February 25, 2003


-INTERVIEW: The greening of hate (Fred Pearce, New Scientist)
The poor are to blame for environmental decline because they have been putting their own ecosystems under intolerable population pressure. That's the hidden ideology of far too many environmentalists in the US who really should know better, says Betsy Hartmann, a radical feminist and academic. So much for the "green on the outside, red on the inside" label that's often hung round eco-campaigners; some conservationists, she told Fred Pearce recently, are the new conservatives

Q: What do you think is going on among environmentalists? Is the right wing taking over?

A: I first realised that the right wing was attempting to penetrate the mainstream environment movement when I sat on a panel at an environmental meeting in the University of Oregon in 1994. Beside me was a professor and environmentalist, Virginia Abernethy of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She seemed to me to blame immigrants for overpopulating our country and destroying our environment. Some of the audience liked her ideas but I thought they were racist.

I started to investigate and found she wasn't alone among conservationists. She was a leader of the group called the Carrying Capacity Network, which sounds like a benign environmental organisation but its main campaign is to halt what it calls mass migration to the US. They blame migrants for destroying pristine America. For instance, they blame Mexican migrants for starting fires in national forests near the border. This group has prominent environmental scientists on its advisory board. People like biologist Tom Lovejoy, the green economist Herman Daly and the ecologist David Pimental. I call this the greening of hate.

Q: It sounds like a conspiracy theory

A: Well, it seems to me that the anti-immigration movement in the US has a strong green wing. For instance, they formed a group within the Sierra Club - a prominent nature protection organisation - trying to push it into a policy of immigration restriction and population reduction. Abernethy has spoken at conferences of the right wing Council of Conservative Citizens. And some of these people are getting funding from groups such as the Pioneer Fund, whose aims, as set out in its charter, are to fund research into genetics and study into "the problems of human race betterment". [...]

Q: Where did the environment come into your thinking on population?

A: I got concerned that conflicts over resources such as forests and land were being framed so that population pressure was seen as the main culprit. A variety of groups, including foundations that fund population work, were linking population and environment issues directly to national security. This seemed like a dangerous mix, especially when it got tied up with the growing anti-immigrant movement in the US, and maybe now in Europe, too.

Q: But isn't population pressure a real environmental issue?

A: It's more than an issue, it's an ideology. Ever since colonial times, Westerners have had what I call a degradation narrative. It says that poor peasants having too many children causes population pressures that degrade the environment and cause more poverty. It is the basic story that many Western environmentalists still tell. And it is now being extended to explain not just the loss of rainforests and species, but also migration and violent conflicts round the world.

Q: You say that this degradation narrative is being used to explain foreign policy disasters. How?

A: From Afghanistan to Gaza to El Salvador to Indonesia to Somalia, some prominent environmentalists have blamed disorder on resource depletion and environmental decay. And foreign policy people have gone along with it. When the slaughter happened in Rwanda in 1994 and the rest of the world stood by and did nothing, we heard a lot about how it was inevitable because of the high population density that was causing land shortages and poverty. Even Timothy Wirth, Clinton's undersecretary of state for global affairs and widely seen as an environmental good-guy, said it. But even some of the theorists behind these ideas, such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, a writer on environmental and security issues, have acknowledged it wasn't really like that. The massacres started where population pressure was least. It was about state-instigated racism, not environmental degradation. It's not that population is always irrelevant, it is just that it gets overemphasised. Blaming poor peasants for deforestation is like blaming conscripts for wars. [...]

Q: But even so, isn't it obvious that more people will cause more environmental damage?

A: Not necessarily. In Brazil, it's often the least populated areas that get trashed - by miners and loggers and cattle ranchers. And in certain contexts population pressure spurs innovation and better farming methods. The economist Julian Simon had a point when he said it provides more brains to think and hands to work as well as more mouths to feed.

Q: As a feminist, you don't sound like a natural supporter of Simon. Ronald Reagan used his ideas to justify his policies against abortion and birth control in the 1980s, didn't he?

A: Yes, I'm not a supporter of Simon. I disagree with his unbridled faith in the free market. But he was not against birth control. He was just a libertarian. People like Simon on the libertarian right have often had better positions on population control than the liberal population establishment, who were often afraid to speak out against coercion and sometimes actively supported it.

