Image by John Kazior

The War on Ecoterror | Environmental Radicalism, Left and Right

Gaby Del Valle

On August 3, 2019, after driving through the night from his grandparents’ house in the Dallas suburbs to El Paso’s east side, Patrick Crusius took a moment to say his goodbyes. “I’m probably going to die today,” he posted on 8chan, attaching, by way of explanation, a four-page document titled “The Inconvenient Truth.” Then he pulled up to a Walmart and started shooting, killing twenty people and wounding more than two dozen others. When he turned himself in, Crusius told detectives he had traveled to the border city to kill Mexicans. The store he’d stumbled upon seemed like the ideal place to do it: busy, unprotected, and just a few miles north of Ciudad Juárez.

Five months earlier and on the other side of the world, a white 28-year-old named Brenton Tarrant attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing more than fifty people. Tarrant livestreamed the shooting on Facebook; just a few minutes before opening fire, he emailed a manifesto called “The Great Replacement” to more than thirty people, including New Zealand’s prime minister. In the document, Tarrant accused Muslims of “overpopulating the world” in order to annihilate not only the white race, but also the planet. “Kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment,” he wrote. As Crusius watched a video of the attack and read Tarrant’s words, his own views began to crystallize. “The American lifestyle,” Crusius explained, “is destroying the environment.” Americans are “too stubborn” to rein in their rampant consumerism, “so the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.” But Crusius couldn’t bring himself to kill white Americans. And the shooting was about more than the environment; it was his “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” Many of the problems he’d borne witness to in his short life — economic stagnation, environmental degradation, the profound alienation and purposelessness he felt — were exacerbated, he wrote, by a common cause: immigrants. Crusius urged others to take up arms and join his fight, and in 2022, eighteen-year-old Payton Gendron did so. In a rambling, 180-page screed, he self-identified as an “eco-fascist national socialist” and claimed immigration was causing “the continued destruction of the natural environment.” Then he drove to Buffalo, New York, where he killed ten black people in a supermarket.

Each attack was shocking in the way all mass shootings are — the perpetrators’ motives were hateful, the death tolls tragic — but some spectators were particularly troubled by the ease with which the shooters’ genocidal ambition mingled with concerns about ecological degradation. Environmentalist commentators, meanwhile, cautioned against taking the various manifestos at face value, arguing that terms like “ecofascist” legitimize a violent, incoherent ideology. Among liberals, the shootings reignited a campaign to prosecute white nationalist killers as terrorists. “The word ‘environment’ appears a scant four times in the 2,500-word text,” one journalist wrote in Sierra magazine about Crusius’s manifesto. “He couldn’t make a single solid argument linking immigration to the U.S. with environmental destruction.” It is tempting to dismiss the “eco” part of ecofascism as entirely pretextual. After all, environmentalism is the domain of the left, and white nationalism the purview of the right. But trying to disentangle certain strains of the environmentalist movement from nativism obscures the long history of their connection, and makes it dangerously easy to ignore the climate anxiety again percolating on the far right — and the lethal means through which some extremists hope to protect themselves from the crises to come. Historically, domestic terrorism laws, often expanded in response to white supremacist shootings like Crusius’s, have been used to target nonviolent activists on the left — a pattern that, with the prosecution of protestors against Atlanta’s Cop City development, is clearly ongoing. Meanwhile, ecofascists are already taking drastic action, and, unlike activists on the left, they’re more likely to blow up people than pipelines. 


The stereotype of lefty tree huggers notwithstanding, environmentalists have spent decades reckoning with the strains of racist and occasionally violent thinking that have been endemic to their movement since its origin. Madison Grant, a prominent conservationist at the turn of the twentieth century who spearheaded campaigns to save endangered species from extinction, is better remembered for his pseudoscientific tome The Passing of the Great Race, which was entered as an exhibit in the Nuremberg trials after Adolf Hitler described it as his “bible.” Theodore Roosevelt, who established nearly 230 million acres of public lands as president, also spent his time in office obsessing over a phenomenon social scientists then termed “race suicide,” which suggested that urbanization and higher birth rates among immigrants threatened “traditional” rural Americans of Anglo-Saxon, pioneer ancestry. Roosevelt’s friend William Temple Hornaday blamed Italians and black Southerners for the near-extinction of several bird species, and Native Americans for the depletion of bison populations. (Roosevelt, Grant, and Hornaday — all close friends — worked to protect great American species like bison, redwood trees, and Anglo-Saxon Americans from extinction.) 

