The Weather and the Wall

Climate change and the border wall are more connected than you might think.

Will Meyer | Longreads | January 2019 | 15 minutes (4,073 words)

“At the museum steps
Didn’t we establish
That all this blood is not a dream
This is progress
And we are not that high
We could almost be redeemed”

 — unreleased song by The Lentils

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For years, changes in butterfly populations and migrations have been considered an “early warning indicator” of global warming. In 2006, a British butterfly specialist told The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert that of 10 species living in Southern England at the time, “Every single one has moved northward since 1982.”

Now, several years and many missed early warning indicators later, the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, has received a letter from Customs and Border Protection announcing the government’s intent to build a border wall through critical habitat for 240 species of butterflies and 300 types of birds. The letter explains that the wall will be 36-feet tall and 20-feet wide, and that an additional 150 feet south of the border will be cleared of all vegetation to create an “enforcement zone.” Comparing the wall’s construction with a calamitous weather event, the National American Butterfly Association president told the San-Antonio Express News that: “For us to financially survive and weather this storm, we’re trying to create a fund that will be kind of like an endowment.” As of this writing, a GoFundMe created to protect the Center has raised just over $24,000.

Meanwhile, given that Mexico hasn’t “paid for it” and won’t, a GoFundMe to finance the wall’s construction raised $20.5 million dollars before GoFundMe decided to offer refunds. That’s nowhere near enough money to actually build the thing, but enough to make you pretty sure the butterflies don’t stand a chance. Indeed, the president and the Republican-controlled Senate have shut down large swaths of the government for over a month, demanding that the Democrats in the House vote to pay for the wall before the government can be reopened. Still, it’s hard to believe the wall is really going up.

As wealthy nations double down on ‘securing’ their territory in obvious anticipation of refugees displaced by climate-related changes, they continue to build up fossil fuel infrastructure with haste.

Then again, walls have been going up all over lately. Some walls are built to stop migrants, others to stop the sea. Before the president and his party’s denialism came in vogue again, the Pentagon was trying to figure out how it can defend U.S. military assets from rising sea levels. (The Pentagon has since reversed its course, or at least obscured it.) Even the Department of Homeland Security has previously admitted that not only is climate change real, but it’s a kind of “accelerant of instability,” meaning that it will be fuel on the fires (both figurative and literal) that will cause even more people to move.

In his book Storming The Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security (2017), journalist Todd Miller points out that those countries that are the biggest polluters are also militarizing their borders the fastest. He argues that border militarization — since Clinton first began building fences and expanding security technology there — has been an affirmation, not a denial, of climate change. Yet, as wealthy nations double down on “securing” their territory in obvious anticipation of refugees displaced by climate-related changes, they continue to build up fossil fuel infrastructure with haste. One need look no further than Alberta’s Tar Sands — often dubbed the largest industrial site in the world — to see another such example of capital’s commitment to business as usual. Once the bitumen (a type of crude that requires three times the energy for extraction as conventional oil) is processed, it is sent to market through an ever-growing network of pipelines, oozing through flimsy infrastructure that is likely to fail; it is not a matter of if it will spill or leak, but when.

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In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his “Frontier Thesis” at the Chicago World’s Fair, which claimed that America’s democratic system was made possible by its ever expanding frontier. Expansion, according to Turner, allowed Americans to experience a uniquely democratizing type of personal freedom and equality between individuals. “The free land of the frontier was a safety valve: both malcontents and the ambitious could head west,” as Jedidiah Purdy puts it in After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015). But, as Purdy goes on to say, “Looking backward, [Turner] treated the continent’s clearing and development as a natural process, the pageant of universal progress, when in fact it was a project of war and ethnic cleansing.”

