This interview was first published in New Scientist print edition
The greening of hate
Photo: Michael Warren
The poor are to blame for environmental decline because they have been
putting their own ecosystems under intolerable population pressure. That's
the hidden ideology of far too many environmentalists in the US who really
should know better, says Betsy Hartmann, a radical feminist and academic. So
much for the "green on the outside, red on the inside" label that's often
hung round eco-campaigners; some conservationists, she told Fred Pearce
recently, are the new conservatives
What do you think is going on among environmentalists? Is the right wing
I first realised that the right wing was attempting to penetrate the
mainstream environment movement when I sat on a panel at an environmental
meeting in the University of Oregon in 1994. Beside me was a professor and
environmentalist, Virginia Abernethy of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
She seemed to me to blame immigrants for overpopulating our country and
destroying our environment. Some of the audience liked her ideas but I
thought they were racist.
I started to investigate and found she wasn't alone among conservationists.
She was a leader of the group called the Carrying Capacity Network, which
sounds like a benign environmental organisation but its main campaign is to
halt what it calls mass migration to the US. They blame migrants for
destroying pristine America. For instance, they blame Mexican migrants for
starting fires in national forests near the border. This group has prominent
environmental scientists on its advisory board. People like biologist Tom
Lovejoy, the green economist Herman Daly and the ecologist David Pimental. I
call this the greening of hate.
It sounds like a conspiracy theory
Well, it seems to me that the anti-immigration movement in the US has a
strong green wing. For instance, they formed a group within the Sierra
Club - a prominent nature protection organisation - trying to push it into a
policy of immigration restriction and population reduction. Abernethy has
spoken at conferences of the right wing Council of Conservative Citizens.
And some of these people are getting funding from groups such as the Pioneer
Fund, whose aims, as set out in its charter, are to fund research into
genetics and study into "the problems of human race betterment".
Aren't these just political games?
It's more than that. There is an academic journal called Population and
Environment, published by Kluwer, which is edited by Kevin MacDonald, an
evolutionary psychologist who writes about a Jewish plot to liberalise
immigration policies. In 1999, MacDonald appeared in court in Britain to
defend the historian and holocaust denier David Irving. The journal's
advisory editorial board includes famous environmental scientists such as
Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb, Pimental again, and Vaclav
Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Sitting beside
them on the board is J. Philippe Rushton, a psychology professor from the
University of Western Ontario in Canada, who has a theory about how black
people have small brains, low IQ, large sex organs and high aggression. What
are environmental scholars doing getting mixed up with these kinds of
So how did you get involved in all this?
I was a feminist as a student. I got into development issues, learned
Bengali and lived in a village in Bangladesh for a while in the 1970s. That
was about the time when Henry Kissinger was calling the country a basket
case, and international agencies like the World Bank were coming in and
saying that population growth was the biggest problem. They were promoting
coercive population control policies such as pressuring women to be
sterilised. But I saw how poor people weren't the main problem. In terms of
environmental conservation, the peasants were the best practitioners. But
government policies were stacked against them. In the village where I lived,
the largest landlord in the area was the person who got the World Bank aid
money. I got involved in the politics of reproductive rights through that
experience. I've been fighting for over 20 years against population-control
programmes, but from a feminist, pro-choice perspective.
How can you be pro-choice and anti-population control?
A lot of people find this hard to understand. But for me, family planning is
about human rights and women's health - not population control. It is about
freeing women to have the number of children they want, not blaming them for
a whole host of social problems.
As well as your academic work, you've written novels?
Yes, I wrote one recently called The Truth about Fire, which is about the
far right and its links to neo-Nazism in Germany. A close colleague of mine,
who works on abortion rights, got harassed in the US by right-wing
anti-abortion extremists. I got to know some people who investigate the
right, and I thought it would make a good story. I went to eastern Germany
and there was a lot of neo-Nazi activity there. The terrorist right in the
US doesn't get enough attention.
Where did the environment come into your thinking on population?
I got concerned that conflicts over resources such as forests and land were
being framed so that population pressure was seen as the main culprit. A
variety of groups, including foundations that fund population work, were
linking population and environment issues directly to national security.
This seemed like a dangerous mix, especially when it got tied up with the
growing anti-immigrant movement in the US, and maybe now in Europe, too.
But isn't population pressure a real environmental issue?
It's more than an issue, it's an ideology. Ever since colonial times,
Westerners have had what I call a degradation narrative. It says that poor
peasants having too many children causes population pressures that degrade
the environment and cause more poverty. It is the basic story that many
Western environmentalists still tell. And it is now being extended to
explain not just the loss of rainforests and species, but also migration and
violent conflicts round the world.
You say that this degradation narrative is being used to explain foreign
policy disasters. How?
