Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Sierra Club's Ugly Racial Tilt

by Alexander Cockburn

One of the dirty semi-secrets of American environmentalism has been its century-long obsession with population control and racial eugenics. Today, the obsession is as alive and malign as ever. In the nest 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, 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 million-or-so 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," where every wild fantasy about the evil consequences of over-breeding was given full rein.

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 flirted with the idea of placing sterilizing agents in municipal water supplies and advocated punitive taxes on such items as cribs, diapers and diaper services.

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 the enviro-Malthusian, whose mantra has been "The freedom to breed will bring ruin to all." In 1949, Hardin noted in his hair-raising text book "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."

Almost 30 years before Hardin wrote those words, the nation's pre-eminent naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborne, a friend of Sierra Club founder John Muir, brought the second international Congress of Eugenics to New York, where promoters 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 advancing 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 ultimately destroy homegrown American values as well as the American wilderness. In the same spirit, William Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Society, spoke of "members of the lower classes of southern Europe" as being "a dangerous menace to wildlife."

The Nazis followed such pronouncements with keen approval, pored over Grant's racist threnody "The Passing of the Great Race" (published in Germany in 1925) and used the 1924 U.S. immigration law as a model for their own efforts in the promotion of racial purity. Dr. 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 towards 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. Board member David Foreman, remember, shared with that son of the desert the late Edward Abbey a horror of immigration. In all such apocalyptic hysteria, there is not even the semblance of rational discussion of any relation between environmental degradation and demographic shifts. How come, for example, the U.S. population has almost quadrupled since 1900, yet there is more land under forest cover today than at any time since the turn of the century? Is it immigrant Hispanics 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.

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 good public credentials paddling in the most polluted waters of American political life.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor October 8, 1997 (

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