It’s a terrible day to be a Malthusian in America. On Monday afternoon James J. Lee decided to take several hostages in the Maryland headquarters of the Discovery Channel, and brought with him a list of wild demands for the television station to focus population control. Lee said his views were informed by his Malthusian ideals—Thomas Malthus was an 18th century British thinker who argued that unchecked population growth would be the downfall of human society.
Yesterday it was an obscure, though on its surface a not entirely unreasonable theory. Today Malthus is again in the news. Except Lee was more than a Malthusian. His passionate, valid cries about the desperate state of the environment—“Nothing is more important than saving them. The Lions, Tigers, Giraffes, Elephants, Froggies, Turtles, Apes, Raccoons, Beetles, Ants, Sharks, Bears, and, of course, the Squirrels,” Lee wrote—and humans’ direct role in environmental degradation, were tinged with echoes of xenophobia. Lee’s screed called on the station to shift its programming to focus on strict population control via forced sterilization. He also advocated for closed borders and an end to immigration into the country.
Lee is dead now. After a tense standoff yesterday afternoon he was shot on the scene by a SWAT officer after pointing his weapon at one of his hostages. There were no other injuries, and the building’s 1,900 occupants all made it out safely. Lee’s legitimate fears about the environment had been clouded in part by xenophobia.
And not on accident, either.
The gunman’s deranged demands brought to the fore tenets of a growing sector of the environmental movement that’s been co-opted by white nationalists and immigration restrictionists with extensive ties to anti-immigrant networks like the American Immigration Control Foundation, Californians for Population Stabilization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (also known as FAIR) and its various offshoots like NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies.
And if FAIR sounds familiar to immigration rights watchers, they should. FAIR is the group, founded by anti-immigrant zealot John Tanton, that helped write Arizona’s SB 1070 and has been orchestrating the growing copycat bill movement around the country.
In a political climate where immigrants make easy scapegoats for a host of social and economic ills in the country, it’s easy for these anti-immigrant groups to blame immigrants, too, for increased fossil fuel use, urban sprawl, the melting of the polar ice caps. Immigrants track their dirt and babies and poverty into the country, and threaten “America’s environmental stability,” so the anti-immigrant environmentalists say.
The “greenwashing” of the movement has been well-documented. This summer the Center for New Community released a report documenting the nefarious connections between the anti-immigrant movement’s faux-environmentalism that stretch back to the 1960’s. They made an unsuccessful attempt to derail the Sierra Club’s agenda; they’ve started websites called Progressives for Immigration Reform; they’ve run convincing ads in lefty magazines masking their anti-immigrant views behind concerns about the planet. But it’s not that immigration restrictionists care so much about the environment; they just care much more about ending people’s right to enter the country.
Lee seemed to have bought the lies. He wrote:
Find solutions FOR these countries so they stop sending their breeding populations to the US and the world to seek jobs and therefore breed more unwanted pollution babies. FIND SOLUTIONS FOR THEM TO STOP THEIR HUMAN GROWTH AND THE EXPORTATION OF THAT DISGUSTING FILTH!
Lee also condemned war as a contributor to climate change, and wanted the country to find solutions for the unemployment and housing crises. He wanted the best for the ailing planet. So should we all. But he missed a crucial point: migration is not the cause of climate change. Very often, the ravages of climate change and environmental degradation are the impetus behind people’s leaving their home countries in search of work and life elsewhere. Saving the planet and protecting immigrants’ rights to enter and be in the country are parallel pursuits. They are even very often unified goals among those who know that communities of color and immigrants often feel the brunt of the environmental crisis first, and worst, and know that the welfare of the planet is also dependent on the welfare of the world’s most marginalized people.