American environmentalism started as an elite, often unpopular project, but by the late 1960s, concerns about population-fueled ecological catastrophe had become de rigueur. The Sierra Club — the storied environmental advocacy organization founded by Roosevelt’s friend and fellow wilderness explorer John Muir — first took an anti-population-growth stance in 1965. Three years later, the publication of The Population Bomb, biologist Paul Ehrlich’s treatise on the looming “population explosion” and the mass immiseration that would follow, convinced grassroots environmentalists and political leaders alike that overpopulation was the culprit for such varied ills as pollution, crime, and third-world famines. Accordingly, the Sierra Club established a National Population Committee, which in the early 1970s was headed by John Tanton, a small-town Michigan ophthalmologist who moonlighted as the president of his local chapter of the Audubon Society. Tanton had taken Ehrlich’s neo-Malthusian warnings as prophecy, and believed that population control programs were needed to ward off environmental and social collapse. After reading Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, a 1973 novel that depicted the fall of European civilization through mass immigration from India, China, and various Arab and African countries, Tanton became convinced that the ethnicities of people in the country mattered just as much as the number, if not more so.

The overpopulation frenzy was short-lived, and the movement had splintered by the mid-1970s. Its most hard-line proponents had alienated feminists and people of color by advocating for coercive measures like compulsory birth control and forced sterilization. Even Ehrlich had shifted away from the population argument (perhaps because the cataclysms he predicted hadn’t materialized), and instead began championing a form of environmentalism predicated on reducing the consumptive habits of white middle- and upper-class Americans, rather than on policing the reproductive habits of the world’s poor. Tanton’s focus, however, never wavered from the population issue. He fretted about Mexican women’s supposed hyper-fertility, a topic he claimed was verboten among his peers, and worried that immigrants lacked “respect for the land and our fellow creatures.” Tanton distilled his ideology in an essay for a 1975 contest organized by the Limits to Growth Conference in The Woodlands, a Texas suburb developed by oilman George Mitchell, an overpopulation obsessive who nonetheless had ten children. International migration, Tanton argued, “moves people from less consumptive lifestyles to more consumptive ones,” and therefore needed to be curtailed. 

Unable to convince Sierra Club members to lobby for reduced immigration, he struck out on his own. In 1979, he founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) to advocate for wilderness protection and immigration restriction as interrelated causes — and oil money rained in. As a scientific consensus around anthropocentric climate change began to emerge, immigrants proved the perfect scapegoat for fossil fuel executives. Sidney Swensrud, the former CEO of Gulf Oil, donated 9,477 dollars to FAIR and agreed to serve on its board. (He’d end up donating more than two million dollars to FAIR in his lifetime.) Another board member introduced Tanton to Cordelia Scaife May, the reclusive heiress to the Mellon family’s oil and steel fortune, who would bankroll his movement for decades to come. May provided FAIR with start-up funds and, in 1986, gave him the money to start the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a supposedly nonpartisan think tank set up to support FAIR’s lobbying through research. Over the next thirty years, Tanton worked to build bipartisan consensus around immigration restriction.


While Tanton fundraised among oil executives to spread his eco-nativist gospel, a new cohort of environmentalists veered off in the opposite direction. Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke had grown disenchanted with the staid politics of the environmental advocacy nonprofits where they worked and, while returning home from a camping trip in Mexico’s Pinacate Desert in April 1980, decided they could no longer compromise with developers whose projects despoiled the wilderness. They decided to start their own group, one that would advocate for the restoration of wilderness areas, a ban on clear-cutting forests, and negative population growth. They came up with a name that captured the organization’s ethos: Earth First. Soon they would add an exclamation point to underline the project’s urgency.