According to Purdy, ideas of “nature” in America have long helped to maintain social hierarchies, teach obedience, and quelch rebellion — Turner’s democratizing frontier was just one strand of thinking in this vein. Purdy cites the writings of English naturalist John Evelyn (“a wealthy genteel Anglican”) and “natural” theologian Henry More, who, from across the pond, influenced early nature-thinking in America. Evelyn and More, as Purdy explains, “saw the natural world as unequal terrain, one whose harmonies were designed to teach lessons in hierarchy and obedience.” What they feared most was rebellion, which, in Evelyn’s words, amounted to “atheism,” “anarchy,” and “democracy.” Evelyn loathed democracy, likening it — much as John Calhoun later would — to “oppression from the poor.” John Ray, another English naturalist, thought the point of nature was to teach and enforce “mutual subserviency.” As Purdy explains, “Ray pointedly argued that noxious insects were God’s shock troops…‘necessary, either to suppress rebellions, or punish rebels, or other disorderly and vicious persons, and keep the world quiet.’” For enlightenment philosopher John Locke, nature represented a commoners’ paradise — a blank slate ready for the taking. This was a necessary foundation for Turner’s later conception of the frontier as a safety valve for riffraff and strivers — in order to be such an outlet, the land had to be “empty.” As Locke wrote: “In the beginning, all the world was America.” America was a country not yet owned. Locke’s ideas, though initially intended for an America under British rule, helped to solidify the United States’ conception of property; and his words, as Purdy puts it, “rippled” through the Declaration of Independence. His thinking helped justify the idea that the United States belonged to European settlers instead of its original inhabitants.


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According to Purdy, a book by George Perkins Marsh called Man and Nature published in 1864 “enlist[ed] the natural world in a campaign of managerial reform.” Without restraints, Marsh believed that humans would destroy nature; he advocated for “moral reform” paired with “practical forestry.” This would serve as the foundation for a different tack of “nature politics” eventually employed by Teddy Roosevelt — to put the management (and distribution) of natural resources in the hands of the federal government. Roosevelt created five national parks, founded the U.S. Forest Service, and created the 1906 Antiquities Act, which is responsible for national monuments. Roosevelt believed that technical answers could provide political solutions. As Purdy puts it, “He insisted that national efficiency, the principles of conservation rightly applied, could redress all the inequity and social waste of industrial capitalism and provide a just basis for resolving the harshest conflicts.”

The Passing of the Great Race’ was ‘a torrid work of racial alarmism and pseudoscience.’ The book found glowing endorsements from both [Teddy] Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, who called it his ‘bible.’

Purdy argues that, as Roosevelt conceived of and implemented it, “conservation was an empire building doctrine,” in that “the American mission was no longer to conquer the continent but to remake the world.” Conservation wasn’t just about preserving nature, but also a justification for top-down managerial control, which ideologically set the stage for the expansion of “manifest destiny,” and implicitly the frontier, to encompass the globe. Not only would the federal government manage the trees in the forest here, but the ones in Cuba and the Philippines, too. “Conservation” sprang up “in an atmosphere of nostalgia, militarism, and racial nationalism,” according to Purdy, who devotes a subsection of the book to the eugenicists Roosevelt palled around with at a private hunting and fishing club called the Boone and Crockett Club.

One member of the club was Madison Grant, whom Prudy says was “a prominent friend and ally” of Roosevelt. Grant was passionate about two things: conserving nature and racial eugenics. He was the author of a book called The Passing of the Great Race, which Purdy calls “a torrid work of racial alarmism and pseudoscience.” The book found glowing endorsements from both Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, who called it his “bible.” Grant’s activism included working to establish national parks, fighting against commercial hunting that was “unsportsmanlike,” and securing preserves to save bison from extinction. However, he also aimed to “preserve” the white race. According to Grant’s biographer, Jonathan Spiro, as quoted by The Nation, “Grant dedicated his life to saving endangered fauna, flora, and natural resources; and it did not seem at all strange to his peers that he would also try to save his own endangered race.” In 1917, at the same time that he was lobbying for creation of the Denali National Park — then called Mount McKinley National Park — he was also urging the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, which restricted the flow of illiterate immigrants from entering the country. Spiro elaborated, “These guys were genuinely trying to protect the best and brightest species, whether it’s the redwood tree or the Nordic male.”

