Is the Environmental Movement Killing Itself With Social Justice?

A few weeks ago, PIC made a tweet about sprawl. Twitter, as you likely know, limits the number of characters, including spaces, in a tweet to 280, so one must be terse. The tweet read:

You want to stop sprawl but won’t talk about population growth? Then you’re fixating on a symptom but ignoring the actual problem = futile. Recent study on Arizona by @NumbersUSA shows 93% of sprawl there from pop growth, only 7% from “per capita” sprawl.

(In case you’ve noticed that the above tweet has more than 280 characters, it’s because the link counts as 23 characters, even though it has more.)

The tweet got a fair bit of attention. So far, it’s had 1,081 “impressions” (meaning people who saw it), with some “likes” and retweets, but it got a hostile reply from an anti-sprawl group in southern Ontario. The reply was a copy and paste from Wikipedia, which called NumbersUSA anti-immigrant, and cited the Southern Poverty Law Center in saying it was conceived by “white nationalist John Tanton” as the “grassroots arm for the anti-immigrant movement.”

Several things are noteworthy about the reply: one is how biased the entry in Wikipedia is; another is that the SPLC still retains any shred of credibility after its corruption and highly questionable money-raising methods were exposed a few years ago – not to mention the bad behaviour of its founder, Morris Dees, who was fired in 2018.

John Tanton was an ophthalmologist and conservationist who was concerned about America’s rapid population growth, which since the mid-sixties has been driven by immigration. By SPLC-type reasoning, that made him a white supremacist. It’s also noteworthy that whoever copied and pasted from Wikipedia was content with accepting what it said without further investigation.

PIC replied to the anti-sprawl group by saying that the NumbersUSA study should be judged on its own merits and that the discredited SPLC should not be used as an excuse to ignore the impact of population growth on sprawl.

On its site, referring to PIC’s original tweet, the anti-sprawl group tweeted:

It’s ecofascism, pure and simple, and it has no place in environmentalism. Environmentalism is inherently about a recognition and care for the interconnectedness of life and living beings, and closing off one part of it to narrowly benefit another is profoundly contrary to that.”

This assessment was applauded by an individual who included an applause emoji in her reply. She said, “Thank you @SCGreenbelt! Sad to see ‘population’ myths make their way into discussions re: land use, consumption & sprawl in our communities. These myths open the door to xenophobia, white supremacy & reproductive injustice. I hope other ENGOs join you in countering them.”

In quote-tweeting (retweeting a tweet with our own comment) the anti-sprawl group’s ecofascism comment,  PIC posted:  “So it’s ecofascism to recognize that the environment has limits? Is it elevator-fascism to set a maximum capacity for elevators? Is it airplane-fascism and cruise ship-fascism to limit the number of passengers? Must conversations about human pop growth devolve into name calling?”

One of PIC’s followers on Twitter who frequently posts population-related material, including retweeting PIC’s tweets, informed PIC via “Messages” (i.e., directed only to PIC) that she had been blocked on Twitter by the lead author of a paper on “post-growth climate mitigation scenarios” published on Research Gate. When she asked him why, he explained (via email) that she had tried to use his work “in service of an anti-immigrant, closed-borders argument,” and that if she was concerned about ecological breakdown, what she needed “to target is capitalism, not immigrants and refugees, who are overwhelmingly victims of it.”

He asserted that “we can have a post-growth society with immigration – the two are not incompatible.” He also asserted that, speaking as an ecological scientist, the claim to reject immigration on ecological grounds had “been rebutted repeatedly” and was “a position used cynically by people whose only actual concern is to uphold racial chauvinism.”

PIC can certainly agree with him about the desirability of “gender equality, universal access to high-quality education and healthcare, and decent livelihoods and economic security.” These he said were the “basic socialist principles” she should be arguing for and that she had “put the cart before the horse” with her concerns about population growth.

Of course, it is he who is putting the cart before the horse. It is rapid population growth that prevents so many regions from achieving economic security and being able to educate all children. Growthism is certainly a problem of capitalism, but it is not restricted to capitalism.

Pronatalism, still very strong in many of the poorest regions, is a form of growthism. And regardless of how this “degrowth” author might deny it, adding 400,000+ people to Canada’s population annually is growthism. A rapidly growing Canadian population will have an impact on the environment under capitalism, socialism, or any other form of government.

There is also the loaded language, by the author of the degrowth paper as well as the anti-sprawl groups.

To have concerns about immigration levels does not make one “anti-immigrant” any more than using birth control makes one anti-baby. Many people who use birth control aren’t anti-baby – they just think when it comes to having babies, they should be the ones to decide when and how many. Do the citizens of a country not have a right to a have a say in its policies? To be pro gender equality does not preclude being numerically literate about population.

In a world where a tweet can destroy a person’s career and reputation in a heartbeat, and the social justice diktat is that concerns about population growth are racist and colonialist, if not outright white supremacist, one can have sympathy for the dilemma of environmental organizations. Population growth has a major impact on whatever their issue of concern is, but one misstep or clumsy wording on their part, and the next thing they know, they’ll have been labelled “right-wing” and there will be an online petition not to donate to them.

However, it is possible to present information factually and lay out reasonable arguments for stopping and eventually reversing population growth. If environmental groups don’t present those arguments to the general public, who will?

But some environmental organizations, as discussed above, do more than ignore the population issue, they also actively disparage those who address it. To promote “smart growth” and pretend that a growing, densifying city can be prevented from sprawling and increasing its demands on the planet is to be controlled opposition: they not only undermine their own cause but actually advance the cause of  the profiteers of growth by suppressing arguments to oppose them.

It’s true that capitalism in its current form, premised as it is on never-ending economic growth, is not sustainable – but neither is a continuously growing population.

Environmental groups must understand that embracing a social justice ideology that stifles discussion of population advances neither justice nor helps the environment. It simply means that they have rendered themselves irrelevant.