A year later, a massive crack appeared on Arizona’s Glen Canyon Dam, a structure that environmentalists had maligned as disruptive to the surrounding ecosystem and emblematic of Americans’ selfish efforts to encroach on lands where they didn’t belong. Earth First! was responsible for the damage, but the crack was just an illusion: activists had unrolled a 300-foot-long piece of plastic down the side of the dam that, from afar, looked like a rupture. It was a prank, but also a warning about what they might do next. As historian Keith Makoto Woodhouse details in his 2020 book, The Ecocentrists: A History of Radical Environmentalism, while mainstream environmental organizations were focused on trying to stop extractive projects through litigation, Earth First! opted for a more direct approach. Its members handcuffed themselves to construction equipment and occupied forests for weeks or months at a time, sitting in trees so they couldn’t be cut down. In a practice called tree spiking, they hammered nails into tree trunks and then notified logging companies that the metal could damage mill equipment or even hurt workers. Earth First! didn’t have lobbyists or fundraising directors; it just had bodies on the line.

Earth First! might have found common cause with Tanton and his ilk, especially in the organization’s early years. Foreman had grown up conservative, founded a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom in high school, and campaigned for Barry Goldwater. In 1986, Foreman claimed that immigration put “more pressure on the resources we have in the USA” and described famine relief efforts in Ethiopia as misguided, arguing that the best course of action was to “let nature seek its own balance.” Earth First!’s founding members also leaned into what Wolke described as a “beer-guzzling, redneck image,” rougher tactics and aesthetic signifiers that would have likely repulsed Tanton, a family man who prided himself on his erudition and founded his town’s Great Books Club. While Tanton strove to save the American wilderness by reducing immigration, Earth First! instead focused on opposing extractive projects through direct action. Still, the Earth First! Journal railed against overpopulation in language that occasionally echoed Tanton’s. Foreman’s bombastic style may have made him the de facto leader of antiestablishment environmentalists, but whether he knew it or not, his stance on population control helped legitimize a brand of eco-nativism funded by eugenicists and oil tycoons. 

Early criticism of Foreman came from the left. In 1982, environmental philosopher Murray Bookchin claimed that population control efforts marked “the first steps towards ecofascism.” Five years later, Bookchin decried Foreman as an “ecobrutalist” and described his followers as “barely disguised racists, survivalists, macho Daniel Boones, and outright social reactionaries.” Meanwhile, Earth First!’s destructive tactics made it a target for industry groups and law enforcement. The FBI started keeping tabs on the organization in 1981, shortly after the Glen Canyon Dam incident. In a Reason article published two years later, Ron Arnold, who later headed the libertarian think tank the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, declared that acts of eco-sabotage carried out by Earth First! and other organizations amounted to “eco-terrorism,” a term he claims to have coined. The additional scrutiny didn’t deter Foreman, who, in 1985, called on his followers to “act heroically and admittedly illegally in defense of the wild.” Across the country, local police arrested Earth First!ers for blockading roads and chaining themselves to construction equipment. Soon, breakaway factions began embracing more destructive tactics.

One night in 1987, activists calling themselves the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) snuck into a construction site at the University of California, Davis and burned it to the ground. The fire, which they claimed was set “to retaliate in the name of thousands of animals tortured each year in campus labs,” was the first animal- or environmental-rights-related act labeled as terrorism by the FBI. It would not be the last. That fall, another group of activists affiliated with Earth First! used acetylene torches to cut the bolts of a chairlift at an Arizona ski resort. A year later, they attacked the lift again and, in a separate incident, destroyed poles that supported power lines for two Arizona mines. In 1989, two activists were arrested while trying to damage power lines at a pump station in Salome, Arizona. A third fled the scene, and a fourth was revealed to be an FBI agent who had infiltrated Earth First! a year earlier.

