A Defeat for the Greening of Hate

Author(s): China Brotsky
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #6, Fall 1998

Members of the Sierra Club, one of the largest and most influential environmental organizations the US won a significant victory against racism and anti-immigrant hysteria when they rejected "Alternative A," a measure calling for a "reduction of net immigration" as a component of a "comprehensive population policy for the United States."

In an initiative process this spring that generated national debate, voters from the Club's 550,000 membership base gave a decisive 60 percent of the votes cast to "Alternative B", a counter-measure proposed by the Sierra Club's staff, Board of Directors and key grassroots volunteers. Measure B reaffirmed the Club's neutral stand on immigration and committed it to work toward "addressing the root causes of global population problems" through "the empowerment and equity of women, maternal and reproductive health care...(and) to address the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, human rights, and environmentally responsible consumption..…" In addition, in a simultaneous election for Sierra Club Board members, none of the slate of seven candidates running in support of Alternative A was elected to the Board.

The vote in the Sierra Club was the latest battle in the fight against the greening of hate -the effort to win environmentalists' support for anti-immigrant action by persuading them that immigrants are a main source of environmental degradation in the US. In the Sierra Club, Alternative A proponents blamed US population growth on immigrants and, in turn, blamed population growth (and immigrants) for every US environmental problem from wetlands loss to logging of old growth forests to smog and sprawl.

Opponents of Alternative A argued that scapegoating immigrants was mean-spirited and wrong. It did not address the real reasons for environmental degradation: the air and water pollution caused by chemical industries and the clear-cutting of old growth forests by logging companies. Besides, by taking such a stand the Sierra Club would alienate its constituencies among people of color, who were key allies in the battle to protect the environment.

The Sierra Club differs from most major environmental groups in electing its Board of Directors by a mail-in vote of its full membership and by allowing policy measures to be put forward by the members through an initiative process. The measure calling for immigration restrictions was put forward by a small group of Club activists dissatisfied with the Club's neutral policy on immigration which had been hammered out over several years by grassroots activists working through the Club's state chapter and national staff and board governance structure.

But far from acting alone, this small group of Club members was the tip of the iceberg of a well-funded campaign by extremist, anti-immigration organizations working to persuade the Sierra Club to support US immigration restrictions. Some of the organizations lobbying the Club openly supported racist, white supremacist positions or had well documented connections to other extreme right organizations. Several of these groups had traditionally limited themselves to cultural or nationalist arguments against immigration but entered this campaign embracing environmental arguments.

The Political Ecology Group (PEG), a multi-racial environmental justice organization which was active in opposing Alternative A, documented the efforts of these organizations in lobbying for the passage of Alternative A. Their campaign included mass mailings to Club members, paid ads in environmental publications, extensive press work, recruitment of anti-immigrant activists to join the Club in time to vote, and campaign literature for board candidates running on "A." (See excerpts from the PEG report). Sierra Club members who tracked this right-wing campaign estimate its cost at nearly a million dollars. The political climate in the US has become increasingly anti-immigrant. Despite this context and the concerted, well-financed campaign waged by outside organizations, a strong majority of Club members who voted rejected racism and the scapegoating of immigrants. It is a victory on which we must build and a success from which we can learn much.

(See the accompanying articles "Blunting the Wedge" and "Documenting Racism" for an analysis of the campaign).