It has been over two years since a gunman in El Paso walked into a Walmart Supercenter with a semi-automatic rifle and killed 23 people. Much has been written about what his motives might have been, and whether or not Trump deserves some of the blame due to his often racist rhetoric. Lacking the ability to read minds, one avenue we have for understanding his reasoning is his manifesto. It’s long and rambling, but there is one phrase from it that I haven't been able to get out of my head. At the end of the section he titled “Economic Reasons,” he wrote, “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” Chilling isn’t it? Of course, as I’m sure you've guessed, the people he looked to get rid of were immigrants, and he believed that people of different races cannot coexist. But it’s novel to see environmental concern, and concern for human-created climate change, coexist with these extreme racist ideologies, right?
Well, the blending of environmentalism and racist ideologies actually have a long past, one that has not left climate change concern untouched. Take the figure of Madison Grant, a leading activist and thinker in the Progressive Era of the turn of last century. He was an avid conservationist, prominent member of many conservation groups, and helped to found the national park system. But he was also a racial scientist, nativist, and eugenicist.
Now it should come as no surprise that white men of that era held racist beliefs. What’s more instructive, and more concerning, is how compatible the eugenics and conservation movements of the early-twentieth centuries were. It wasn’t, after all, just Madison Grant. Early conservation movements were concerned with maintaining the “natural order” of the environment, and eugenicists were concerned with preserving what they considered the “natural order” of the racial hierarchy. Obsession with conserving a pristine nature is highly compatible with an obsession with preserving a pristine white race. Of course entwined in this belief is that those of the white race are the only ones capable of making proper decisions over land use, just as post-colonial powers now wish to dictate to the once colonized lands what best be done to prevent climate change. In his book, Grant extended his concern over preserving animal species to preserving what he called the “Nordic” race in his book, The Passing of the Great Race. His taxonomic charts on race are identical in structure to taxonomic trees in biology.
Grant’s book was a dear favorite of Adolf Hitler, who called it his “bible” in a letter. The relationship between the Nazi Party and concern for the environment is a rather hot topic in historical scholarship. Certainly, the industrialization required for WWII style warfare was far from being environmentally friendly, and it would be a mischaracterization to call the Nazi establishment as one that was made up of a bunch of tree-huggers. However, an important component to the Nazi ideology was “Blood and Soil”: the belief that those of the Aryan race had an intimate connection and history with the land. This “Blood and Soil” ideology was fertile ground for concepts of environmental stewardship, and the Nazi version of organic farming, at the time called biodynamic farming. As Staudenmaier wrote in his epilogue to his book Ecofascism Revisited: Lessons from the German Experience, “This ensemble of themes - the Nazi revival of ruralism, pastoral ideals, organicism, mythology of the peasantry, calls to return to the soil and become closer to the land for the good of the Volk - extended to the lowest and most far-flung levels of the National Socialist apparatus.” In the Nazi ideology, those of the superior race are the only ones equipped to be proper stewards to the land. It’s this belief and excuse that was used to justify the removal of any person under Nazi territory they did not consider racially pure. This is the same strain of thinking that inspired our El Paso shooter from earlier. As the climate changes, and our circumstances become more dire, it’s this line of thinking that will become more and more dangerous. If, as a planet, we are overpopulated, and the majority of US adults think so, we are not equipped to decide who lives and who dies. To think of it as a solution is not even close to ethical, and yet even those not on the right felt free to allude to COVID-19 as “boomer remover.” This is a far reach from grabbing a gun and killing people, and is on generational rather than racial lines, but the line of thinking is too close for comfort. We as individuals cannot be allowed to decide which lives have value.
Yet that’s what continues to happen. Developed nations continue to shift the burden of blame of climate change on developing nations in order to shirk their own responsibility, as if the developed nations hope the developing ones will continue to languish so that the global rich can continue to enjoy their lavish lifestyles. As an illustrative example of how blame has been shifted in the past, take national parks, some of which were founded over 100 years ago. They were formed largely under colonial rule, on the global scale. Although we may not consider the United States a colonial power in its own territory, it looks rather like it. If we consider colonialism as an introduced people’s power over endemic peoples', then the history of the relationship between the US and the native peoples fits the bill.