Foreman was arrested a few hours after the Salome bust; prosecutors accused him of funding the splinter group. He would later plead guilty to one count of conspiracy for distributing his book, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching. The arrests forced a brief truce between Foreman and his critics — including Bookchin, who contributed to a legal defense fund for the activists. But a year after his arrest, Foreman announced that he planned to leave the organization he had founded. In a letter published by the Earth First! Journal, Foreman explained that he disagreed with younger Earth First!ers’ “overtly counterculture/anti-establishment style” of activism, and their abandonment of eco-sabotage in favor of civil disobedience. Worst of all, he wrote in the same announcement, some chapters had attempted to “transform an ecological group into a Leftist group.”

After leaving Earth First!, Foreman began experimenting with a less controversial approach. He founded the Wildlands Project (now called the Wildlands Network), with the goal of restoring wilderness areas, or “rewilding.” The Project advocated for the creation of massive wildlife refuges and the reintroduction of keystone species, both of which required returning vast swaths of nature to an undeveloped state. Foreman also became more involved with the Sierra Club, and in 1995 was elected to its board of directors, where he found himself joining forces with John Tanton. 


As radical environmentalists attempted to form a united front in the face of an unprecedented federal crackdown, Tanton plotted a coup at the Sierra Club. He laid out his vision in 1986, at an annual retreat sponsored by Cordelia Scaife May. In a memo distributed to attendees, Tanton explained that bleeding hearts would never listen to his warnings about immigration; the topic had to be “broached by liberals.” The issue was about more than raw numbers for Tanton, who believed that white Americans were effectively a different species from their southern neighbors. “Can homo contraceptivus compete with homo progenitiva if borders aren’t controlled?” Tanton mused. “Or is advice to limit ones family simply advice to move over and let someone else with greater reproductive powers occupy the space?”

Though the Sierra Club had long considered overpopulation a threat to the environment, it was not anti-immigration enough for Tanton’s liking; in any case, it devoted more resources to fighting development than to opposing immigration. In 1989, the board adopted the position that immigration “should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the United States.” The Club had finally agreed that immigration was a threat to the environment. And although the resolution stated that it would only comment on “the number of immigrants — not where they come from or their category,” at the time most legal immigrants hailed from just a handful of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, meaning that any reduction in immigration would occur on racial and ethnic grounds. The new anti-immigration stance provided fertile ground for Tanton. By 1993, the number of local population control committees had ballooned to 200, from just two a mere four years earlier, and some of their membership came from Tanton’s immigration and population-control groups. His takeover was underway.

But this momentum didn’t last long. In 1996, the Sierra Club backtracked to a neutral position on immigration. A year later, the question of whether to support immigration restriction was once again put before the board, and the measure was rejected unanimously — but only because, Foreman later said, he resigned from the board the day before the vote. Undeterred, Tanton’s allies founded a subgroup called Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, which brought the immigration issue before the board unsuccessfully in 1998, and then again in 2004. (The second time around, one proponent encouraged readers of Vdare — a white supremacist website named after Virginia Dare, the first child born to white settlers in the English colonies — to join the organization and vote for board members who supported immigration restriction.)

Although it proved difficult to sustain support for limited immigration within the Sierra Club, Tanton had been focusing his efforts on engineering a stream of victories in a much bigger arena: national politics. In 1986, Congress passed a bill that provided a path to citizenship for nearly three million undocumented immigrants. Tanton concluded that the fight over immigration was just a “skirmish in a wider war” — a culture war, in which America’s racial future was at stake. From then on, Tanton’s advocacy network opted for a grassroots approach. In 1988, his organizations spearheaded a referendum to make English the official state language of Arizona. Six years later, FAIR and CIS led the campaign for California’s Proposition 187, which would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing any public services, including schools and nonemergency healthcare. Nearly sixty percent of voters supported the proposition. Federal judges ultimately blocked both the California and Arizona laws from going into effect, roadblocks that FAIR and its sister organizations used to rally even more people to their cause.