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In Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (2018), Canadian activists Matt Hern and Am Johal point out that the “Anthropocene” is a flimsy term, at best — they take issue with the “anthro” part. They suggest that blaming humans en masse for trashing the environment and igniting “the sixth extinction” conceals who is most responsible for our collective predicament; they quote Jason Moore, author of Capitalism in the Web of Life, who writes:

The Anthropocene makes for an easy story. Easy, because it does not challenge the naturalized inequalities, alienation, and violence inscribed in modernity’s strategic relations of power, production, and nature. It is an easy story to tell because it doesn’t not ask us to think about these relations at all.

For Hern and Johal, whose book takes them on a series of road trips to visit the Tar Sands — both the principal site of bitumen extraction, the boomtown Fort McMurray, as well as the indigenous communities affected by it — their main focus is not the Anthropocene, but land and sovereignty: “who gets to make decisions for what land?” is a necessary question when considering global warming. After all, they note, “95 percent of the world’s most threatened areas are indigenous land.” They likewise propose a framework that is the inverse of Locke’s, suggesting that private property rights, and our legal system more broadly, is predicated on a denial of land-theft. “The root of genocidal rationalities colonized people face,” they write, “is always the attempt to eliminate connections to the land: to dislodge, exterminate, and/or assimilate people and their subjectivities — sometimes gently, most often brutally — into enforcing narratives of progress and modernization, private property and markets, states and borders.”

Miller, in Storming the Wall, says the militarizing southern border might be the best expression of the Anthropocene. He points out that, as of 2014, the $400 million USAID had spent on climate adaption programs abroad paled in comparison to the Department of Homeland Security’s $60 billion dollar budget in that same year. Miller traces the origins of the current border militarization effort to the confluence of two events in the 1990s: the implementation of NAFTA, the “free-trade” agreement, which, as Miller notes, caused migration to “surge”; and an Atlantic feature by Robert Kaplan titled “The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Over-Population, Tribalism, and Disease Are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet.” This radically alarmist polemic might have been a mere historical footnote, he says, had it not been both adopted by the national security establishment as well as by Clinton. The latter praised Kaplan as a “beacon…. for a new sensitivity to environmental security.” Miller said the article was “a bizarre mixture of rancid Malthusian nativism and cutting-edge forecast of ecological collapse, [and] anticipated much of today’s militaristic climate doctrine.” And so, the same year Kaplan’s article came out and NAFTA was instituted — 1994 — Clinton started the project that now defines Trump’s presidency: he built fences along the United States’ southern border and implemented security technology for what become a new strategy for border policing: “prevention through deterrence,” a brutal expression of how landscapes can be reimagined to facilitate mass death — a strategy prefigured by the campaign to settle the frontier.

Miller writes that “by closing off traditional crossing points…the strategy [of prevention by deterrence] funneled prospective border-crossers to places that were dangerous, isolated, and ‘mortal,’ as the first ‘prevention through deterrence’ documents put it, that people would not dare to cross.” But, of course, they do dare. The Trump administration’s embrace of an even more severe “prevention through deterrence” approach — the administration has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy, which means mandatory prosecution (and family separation) for border crossers — has had a deadly effect: Enrique Morones, founder of a group whose volunteers leave water for migrants, has observed that “even though there’s less people crossing, there are more people dying” because of the dangerous routes they take. Miller quotes anthropologist Jason De León, who laments that the U.S. borderlands have become “a remote deathscape where American necropolitics are pecked onto the bones of those we deem excludable.” Miller explains that the remains of over 6,000 people were found in the borderlands between 2000 and 2014, and quotes scholar Mary Pat Brady, who considers this policy a type of “passive capital punishment.” The question then becomes: passive capital punishment for what crime?

In Storming the Wall, Miller interviews Honduran subsistence farmers, who have been forced off their land for many reasons: extractive industrial projects backed by global forces, economic zones exempt from Honduran rule-of-law, and changing weather patterns. One farmer Miller spoke to said he was migrating because there wasn’t enough rain to farm. Honduras, along with a slew of other countries people are migrating from, have been racked by climate change. Between 1995-2014, Honduras endured 73 “extreme weather events” and was among the top ten most impacted countries from changing climate conditions. “This is a border in the Anthropocene era,” Miller writes, “young unarmed farmers with failing harvests encountering expanding and highly privatized border regimes of surveillance, guns, and prisons.”