The concept of national parks is built upon the idea that there are areas of artifice and areas of nature, artifice being described as what is made or adapted by human hands. Underlying this concept is a framework of human superiority. We dominate nature, and can develop it as we will. We determine what is wilderness, and where that wilderness is allowed to be. We are separate and above nature, and she is at our mercy. This concept originates from Western culture, which had projected it upon its colonial expanses with the establishment of parks and wilderness preserves. Indigenous peoples have lived in harmonic relation to their homelands for thousands of years. Both historically and in modern times, many of these peoples have been forcibly relocated under the auspices of conservation. This has been justified with the belief that intellectuals, mostly and historically of the Global North, alone know what is best done with land. Guha, in his paper, calls this a modernized and environmentalist version of the “White Man’s Burden.” It’s this concept too, that informs ethical debate on geo-engineering. If nature is not artifice, should we be allowed to use geo-engineering to change the climate the way we want it to be, or should nature be left “wild?” Who, ultimately, gets to decide what the strategies to mitigate climate should be, and should only those with power be able to decide what the climate should be for everyone else?
The Indigenous people residing in the modern United States adapted their landscape a long time before colonial settlers ever landed. To call any of this land wilderness, as in untouched by man, ignores the thousands of years long legacy of the ecology and humankind developing together and shaping each other. To say that native peoples are a blemish on the natural landscape as Muir stated in relation to the Sierra Nevadas, is ignorant of the true nature of Native relationship to the land. In the 60’s, a prominent member of the Sierra Club blamed the over-use of the land by the East African indigenous Maasai for destruction of species, ignoring the impact of industrialization. This lesson is important to carry, as we must be cautious looking at the carbon footprint of developing nations before addressing the huge impact of our behemoth network of industrial processes.
This vision of wilderness has been imposed on all by policing the borders of National Parks using military-like forces. This has led to the criminalization of local populations who may continue to try to practice their traditional land use customs. Such criminalization continues to marginalize and silence the voices of the Indigenous and justify ideas of Global North superiority. Many of the decisions about conservation are made using international protocols and at international conventions. While these conventions are meant to bring the nations of the world together, the Global North and Global South are typically deeply divided. As the Global North wields the majority of the power and has most of the wealth, these international conventions become instruments for neo-colonial power. Thus land use is still being determined by the old colonial powers without regard to the populations local to said land. This centralization of power in determining what land is wilderness and what land is for humans is authoritarian in spirit. This same colonial power can be wielded to force certain countries to stymie their own development so richer countries can avoid making the sacrifices necessary to mitigate climate change.
This belief in the superiority of white stewardship over the land must continue to concern us in the modern day and the ways we conceptualize our relationship with nature. We cannot continue to scapegoat local populations using land for subsistence in order to continue our addiction to overconsumption. It is the problem of capitalist production that primarily contributes to climate change. The biggest and cruelest irony of all, is that those in the Global South will face the most devastating impacts of climate change while contributing least to the global carbon load.
This context makes the words of the El Paso shooter so chilling. It appears that in his worldview, those least at fault should die so that the unsustainable lifestyles of Americans can continue uninterrupted. As climate change progresses, and natural resources become scarcer, the sort of pressure that creates this xenophobic jealousy will continue to grow. Largely, the relative wealth enjoyed in the Global North is still at the expense of the Global South even though colonization is officially over. The Global North does much to dictate land use to the Global South even though colonization is officially over. Environmental pressure will not reverse this, and will likely intensify these power relations. That makes this history of environmentalism and conservation more pertinent than ever. Concern over climate change must arise in concert with concern over climate justice if we are to live in a world that continues to value humanity. We have a long history of determining, on racial lines, who is allowed to live and who is not, and where. That power cannot continue to remain in the Global North dominated by those of the white race.