Recognizing that the image of immigrants as cultural invaders resonated with voters, Tanton’s organizations grew increasingly divorced from environmental goals. In 1994, Tanton coauthored a book titled The Immigration Invasion with Wayne Charles Lutton, a trustee of the New Century Foundation, the organization that oversees the “white advocacy” publication American Renaissance. By the 1990s, Tanton had succeeded in making immigration restriction dogmatic among both Republicans and Democrats — but his wins increasingly came at the expense of the environment. FAIR rejoiced when Congress passed a bill in 1996 strengthening penalties for crossing the border and making it easier to deport immigrants already in the country, even though the legislation also let the attorney general waive the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in order to facilitate border wall construction in San Diego. FAIR and CIS lobbied for the 2005 REAL ID Act, which raised the burden of proof for asylum applications, limited judicial review on certain deportation orders, and expanded the Department of Homeland Security’s remit, allowing it to waive any “legal requirements” that got in the way of the “expeditious construction” of the border wall. Tanton’s biggest win came in 2007, when Congress failed to pass an immigration reform bill that would have afforded millions of undocumented immigrants the opportunity to become citizens. FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA — a third Tanton-funded organization — successfully lobbied against the “amnesty” bill, inundating legislators with calls, faxes, and emails. 

On the heels of his victory, Tanton attempted to woo environmentalists again in 2008. That year, a coalition of Tanton-affiliated population-control organizations ran full-page ads in The New York Times, The Nation, and Mother Jones calling immigration “a conundrum of epic proportions for the progressive thinker.” Americans, the ads claimed, couldn’t have “a clean environment, adequate natural resources, good housing, plenty of food, first-rate healthcare, and so on” without limiting immigration. Hardly anyone seemed to be convinced. When the Tanton network mobilized against immigration reform bills in 2010 and 2013, it stuck to the tried-and-true culture war formula. Environmentalists were no longer interested in what Tanton was selling, but he increasingly found that his warnings about foreigners’ taking over the country appealed to a different, more violent audience.


If immigrants were an invading force, the logic went, Americans had no choice but to resist by any means necessary. By the early 2000s, a contingent of white Americans who felt that their way of life was being threatened by immigrants decided to fight back. In 2004, a 24-year-old and his two teenage cousins traveled from Missouri to the southern Arizona desert to kill Mexicans. A few months later, a Klan member in Tennessee sold pipe bombs intended for an attack on Mexican agricultural workers to an acquaintance who ended up being an FBI informant. Both perpetrators were investigated as independent actors rather than as foot soldiers of an ideological movement. Federal investigators seemed too preoccupied with the specter of ecoterrorism to conceptualize the real threat posed by white supremacists.

By that point, the federal war on eco-saboteurs, later dubbed the “Green Scare,” had been underway for over a decade. After Earth First! disavowed tree spiking in the mid ’90s, the ALF and the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), a new environmentalist group, picked up where Earth First! had left off. Like Earth First!, both groups engaged in acts of eco-sabotage; unlike their predecessor, however, both embraced property destruction, were decidedly leftist from the outset, and had decentralized memberships largely hailing from anarchist circles. Law enforcement, however, characterized ELF and ALF as organized, heavily resourced left-wing ecoterrorists who posed a serious threat to national security — a notion that corporate leaders were eager to exploit. 

In 1990, Kansas passed a law that outlawed photographing animals at livestock facilities “with the intent to damage the enterprise,” the first of a series of so-called “ag-gag” laws implemented across the country to protect big farming corporations from scrutiny and interference. Two years later, at the behest of the animal testing lobby, Congress officially named and criminalized “animal enterprise terrorism.” And a 1994 attack by the Unabomber retrained the spotlight on Earth First!, when Ted Kaczynski killed Thomas Mosser, a former executive at the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. In an anonymous letter to The New York Times, Kaczynski, still at large, wrote that his victim had “helped Exxon clean up their image” after its 1989 oil spill. It was the first time the Unabomber had provided a rationale for his attacks, and the explanation suggested he had ties to Earth First! — or, at the very least, had read its publications. As it turned out, Mosser never worked on the Exxon Valdez case, but the Earth First! Journal once claimed he had. Kaczynski’s 1995 manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, bolstered the impression that the Unabomber represented environmental extremists more broadly. Though Kaczynski spent much of his 35,000-word screed disparaging the left, federal investigators and casual observers alike began to speak about him in the same breath as Earth First! When Kaczynski was finally apprehended in 1996, the FBI claimed it had material linking him to the group. Earth First! leaders responded by denying any connection to Kaczynski, reminding reporters that they had stopped tree spiking years earlier, and didn’t condone bombings or violent crimes of any kind.

