Strange bedfellows of sustainability: How identity politics obstructs the future of wilderness  

Preserving wild places is key to protecting Earth’s biodiversity. In the United States and elsewhere, identity politics undermines the commitment to do so.

by Karen Shragg

Preserving wilderness is in the best interests of all of us, especially the four-legged and two-legged creatures with whom we share our countries. When people give other species room, we let our water and soil cycles operate on their own terms, allowing for their regeneration. Wilderness protection shouldn’t be a partisan issue, yet it is. This is especially so with the rise of identity politics and cancel culture.

The USA commemorates the 57th anniversary of the Wilderness Act this year. It was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. We can tip our hats to its creation of 54 wilderness areas. That year, the Forest Service had 9.1 million acres permanently protected from chainsaws. Since then, Congress has passed more than 100 separate bills designating more land under strict protection. But as great as these legal protections are on paper, they are being undermined by our continued commitment to Growth with a capital ‘G’.

Growth of our US population, which has already more than doubled in my lifetime, to 335 million, means that we need more water, more infrastructure, more health care, more schools and so on down the line to accommodate newcomers, all of which squeezes wildlife into unsustainable corners of our ever more human-serving landscape. Growth means more pavement and less ability for infiltration of rain into our ground water.

In general, every 100,000 additional people in the US require 400 additional doctors and 130 additional nurses, 200 additional schoolteachers, and 40,000 additional homes. Meanwhile male black bears have a home range of anywhere from 17 to 55 square miles. No wonder bear encounters are getting more and more common as we grow into their territory. We need big picture thinking, and we cannot address it with the small-minded thinking of identity politics.

Some things just shouldn’t be politicized, they are either good for a country or bad. Growth is bad for the United States, which is struggling to deal with the effects of more frequent and intense storms, due to climate change, and widespread poverty systemically embedded long ago. We still have laws which tax common citizens’ social security payments while allowing loopholes for the rich. No matter the laws, however, at a certain point human numbers just overwhelm everything, including the wilderness we struggled to protect back in the 1960’s.

No mayor in any of our 19,000 cities, excepting perhaps some small rural ones, could honestly say that more people would solve their crime problems, their homelessness issues, their pollution problems, their water or traffic problems. Yet when it is time to try to have a reasoned discussion from both sides of the aisle about restraint at the border, where most of our growth is coming from, all you get are accusations of racism.

Identity politics is the tendency for people of a particular religion, ethnic group, or social background to form political alliances to forward their own agendas as a moral crusade. In this group-think, issues become black-and-white. Genuine conflicts of interest, such as between nature conservation and accommodating more people, are denied and cast as merely a smoke-screen for racism or worse. “Ecofascist” is the new slur with which to beat down any attempt to bring immigration into the sustainability discussion.

Wildlife is being pressured by sprawling cities: sprawl which has been proven to be caused primarily by population growth. Those who say they care about wildlife need to understand that to continue to allow permissive or unenforced immigration laws dictate our continued growth is to stand on hypocritical turf.

Suburban sprawl in a suburb of Los Angeles leaving no space for nature. Photo: Jan Buchholtz

Most people who identify with progressive values and favor social justice have formed a united front, to hear only about the sad circumstances of those struggling to get to our borders and access a better life. These well-intended folks want to embrace the downtrodden and refuse to consider the negative consequences of the policies they advocate. If anyone dares question open borders, it is easier to deem them xenophobic than to see if any facts back up their concerns.

They associate just the idea of controlling immigration as a part of the philosophy of the opposition and they do not want to listen. To listen would threaten their membership in the political ‘club’ on which they have built their own identity and sense of self-worth. Those who point to the stress growth by immigration puts on our already strained resources are not given the time of day, because they are associated with the ‘wrong’ side of the aisle. They are deemed xenophobic because, when it comes to this issue, progressives see only two colors: blue or red. If you are ‘blue’ you accept the downstream thinking of helping the world use up and degrade resources that future citizens will need. If you are ‘red’ you are associated with those who have hardened hearts, especially towards foreigners. Neither attitude is helping our wildlife or our exhausted mayors, especially of border towns.

It’s time to call for a nuanced bi-partisan approach that acknowledges there is room for a middle ground. There are options to stop our unsustainable growth with sensible immigration policies. Climate realities are only going to increase migration pressures and the sooner we come to terms with our right – indeed, our responsibility – to protect our resources and wildlife, the better.

Only when we Americans see our country as having already overloaded national and global resources with too much demand, will we be able to reach across the aisle with a peace offering. Supporting border restrictions will favor not only our remaining wildlife, but also good wages, adequate welfare safety-nets, essential infrastructure, affordable and decent housing, and all things we hold dear. We can no longer afford a myopic identity politics when it comes to the issue of immigration. This applies to both legal and illegal immigration, because wildlife doesn’t care who has papers or not. They just need room to live.