From Afghanistan to Gaza to El Salvador to Indonesia to Somalia, some
prominent environmentalists have blamed disorder on resource depletion and
environmental decay. And foreign policy people have gone along with it. When
the slaughter happened in Rwanda in 1994 and the rest of the world stood by
and did nothing, we heard a lot about how it was inevitable because of the
high population density that was causing land shortages and poverty. Even
Timothy Wirth, Clinton's undersecretary of state for global affairs and
widely seen as an environmental good-guy, said it. But even some of the
theorists behind these ideas, such as Thomas Homer-Dixon, a writer on
environmental and security issues, have acknowledged it wasn't really like
that. The massacres started where population pressure was least. It was
about state-instigated racism, not environmental degradation. It's not that
population is always irrelevant, it is just that it gets overemphasised.
Blaming poor peasants for deforestation is like blaming conscripts for wars.
Did this happen in the US?
Yes. In the US we had a great panic in the 1990s about Haitian boat people
arriving on our beaches. The degradation story blamed their flight on
population pressure that had destroyed their forests and dried up their
wells and eroded their soils. I don't deny that Haiti suffers from
widespread environmental problems. But there were a lot of political issues
that got conveniently lost, such as the decades of dictatorial rule by the
Duvalier family, who were supported by the US, and an immense gap between
rich and poor.
But even so, isn't it obvious that more people will cause more environmental
Not necessarily. In Brazil, it's often the least populated areas that get
trashed - by miners and loggers and cattle ranchers. And in certain contexts
population pressure spurs innovation and better farming methods. The
economist Julian Simon had a point when he said it provides more brains to
think and hands to work as well as more mouths to feed.
As a feminist, you don't sound like a natural supporter of Simon. Ronald
Reagan used his ideas to justify his policies against abortion and birth
control in the 1980s, didn't he?
Yes, I'm not a supporter of Simon. I disagree with his unbridled faith in
the free market. But he was not against birth control. He was just a
libertarian. People like Simon on the libertarian right have often had
better positions on population control than the liberal population
establishment, who were often afraid to speak out against coercion and
sometimes actively supported it.
Do average Americans buy these ideas?
I find even well-educated and well-meaning acquaintances have alarming
responses on population issues. They believe the poor create their own
problems by breeding, and it absolves the rest of us from responsibility.
Even some committed feminists will scapegoat poor women's fertility for the
planet's evils. It is a kind of ideological schizophrenia. Phrases like the
population bomb and the population explosion breed racism. Few Americans
know that, on average, woman round the world have less than three children
each. They don't breed like rabbits. And by 2050 a majority of the world's
population will be likely to live in countries with fertility levels below
what demographers regard as replacement levels. It all avoids looking at the
real issues on our own doorstep - of over-consumption, for instance. On
climate change, we hype up fears of rising emissions in "overpopulated"
India rather than looking at our own consumption patterns. Better a
one-child policy there than a one-car policy here. We don't understand that
communities all over the world can and do live in sustainable relationships
with their environments.
You've claimed that the military is also taking up environmentalism.
After the cold war, people were looking for a new political agenda, maybe a
new enemy. Along came Robert Kaplan, who wrote a long and influential
article called "The coming anarchy" in Atlantic Monthly. It painted a really
frightening picture of overpopulation and environmental degradation causing
violence and a breakdown of order in Africa. It was to me very racially
charged, but it captured the imagination of the liberal establishment. Some
of the influential people in the environment movement in the US just loved
Kaplan's work. They saw it could raise environmental issues into the high
politics of national security. And they were flattered when in 1996 the US
National Security Strategy said that "large-scale environmental degradation,
exacerbated by rapid population growth, threatens to undermine political
stability in many countries". But they were engaging in all sorts of
scaremongering images of the Third World. It makes the victims of the modern
world into its villains, and encourages policies that attack them and their
At the height of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico in
the late 1990s, some environment and security people argued that population
pressure was causing deforestation and this environmental decay was in turn
the cause of the conflict there. Of course it was much more complex. You
might equally argue that Mexican land policies forced the poor to farm in
the forests because there was no effective land reform or other economic
alternatives. Recently, it has been alleged that that a US-based
conservation group working in the region colluded with the Mexican military,
helping them identify communities in the forest so they could be removed.
How did that happen?
Many environment groups in the US have very little knowledge of
international development issues. They buy into things like Chiapas because
they don't know any differently. And the imagery is very seductive. Several
friends and I have been looking at the imagery used, often subconsciously,
to create fear about particular threats, especially in the environment
movement. For instance, look at how the Ebola virus encapsulates a lot of
fears about Africa and migration. And how the ideas of ecologists about
invasive species - alien species as they are often called - sound so similar
to anti-immigration rhetoric. Green themes like scarcity and purity and
invasion and protection all have right-wing echoes. Hitler's ideas about
environmentalism came out of purity, after all.
So the bottom line is you don't see population issues and birth control as
No, I believe access to birth control and safe abortion is fundamental to
women's rights and health. But I am against population control.