Q: Do average Americans buy these ideas?

A: I find even well-educated and well-meaning acquaintances have alarming responses on population issues. They believe the poor create their own problems by breeding, and it absolves the rest of us from responsibility. Even some committed feminists will scapegoat poor women's fertility for the planet's evils. It is a kind of ideological schizophrenia. Phrases like the population bomb and the population explosion breed racism. Few Americans know that, on average, woman round the world have less than three children each. They don't breed like rabbits. And by 2050 a majority of the world's population will be likely to live in countries with fertility levels below what demographers regard as replacement levels. It all avoids looking at the real issues on our own doorstep - of over-consumption, for instance. On climate change, we hype up fears of rising emissions in "overpopulated" India rather than looking at our own consumption patterns. Better a one-child policy there than a one-car policy here. We don't understand that communities all over the world can and do live in sustainable relationships with their environments.

Q: You've claimed that the military is also taking up environmentalism.

A: After the cold war, people were looking for a new political agenda, maybe a new enemy. Along came Robert Kaplan, who wrote a long and influential article called "The coming anarchy" in Atlantic Monthly. It painted a really frightening picture of overpopulation and environmental degradation causing violence and a breakdown of order in Africa. It was to me very racially charged, but it captured the imagination of the liberal establishment. Some of the influential people in the environment movement in the US just loved Kaplan's work. They saw it could raise environmental issues into the high politics of national security. And they were flattered when in 1996 the US National Security Strategy said that "large-scale environmental degradation, exacerbated by rapid population growth, threatens to undermine political stability in many countries". But they were engaging in all sorts of scaremongering images of the Third World. It makes the victims of the modern world into its villains, and encourages policies that attack them and their livelihoods.

Q: For example?

A: At the height of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico in the late 1990s, some environment and security people argued that population pressure was causing deforestation and this environmental decay was in turn the cause of the conflict there. Of course it was much more complex. You might equally argue that Mexican land policies forced the poor to farm in the forests because there was no effective land reform or other economic alternatives. Recently, it has been alleged that that a US-based conservation group working in the region colluded with the Mexican military, helping them identify communities in the forest so they could be removed.

Q: How did that happen?

A: Many environment groups in the US have very little knowledge of international development issues. They buy into things like Chiapas because they don't know any differently. And the imagery is very seductive. Several friends and I have been looking at the imagery used, often subconsciously, to create fear about particular threats, especially in the environment movement. For instance, look at how the Ebola virus encapsulates a lot of fears about Africa and migration. And how the ideas of ecologists about invasive species - alien species as they are often called - sound so similar to anti-immigration rhetoric. Green themes like scarcity and purity and invasion and protection all have right-wing echoes. Hitler's ideas about environmentalism came out of purity, after all.

This is one of the most vile and dishonest things you'll ever read. Ms Hartmann offers chapter and verse on how liberals and evironmental activists are hostile to immigration and population growth, but says that these themes are conservative? It seems hardly necessary to point out that the Left has a rich tradition of Eugenics--advocates of which included Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, the mission of which was to get immigrants to limit their reproduction--and of a more basic hostility towards humans generally, as is the case with Paul Ehrlich, whose book, The Population Bomb, practically the Bible of the population control movement, proposed that the planet's human population be reduced to one billion. If racists and anti-immigrationists are cropping up in the environmental movement, it's not because the Right is trying to take it over, it's because that's their natural home. Environmentalism has throughout its history been a movement of upper-class white people who wish that the poor wouldn't make such a mess of their cities and spoil the natural beauty of the countryside that they want to be able to vacation in. It couldn't be more elitist and separatist.

Meanwhile, Julian Simon a libertarian but nonetheless a man of the Right, was the great scourge of the population controlling, anti-immigrant, depletionist Left that Ehrlich epitomized. Here's a description from a remembrance, Malthus, Watch Out (Ben Wattenberg, February 11, 1998, Wall St. Journal):

His keystone work was "The Ultimate Resource," published in 1981 and updated in 1996 as "The Ultimate Resource 2" (Princeton University Press). Its central point is clear: Supplies of natural resources are not finite in any serious way; they are created by the intellect of man, an always renewable resource. Coal, oil and uranium were not resources at all until mixed well with human intellect.