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19 thoughts on “Strange bedfellows of sustainability: How identity politics obstructs the future of wilderness  

  1. Spot on, Karen. Objections will likely come from those committing the Cornucopian and Techno-optimist fallacies. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum informs us that one required item, if insufficient, can break the system. Think soil nutrient, water, pollinator, sunlight…for crops.

  2. Brazil’s Big Cats Under Threat From Wind Farms
    By Luciana Magalhaes and Samantha Pearson, Sept. 17, 2023, Wall St. Journal
    [ . . . ]
    Particularly sensitive to changes to their habitat, the jaguars and pumas abandon their lairs as soon as construction work on the wind farms begins, said Claudia Bueno de Campos, a biologist who helped found the group Friends of the Jaguars and has tracked the region’s vanishing feline population. They then roam vast distances across the dusty plains in search of new streams and rivers. The weakest perish along the way. Others venture closer to villages, where locals have started laying traps to protect their small herds of goats and sheep, often their only form of survival in this impoverished region.
    [ . . . ]
    The disappearance of the felines would throw the region’s ecosystem out of whack, leading to a proliferation of animals that serve as prey, such as wild boar, deer and armadillos, said Felipe Melo, a researcher at the Federal University of Pernambuco who has studied the impact of the wind power industry in the Caatinga. As jaguars and pumas have been pushed into closer contact with communities, many villagers mistakenly believe they are growing in number—not facing extinction, making it harder to persuade locals to save them, said Campos.
    [ . . . ]

  3. Spot on, Karen. This is true in Australia, where the Government is running one of the largest migration programs in the world, but an unholy alliance between the right and the left shames any attempt to debate the numbers as racist or “dangerous”. Australian environment groups unfortunately not only acquiesce in our ongoing environmental disaster, but actively engage in identity politics, even at the expense of the environment. A few years ago we had a plebiscite leading to the introduction of same sex marriage. For the record, I voted Yes. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) campaigned for a Yes vote. Nearly 40% of Australians voted No. The problem with the ACF getting involved in such campaigns is that it sends out a message to people who feel differently that “we don’t want you”. This includes one of my brothers and my sister. Our father was a pioneering environmentalist, and they are natural allies of the conservation movement. But they have strong Christian convictions, and voted No. People like them have been lost to the environmental cause. If the strategy of the environment groups is the right one, why is the environment everywhere in decline?

    1. It seems that organisations that do what they were actually funded to do, and stick to it, are becoming increasingly rare. Everyone thinks they can make the world a better place all around, and can’t even get their own job done.

    2. In Australia, we already have a “nuanced bipartisan approach” on migration. Both parties will claim that 235,000 – rather than the actual 80,000 – is the normal or long-term average.

      There’s no chance of a “nuanced bipartisan approach” to migration in the US. Like it or not, the numbers prove that low migration will only happen, if Trump wins again.

  4. A comment? How about a book on the subject, “The Population Fix–Breaking America’s Addiction to Population Growth.”

  5. Great article, Karen. As Garrett Hardin said, there is nothing more dangerous than a shallow-thinking compassionate person. He might have been talking about social justice warriors on the subject of mass immigration today.

    1. In Italian we say “a soft-hearted doctor makes a festering wound”.
      Here’s one example of a festering wound:
      Just like with pacifism (in many cases, not always), what sounds like a good, compassionate course of action often brings disasters. Sometimes you do have to fight. If we were more humble, we’d learn from nature, human and otherwise, and accept that reality overrides personal principles.

    2. In Italian we say “a soft-hearted doctor makes a festering wound”.
      Here’s one example of a festering wound:
      Just like with pacifism (in many cases, not always), what sounds like a good, compassionate idea often brings disasters. Sometimes you do have to fight. If we were more humble, we’d learn from nature, human and otherwise, and accept that reality overrides personal principles.

  6. It’s the same in Europe, which is even more crowded.
    The problem, as I’ve said many times on this blog for what it’s worth, is that any policy that will actually reduce migration will be very ugly. Whether it’s physically stopping people from getting in, detaining them or deporting them, you will be using violence, with potential deadly consequences, and someone in your country will object to it (usually lawyers, judges, organisations across the board and religious leaders). Obviously I don’t like it, I think everyone in the world enjoys basic rights and that includes illegal immigrants, but at this point I don’t see how else we would do it. People are prepared to die to get in.
    This is what I want to talk about. Even in countries where it’s been established that a sufficient number of people (an electoral majority) wants to stop mass migration, no one is able to actually do it. Look at the UK or Italy. In Italy we have the supposedly most right-wing government since WWII, elected mostly for its migration policy, and migrants are coming in even bigger numbers than before, to the point no one knows where to put them anymore.

