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

By Karen Shragg | 26 September 2023
The Overpopulation Project

Suburban sprawl in a suburb of Las Vegas leaving no space for nature. (Photo: Jan Buchholtz / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

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.

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.

Reprinted with permission from Frank Götmark – Project leader of The Overpopulation Project (TORP); Professor, Animal ecology and Conservation Biology, University of Gothenburg.

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