‘Who gets to make decisions for what land?’ is a necessary question when considering global warming.

Hern and Johal take a trip to Janvier, a town located on Lubicon Territory in Alberta, where tribes are met with a similar predicament. They meet the extended family of Melissa Herman, an organizer they know who lives in Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown 90 minutes north of Janvier. In Janvier, they are given a tour of the reserve by Melissa’s uncle, Dennis Herman. Dennis takes them in his truck and points out eagles, bear and wolf tracks; they pick wild blueberries and drink from natural springs; they have a picnic near a beautiful lake. This sounds bucolic, but creeping around nearly every corner, obscured in every ditch, Janvier is rife with pipeline infrastructure.

Janvier is just one small town in the vast Lubicon Territory in Alberta, home to indigenous people that have been fighting the government (and oil companies) since the ‘70s. Although oil was discovered on their land in 1950s, their resistance began after the Canadian government announced a plan to build a series of all-weather roads into the territory in 1971. After a series of legal challenges, the road was completed in 1979. As of 2013, the Canadian government had licensed 2,600 oil and gas wells in the territory. Additionally, over 1,400 square kilometers had been leased for tar sands development, and nearly “70 percent of the remaining land has been leased for future development,” say Hern and Johal.

The development has continued without the consent of Lubicon people. Melina Laboucan-Massimo, of the Lubicon Cree tribe, wrote in Open Democracy that the oil and gas development has continued “without recognition of our treaty & indigenous rights, which are protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution.” International bodies have tried to discipline the Canadian state for their crimes. In 1983, for example, the authors explain that World Council of Churches visited and stated that the “government and multinational oil companies have taken actions that could have genocidal consequences.” Laboucan-Massimo also points out that “while over $14 billion in oil and gas revenues have been taken from our traditional territory, our community lives in extreme poverty and still lacks basic medical services and running water.” Highlighting the damage done to the Lubicon people from extraction, Hern and Johal also note that, “in 1986, there were 21 Lubicon pregnancies, nineteen of which resulted in stillbirths and miscarriages.” Despite a general exuberance for life, Dennis Herman was frank, telling the authors: “They’re getting ready to make us nothing — why not bomb us now and get it over with?”

Any assertion of agency from a group of people — or from non-human life — that could challenge the legitimacy of the settler nation are met with force and brutal repression. Be it asylum seekers in the borderlands, water protectors at Standing Rock, or other such disputes about territory or sovereignty, the militarized response is a feature. In 2016, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental activist fighting a dam project in Honduras, was assassinated. Although her assasin(s) remain unknown, many human rights abuses and slayings of activists are committed by the Honduran Special Forces, some members of which are trained by the United States, and who, Miller notes, could be “potentially” connected to her death.

Militarized borders and pipelines through indigenous territory are the latest incarnations of the same exact thing the United States and Canada have been doing since their salad days: dispossession through genocide. The flimsy property claims of yesteryear have become the shoddy eminent domain suits of today. Trudeau, of course, does acknowledge industrial-made climate change, even while he supports drilling in places like the Lubicon territory. Trump, for his part, seems to be forging a new Republican position, which is that climate change is happening, and we need to adapt to it, but not try to stop it. As Florida Governor Ron DeSantis put it on the campaign trial, “I’m not in the pews of the church of the global warming leftists. I’m a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist. It’s just a different analysis.” Last week DeSantis announced his new environmental plan, which never once mentions climate change or the capping of carbon emissions. The problem, as Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone explained to The Miami-Herald, is that “If you’re building the sea walls and doing nothing about the cause [of sea rise], then you have to come back 10 years later to build a sea wall again.” In late 2017, Trump’s golf course in Ireland received permission from the government to build a sea wall.

