By Caitlin Schroering, Member, Thomas Merton Center, former member of the board of directors of the Thomas Merton Center
Fascism and White Supremacy: what these terms mean, and what they mean to our nation, is increasingly a subject of debate and discussion at every level of our political arena. There is another term that those in the environmental movement need to be—if not already—acquainted with: Eco-fascism. Eco-fascism is a real threat, and it refers to people, groups, or organizations with fascist viewpoints and tactics under the guise of environmentalism. It is not a new phenomenon, and it is also connected to eugenics, a set of beliefs and practices that aim to “improve” the genetic quality of a human population, historically by excluding people and groups judged to be inferior or promoting those judged to be superior. Eugenics influenced the Nazis, but it is also an ideology linked in the U.S. to forced sterilizations in the past and anti-immigration laws today.
Cordelia Scaife May, who passed away in 2005, was heiress to the Mellon bank and industry fortune, and also an anti-immigrant, racist environmentalist. During her life, Cordelia had two passions: conservation and giving money to the anti-immigrant and white nationalist movement. These two passions led to her founding in 1996 the Colcom Foundation, a Pittsburgh based foundation that serves to pass on Cordelia’s wealth to anti-immigrant, eco-fascist entities under the guise of conservation. It’s an example of greenwashing, a form of marketing in which green public relations and green marketing are deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization's products, aims and policies are environmentally friendly. It’s a Trojan Horse: Colcom frames itself as an environmental organization, but the facts are this: Colcom gives the majority of its millions to anti-immigrant organizations. Cordelia was not simply a “dedicated conservationist” as Colcom’s webpage remembers her. She was in fact a friend and benefactor of John Tanton, a eugenicist and former Sierra Club member, who founded or led many of the anti-immigrant groups funded by Colcom today.
Why does this matter for the Sierra Club? There are three crucial reasons. Firstly, while today the Sierra Club has committed to work against racism, historically (see here for a reckoning of this history) it has been a part of perpetuating anti-immigrant, racist discourse and couching it as conservation.
Second, as environmentalists, we must combat the history of racist ideology that points at population as the problem. Overpopulation is not the cause of our environmental problems, and a growing number of entities have debunked overpopulation (see here and here). Overconsumption and capitalist wealth concentration are in fact the major causes of ecological degradation. Historically, U.S. environmentalism has been a strategy of exclusion. In the past wealthy white men who formed nature preserves funneled money into foundations. They did so to cover up how much damage their robber baron fortune caused. We see today the narratives of “population is the problem” (and “technology can save us”) as the present-day manifestations of these ideas. Environmental sociologist Dorceta Taylor provides a wonderful historical discussion of these ideas for anyone interested in reading more.
And third, because the Sierra Club has a direct connection with Colcom: in the late 90s, white nationalist John Tanton, close friend of Cordelia Scaife May, tried to take over the Sierra Club. [Why? He wrote about how the Sierra Club possessed a public image as part of the “liberal left” that would make it immune to being accused of nativism or racism. Tanton and his nativist faction made multiple attempts to take over the organization, including a serious attempt in 2004 to take over the board of directors. Sierra Club members, working with other groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), thwarted this greenwashing attempt.
But the story, sadly, isn’t over. Over the past few years, right-wing factions are once again calling on environmentalists to join the xenophobes and white nationalists in their anti-immigrant cause. And the Colcom Foundation is a substantial funder of these groups (in fact, that is where they give the bulk of their money). As a report on greenwashing put together by the SPLC puts it:
The arguments being made by the nativists today — in a nutshell, that immigration drives population increase and that a growing population is the main driver of environmental degradation — have in the last 15 years been rejected by the mainstream of the environmental movement as far too simplistic… The greenwashers are wolves in sheep's clothing, right-wing nativists who are doing their best to seduce the mainstream environmental movement in a bid for legitimacy and more followers. John Tanton, the man who originally devised the strategy, is in fact far more concerned with the impact of Latino and other non-white immigration on a "European-American" culture than on conservation. Most of the greenwashers are men and women of the far right, hardly "progressives."
We must all fight against this hateful, false, and dangerous rhetoric. The Drop Colcom Campaign is organizing against this decades old, extensive anti-immigrant network and we are working to cut off funding to this influential network of anti-immigrant political groups. It is important that we all work together to raise public awareness of the Colcom Foundation’s funding of anti-immigrant, white nationalist groups and encourage organizations, elected officials and activists to pressure Colcom to stop supporting its powerful anti-immigrant network. We want to see Colcom redirect 100% of its funding to civic and conservation projects.
One thing that you can do is sign this petition. You can also share it with your family and friends and ask them to sign. And we can all work together to educate people about the danger of both eco-fascism and greenwashing in the environmental movement. Eco-fascism and white supremacy have no place in the environmental movement. Our environmentalism must be rooted in human rights and justice.
About the Author: Caitlin Schroering is an assistant professor in the Department of Global Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pittsburgh, a Master of Arts in Latin American Studies from the University of Florida, and a Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Studies from Denison University. Her research coalesces around multiple areas of social inquiry, including environmental sociology, resource conflicts, the human right to water, political economy, and transnational social movements, using feminist and anti-colonial research methodologies.
This blog was included as part of the November 2022 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!