A Big Green Bomb Aimed at Immigration

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

One of the dirty semisecrets of American environmentalism has been its century-long obsession with population control and racial eugenics.

Today, the obsession is alive and malign as ever.

In the next few months, the Sierra Club, which advertises itself as the nation’s most progressive and high-minded environmental group, may very well commit itself to public advocacy of severe restrictions on immigration. Members will be voting this winter on an initiative put up by Sierra Club board member Dave Foreman, former board member Anne Ehrlich and former Sierra Club executive director John Tanton, who now heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

It’s highly possible that the anti-immigration initiative will prevail. For years there’s been a powerful faction amid the club’s half a million members equating environmental decline with population pressure. The club has fanned such views with its own propaganda. It was the Sierra Club that published in 1968 the classic modern expression of Malthusian dementia, Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” which gave full rein to every wild fantasy about the evil consequences of overbreeding.


Under the sponsorship of the Sierra Club, Ehrlich advocated measures of economic coercion against people having children. He urged cutbacks on government programs of “death control,” (i.e., public health). He also favored making foreign aid conditional on population control through that cherished creature of both the CIA and the environmental movement, the U.S. Agency for International Development. He advised the sterilizing of all Third World fathers of three children. In all this, Ehrlich was solidly within Sierra Club traditions as well as in agreement with Garrett Hardin, another hero of Malthusian environmentalism, whose mantra has been, “The freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” In 1949, Hardin noted in his hair-raising textbook “Biology: Its Human Implications,” that “either there must be a relatively painless weeding out before birth or a more painful and wasteful elimination of individuals after birth.”

So much for Hardin’s “lifeboat ethics.”

Almost 30 years before Hardin wrote those words, the nation’s preeminent naturalist, Henry Fairfield Osborne, a friend of Sierra Club founder John Muir, brought the second international Congress of Eugenics to New York, where fans of the bogus science included Rockefellers, Fords and Mellons. At this gathering, Osborne urged the erection of an immigration quota system and unveiled his belief that “the modern eugenics movement” would be the appropriate vehicle for promoting the conservation ethic.

Madison Grant, another intimate of Osborne and Muir, president of the Boone and Crockett Club and a leader of the Save the Redwoods League, spoke of the immigrant tide of Southern Europeans, Italians and Jews as leading to a “racial abyss” that would destroy home-grown American values and the American wilderness.

The Nazis followed such pronouncements with keen approval, pored over Grant’s racist threnody, “The Passing of the Great Race” and used the 1924 U.S. immigration law as model for their own efforts in the promotion of racial purity. Gustav Boeters, a leading German eugenicist, declared in 1926 that “what we racial hygienists promote is by no means new or unheard of. In a cultured nation of the first order--the United States of America--that which we strive toward was introduced and tested long ago. It is all so clear and simple.”

So the latest eruption of immigrant bashing within the Sierra Club is scarcely surprising. In all such apocalyptic hysteria, there is not even the semblance of rational discussion of any relation between environmental degradation and population. The consumption patterns of the rich were never under the same censure as the children of the poor. Is it immigrant Latinos or corporate looters who now strip the Northwest forests? It’s not Mexicans cutting the Sierra Madre forest south of the border, but Boise Cascade, an outfit from that bastion of white supremacy, Idaho. Deforestation in Indonesia was part of a strategy to increase exports for the First World.

The upcoming Sierra Club ballot may not have the aroma of a Klan rally, with burning crosses and white hoods. In fact it’s something much more sinister and dangerous, a middle-class do-gooder movement with public credentials paddling in the most polluted waters of American political life.