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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2004
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Ways & Means

The Virus of Hate

The Sierra Club and the immigration debate

by Carl Pope

In a review of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Catholic writer Mary Gordon writes: "I accept Mr. Gibson’s assertion that he didn’t mean to make an anti-Semitic film, but he has to be aware of the Passion story’s role in the history of the persecution of the Jews, a story whose very power to move the human spirit has been a vehicle for both transcendence and murder. To be a Christian is to face the responsibility for one’s own most treasured sacred texts being used to justify the deaths of innocents."

While on a different scale, environmentalists, too, must face responsibility for the emotions our issues arouse, and for the allies we bring to our struggles.

Some members of the Club favor a policy of restricting immigration. They cite environmental reasons, and often social issues as well. The environmental argument, at least, is highly speculative. Do people who migrate to the United States increase environmental stress? It depends on where they would end up otherwise. Los Angeles, for example, could handle 10,000 Ecuadorians more easily than the Galápagos Islands could.

This debate is not new to the Sierra Club. Eight years ago 60 percent of Sierra Club voters said that the organization should remain neutral on immigration. Club members opted instead to work on the root causes of population growth, both globally and nationally—including the environmental destruction by U.S. corporations abroad that drives many people to migrate.

Now some of those on the losing side of that election, along with various immigration-restriction organizations, are trying to overturn that decision, going so far as to recruit people into the Club for that explicit purpose. And a few have entered into an ugly alliance with individuals and groups whose motivations are clearly racist.

As a result, earlier this year, I sadly opened a new file folder to deal with a virus—not a computer virus, but a very ancient human virus, one that now threatens to infect the Sierra Club: the virus of hate. In this folder I have kept documents—e-mails, recommended Web links—that associate the Sierra Club with various expressions of racial and ethnic hate.

I use the virus metaphor quite deliberately. A virus infects for one reason only—to hijack its host and replicate itself. You don’t have to intend to spread a virus; you may not even know you are infected. The virus of racial and ethnic hatred doesn’t care what the Sierra Club does or doesn’t do to stop logging old-growth forests, protect wetlands, save the Clean Air Act, or even remain a strong and growing organization. All it wants is to hijack the Sierra Club’s reputation to help it replicate itself and its message.

Let me share three examples from my virus folder. None is from the Club as an organization. But each one was either written or disseminated by activists in the faction seeking to change the Club’s position of neutrality on immigration:

• "Immigration Induced Depression (IID). Could This Insidious Illness Be Affecting You? Symptoms: feelings of overcrowding; hearing voices in other languages; feeling put upon for the benefit of others with whom you share little culturally, linguistically or politically. . . . Exacerbating conditions: Mexican music, bilingual ballots, pregnant foreigners." —Immigration-restriction activist Tim Aaronson

• "Intelligence and other natural race differences are such that blacks, whites, and Asians will always differ significantly (as groups) in outcomes, even when provided with identical resources. As cognitive abilities become increasingly more important in our highly technological society blacks, as a self-identified group, will fall further and further behind."
—Louis Andrews, on the Web site Stalking the Wild Taboo

• "[Senator John] Edwards may be a North Carolina native son but he is also a Hispandering traitor. . . . During the last five years, North Carolina has gone directly downhill. . . . Illegal aliens spread drugs, crime and disease. Because of illegal aliens, wages are down but taxes, to pay for the services aliens use, are up." —Randy Lewis, director, Stop the Invasion

Racism is a serious threat to both this country and the Sierra Club. Shamefully, early environmental advocates of population control often explicitly appealed to racial prejudice. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a leading conservationist and friend of Sierra Club founder John Muir, linked his concerns about world population growth to his belief that racially inferior groups were increasing more rapidly than superior white populations. Other early-20th-century writings about population were similarly infused with doctrines of racial superiority and eugenics.

The fact that racists have seized on immigration does not mean that global population growth is not a fundamental threat to both environmental sustainability and human welfare. Overpopulation is, both globally and nationally, an enormous problem. We need to address its root causes. Anti-immigration advocates in the Sierra Club should argue their position—but our organization must never be tied to prejudice or racism. If we are going to have an effective global dialogue on the critical questions of population, the virus of hate must be quarantined. We cannot allow this virus to conceal itself within our genuine concerns for clean air, clean water, wildlands, and human welfare. We cannot allow the Sierra Club to be infected.


Carl Pope is the Sierra Club’s executive director. He is the author, with Sierra senior editor Paul Rauber, of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress (Sierra Club Books). E-mail carl.pope@sierraclub.org.

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