The notion drove some enviromentalists crazy. If it were true, poof!--there went so many of the crises that justified their existence. From their air-conditioned offices in high-rise buildings, they brayed: Simon believes in a technological fix! The attacks often got personal: Simon's doctorate was in business economics, they sniffed; he had merely been a professor of advertising and marketing, and--get this--he had actually started a mail-order business and written a book about how to do it. Never mind that he also studied population economics for a quarter century.

In fact, it was Simon's knowledge of real-world commerce that gave him an edge in the intellectual wars. He knew firsthand about some things that many environmentalists had only touched gingerly, like prices. If the real resource was the human intellect, Simon reasoned, and the amount of human intellect was increasing, both quantitatively through population growth and qualitatively through education, then the supply of resources would grow, outrunning demand, pushing prices down and giving people more access to what they wanted, with more than enough left over to deal with pollution and congestion. In short, mankind faced the very opposite of a crisis.

Simon rarely presented a sentence not supported by facts--facts arranged in serried ranks to confront the opposition; facts about forests and food, pollution and poverty, nuclear power and nonrenewable resources; facts used as foot soldiers to strike blows for accuracy.

In a famous bet, gloom-meister Paul Ehrlich took up Simon's challenge and wagered that between 1980 and 1990 scarcity would drive resource prices up. Simon bet that progress would push prices down. Simon won the bet, easily. Mr. Ehrlich won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant. But the wheel turns, and we'll see who's a genius. Fortune magazine listed Simon among "the world's most stimulating thinkers." Mr. Ehrlich didn't make the cut.

Simon sensed the primacy of something else that many environmentalists and crisis-mongers didn't catch on to for a quite a time: Human intellect could best be transformed into beneficial goods and services in an atmosphere of political and economic liberty. At the United Nations' Mexico City population conference in 1984 Simon winced, and counterattacked, when population alarmists caricatured the Reagan-appointed American delegation as promoting the idea that "capitalism is the best contraceptive." It was not a good idea to ridicule capitalism, or free markets, or human liberty, in Simon's presence.

Of course, rising living standards do tend to depress fertility. Living standards do rise faster under democratic market systems. Smart folks now know that the fruits of economic growth can be used to diminish pollution. You don't hear much anymore about how we're running out of everything. (Next task: Simonize the Global Warmists.)

Finally, unlike many of his opponents, Julian was a traditionalist. He did not work on the Sabbath, and the Friday Sabbath dinner at the Simon house was always a gentle and joyous celebration.

Mr. Simon was waging this fight a quarter century ago and Ronald Reagan took America out of the business of aborting foreign babies around the same time--a practice we returned to only when Bill Clinton was President--but we're asked to believe that environmentalism's animus towards the poor, especially those of other skin hues, is something new and that it's being driven by infiltration of the movement by the Right? This is just heinous.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 25, 2003 8:53 PM

As a long time Simon fan, I'm thrilled to see him start to get the recognition that is his due, even when its backhanded, like in this article.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 25, 2003 9:52 PM

I'm still trying to figure out where the right wing comes in. I am a graduate student with a child and a wife who is a grad. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, I can say that the nasty comments and looks about our contribution to overpopulation comes consistently from the academic left. This came up as a dinner conversation the other day with some friends from our Mormon congregation who are in the same boat, and have had the same experience. Some faculty (and fellow graduate students) don't have a clue how to deal with a colleague who does not buy the party line about overpopulation.

Posted by: nordic at February 26, 2003 6:46 PM

Some of this would appear to be fact-based. If, in fact, wetbacks are burning down the forests, I'd blame them.

Is there anybody who wouldn't?

Well, yes, I suppose there are.

Posted by: Harry at February 26, 2003 11:55 PM


So what? The point is environmentalists prefer the trees. Conservatives prefer the people.

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:23 AM

Who says we cannot have both?

Posted by: Harry at February 27, 2003 1:21 PM

Paul Ehrlich

Posted by: oj at February 27, 2003 9:05 PM