trump and others, the issues also underpinned the early conservation movement, predecessor of the larger environmental movement.


Before toxic pollution, and then climate change, dominated environmental efforts, early conservation actions focused on preserving and restoring wild nature areas.  While sounding noble, and it was in part, it was often to protect a nature area not just from commercial development but also from overcrowding, especially from the unwanted, the undesirables (a/k/a Native Americans or Mexicans) who were proliferating at a fast clip.

Overpopulation and immigration were connected by some in the environmental movement who believed that all these excess people had to migrate somewhere where they would end up draining natural resources.  Population control was as central to some early conservationists as saving the redwoods.

More recently the far right political groups have resurrected this thinking and argue that to protect the planet from climate change (for those on the right who believe in climate change) immigration has to be stopped and those from the overpopulated regions in particular must be stopped at the border before they overrun “our” natural resources, and generate greenhouse gases in “our” air.

Indeed, “Fox News host Tucker Carlson opined on air about the ecological impact of immigrants: ‘I actually hate litter, which is one of the reasons I’m so against illegal immigration’.”  See Cagle, The Guardian, below.  You may have thought Carlson was being facetious or mad, yet there was meaning in his madness.

Of course, it is simpler to limit immigration on the unfounded assumption that it will reduce emissions than it is to limit fossil fuel production and use.

While environmental groups have rejected earlier expressions of anti-immigration policies, we all need to be aware of this strand of that history which has now been recharged by the alt right.  For instance when we talk about the dangers of climate breakdown creating “hordes” of environmental “refugees” from poorer, undeveloped countries —a legitimate concern —we need to be sensitive to how such talk can be misunderstood and appropriated by the alt right, and others, to support anti-immigration policies.


Susie Cagle, “’Bees, not refugees’: the environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry,” The Guardian (16 August 2019).

Nicholas Kulish and Mike McIntire, “An Heiress Intent on Closing America’s Doors: How a Nature Lover Helped Fuel the Trump Immigration Agenda” The New York Times (15 August 2019).


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