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In December, The Animal Legal Defense Fund, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity took legal action against the Trump administration’s plans to expand the border wall with Mexico. The plaintiffs argued that Clinton’s 1996 “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act” violates the constitution’s separation of powers because, according to The Hill, it “waive[s] all legal requirements inhibiting the expeditious construction of the border wall and restricts judicial review of such determinations.” The groups’ motivation is driven by concern for habitats “of rare animal and plant species” — such as the butterflies and birds at the National Butterfly Center. Miller writes about the 12,000 miles of “cryptobiotic soil” that has been skidded over with Homeland Security pick up trucks and wildcats. A California court sided with the administration, and the Supreme Court upheld their decision.

Environmentalism without freedom of migration — for all living things — is a scam.

As Purdy explores at length in After Nature, environmental law, which once showed great promise in the ‘60s and ‘70s (with the passage of fundamental legislation like the Clean Air, Clean Water, and National Environmental Policy Act, to name a few), helped to show the limits of the settler legal system. However, as Alyssa Battistoni pointed out in the Law and Political Economy blog, since the ‘70s, when many of these laws were instituted, no major environmental legislation has been passed. Environmental legislation of that era “remain[s] powerful,” she says. “But too often, using them in litigation has come to substitute for other forms of political action.” It is in this light that she argues the necessity of “taking environmental politics out of the courts.” She quotes James Gustave Speth, co-founder of the National Resources Defense Council, who said: “We opted to work within the system of political economy that we found, and we neglected to seek transformation of the system itself.”

Hern and Johal look to the buen vivir and sumak kawsay indigenous movements taking root in Latin America. These movements have influenced constitutions, in 2008 in Ecuador as well as 2009 in Bolivia, and have, according to the authors, “specifically enshrine[d] a series of rights in the [Bolivian] constitution, including rights to housing, food, and security, but also same-sex marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity, and most famously, the rights of nature.” However, Hern and Johal concede that such rights haven’t stopped extraction or business as usual in those countries, though it has slowed it down. A new promising example is that of legal rights granted to a river in New Zealand. As Julian Brave NoiseCat wrote in The Guardian, “while the implications and effects of these legal experiments are yet to be seen, these are potentially revolutionary precedents that offer a path forward to redefine relationships between governments, indigenous peoples and the land in the 21st century.”

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In December, Fox News host Laura Ingraham sat in front of a televised American flag, the words emblazoned on it read: “American Sovereignty Under Attack.” The text beneath her frame was a little more specific, and said: “Liberal advocacy groups siding with illegals instead of U.S. Border Agents.” The implication, of course, was that so-called illegal immigration (a misnomer when asylum seekers are criminalized) posed a challenge to national sovereignty. As migrants crossing borders become flashpoints the world over, the language of sovereignty and the politics of nationalism are heating to a boil. However, in many other countries where its seductive power is growing, the siren song of nationalism hits environmentalist notes. Part of the rightward drift in Italy, for example, is from the anti-immigrant “Five Star” movement, whose pillars are “public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to internet access and environmentalism.” But sovereignty isn’t “under attack” in these countries because of migrants; it’s the privatization of government-run social services and IMF-style “structural adjustment” that’s actually stealing the state. Moreover, environmentalism without freedom of migration — for all living things — is a scam.

The reason the National Butterfly Center is located in Mission, Texas, is because, according to the Express-News, it is ‘in a “liminal,’ or transitional, zone where both tropical butterflies and North American butterflies thrive,” emphasizing the migratory patterns of butterflies as a species. The modern immigrant rights movement has adopted the butterfly as a symbol to represent the naturalness of migration. As Nadine Bloch elaborates at Waging Nonviolence:

Beloved for its beauty and its seemingly miraculous migration across huge distances, the monarch embodies hope for those who must travel great distances to survive and find opportunity. Their pattern of migration takes monarchs from Mexico to Canada through the United States, spanning lives of several generations; no one butterfly makes the whole trip. How new generations know to return to their ancestral grounds is still the stuff of scientific mystery. And for the activist artists who support immigrants, this mystery conveys the message that holding on to one’s cultural heritage across generations can be a wellspring of strength for a long struggle.

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Will Meyer is a writer and musician. He is editor of The Shoestring, a local online publication in Western Massachusetts.

Editor: Dana Snitzky