    1. I noticed you have a blog (in Italian) I have two friends who might be interested. If you would like to interact privately, email me. I am a networker for sustainability. kurtzsb AT yahoo DOT ca

  7. Very interesting to hear about the Wilderness Act 1964. I look forward to reading the ACTUAL TEXT (always do this with written Laws). Another Law that has been thrust under the carpet, with considerable violence, is the Convention on Biological Diversity 1992. None of its clauses provided opportunities for Growth and Profit, you see. Read it, and you will see what I mean.
    In particular, it places indigenous peoples and individual nations centre-stage, despite being an inter-national effort. Article 8, titled “In Situ Conservation”, subsection 8(j), reads:-
    [Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate:]
    (j) Subject to its national legislation, respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the
    conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such knowledge,
    innovations and practices.
    Article 9, titled “Ex Situ Conservation”, is even more “nationalist” and “localist”:-
    Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate, and predominantly for the purpose of complementing in-situ measures:
    (a) Adopt measures for the ex-situ conservation of components of biological diversity, preferably in the country of origin of such components:
    (b) Establish and maintain facilities for ex-situ conservation of and research on plants, animals and micro-organisms, preferably in the country of origin of genetic resources:
    Article 10, titled “Sustainable Use of Components of Biological Diversity”, is also nationalist and traditionalist :-
    Each Contracting Party shall, as far as possible and as appropriate:
    (a) Integrate consideration of the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources into national decision-making;
    (c) Protect аnd encourage customary use of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices that are compatible with conservation or sustainable use requirements;
    (d) Support local populations to develop and implement remedial action in degraded areas where biological diversity has been reduced;
    (e) Encourage cooperation between its governmental authorities and its private sector in developing methods for sustainable use of biological resources.
    And so on – the whole thing is an unparalleled smack in the face for Globalism – ironically from an international body. As of 2016, the Convention has 196 Parties, which includes 195 states and the European Union. All UN member states—with the exception of the United States—have ratified the treaty. Non-UN member states that have ratified are the Cook Islands, Niue, and the State of Palestine. The Holy See and the states with limited recognition are non-Parties. The US has signed but not ratified the treaty (as of 2016, maybe it has ratified now?).
    The thing is, all these ratifications aren’t worth a row of beans, are they? In a way the US is more honest in refusing to ratify. Things like the US Wilderness Act (i.e. national laws) could be more effective than paying lip-service, I suppose. But if a nation allows mass immigration, it might as well tear up any Conservation laws, national or international. So whilst it is the Republicans in the US who have blocked ratifying the Biodiversity Convention, it is in fact the Democrats who have shredded it into a thousand tiny pieces, by throwing open the national borders for both legal and illegal mass immigration. Hallo – even President Nixon admitted that the US was full in his 1969 “Special Message to the Congress on Problems of Population Growth”.

  8. I have little faith that anyone is going to look up President Nixon’s address on Population, so here are the opening paras.
    “July 18, 1969
    To the Congress of the United States:
    In 1830 there were one billion people on the planet earth. By 1930 there were two billion, and by 1960 there were three billion. Today the world population is three and one-half billion persons.
    These statistics illustrate the dramatically increasing rate of population growth. It took many thousands of years to produce the first billion people; the next billion took a century; the third came after thirty years; the fourth will be produced in just fifteen.
    If this rate of population growth continues, it is likely that the earth will contain over seven billion human beings by the end of this century. Over the next thirty years, in other words, the world’s population could double.
    While there are a variety of opinions as to precisely how fast population will grow in the coming decades, most informed observers have a similar response to all such projections. They agree that population growth is among the most important issues we face. They agree that it can be met only if there is a great deal of advance planning.
    It is in the developing nations of the world that population is growing most rapidly today. In these areas we often find rates of natural increase higher than any which have been experienced in all of human history. …. This fact is in large measure a consequence of rising health standards and economic progress throughout the world, improvements which allow more people to live longer and more of their children to survive to maturity.
    As a result, many already impoverished nations are struggling under a handicap of intense population increase which the industrialized nations never had to bear.”
    I will stop here – already you can see (by comparison) the sheer size of the lies being told routinely in 2023, about the cause of ALL problems and the recent role that “Progress” in the Developing World has played, snatching the Olympic Torch of environmental ruin from the Developed World. You can also see that both worlds have made no actual Progress on this front since 1969, in terms of confronting the problem – indeed we have all have gone backwards if anything. This speech would not even be allowed to be made in 2023. There is too much truth in it. This is massive Regress, not Progress. Ironically, we need to regress on the material front but progress on the ideas front. Instead, we have toxic material Progress and toxic spiritual Regress. You could not make it up – reality is far more absurd than any fiction could over be.

  9. Very compelling arguement! Population control is a dirty word for all politicians and it really shouldn’t be. Protecting our resources should be out number one priority. The land can only take so much!

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