Nevertheless, emboldened by Kaczynski’s capture, Congress and federal law enforcement continued to wage war on radical environmentalists while downplaying the rise of right-wing militias — even after standoffs at Ruby Ridge, in 1992, and Waco, in 1993. In 1995, an informant told the FBI that the denizens of an Oklahoma white separatist compound called Elohim City were planning to mark the second anniversary of the Waco siege by bombing federal buildings in either Oklahoma City or Texas, in the hopes of kicking off a “racial holy war.” Her warnings went ignored. A few months later, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others in the Oklahoma City bombing.

In the aftermath of these gruesome incidents, the FBI belatedly conceded that right-wing militias posed the greatest domestic terrorist threat — but investigators and legislators continued to devote significant time and resources to combating ecoterrorism. In 1998, the House Subcommittee on Crime held a hearing on “Acts of Ecoterrorism by Radical Environmental Organizations.” Hours after the September 11 attacks, a Republican congressman from Alaska speculated in an interview that environmentalists might have hijacked the planes that flew into the World Trade Center. 

Later, the FBI and the newly established DHS took advantage of their expanded surveillance powers to keep tabs on environmentalists. In 2002, the head of the FBI’s domestic terrorism division told Congress that thwarting animal-rights and environmental extremists was his department’s top priority. The bureau would go on to illegally surveil both PETA and Greenpeace until 2006, and a seven-year effort to curtail ELF and ALF culminated in the arrest of more than fifteen activists in December 2005 and January 2006. Investigators referred to this loose network of activists as “the family,” calling to mind a sophisticated crime syndicate. Prosecutors pressured defendants to snitch on their friends in exchange for reduced prison time, reminding them that they could end up spending decades behind bars as a result of the more punitive terrorism sentencing measures enacted after the Oklahoma City bombing. 

It wasn’t until April 2009, when a prolific poster on the white supremacist forum Stormfront killed three police officers in Pittsburgh, that the DHS began taking right-wing terrorism more seriously. That year, Daryl Johnson, then a lead researcher at the DHS, wrote in a departmental report that “lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent right-wing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States,” and predicted a significant uptick in white supremacist recruitment — particularly among veterans — in the wake of Barack Obama’s election. The DHS initially stood by Johnson’s report, but pulled it after right-wing groups accused the Obama administration of portraying war heroes, who had after all just returned from fighting terrorism abroad, as prospective terrorists themselves. Johnson resigned in 2010, after the DHS defanged its division focused on right-wing terrorism. In 2019, he told The Intercept that the department’s single-minded focus on ecoterrorism could be explained by the priorities of moneyed constituents. “You don’t have a bunch of companies coming forward saying I wish you’d do something about these right-wing extremists,” Johnson said. In fact, right-wing extremists are often backed by deep-pocketed ideologues. What’s more, by describing themselves as pro-family, pro-Christianity, and pro-freedom, far-right activists are able to hide behind the guise of patriotic principles — or, as Johnson put it, to “operate under some of the same values that an FBI agent might believe.” Today’s environmental activists, many of whom increasingly see racial justice and ecological protection as intertwined causes, wind up being the object of antiterrorist efforts.

This is the essential parable of domestic terrorism crackdowns in the United States: time and again, penalties enacted in the aftermath of white supremacist attacks rebound on the left. It’s not an overstatement to say that the two-decades-long campaign against radical environmentalists has neutered the movement and constrained the work of other activists as well. Two women who vandalized parts of the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 and 2017 were sentenced to several years in prison and ordered to pay more than three million dollars each in damages upon their release. “Protecting the American people from terrorism — both international and domestic — remains the FBI’s number one priority,” the special agent in charge of the investigation said after one of the women was sentenced. This year, in Atlanta, protesters opposing the construction of Cop City have been arrested on terrorism charges. These arrests were possible because Georgia’s domestic terrorism law, which initially only applied to crimes intended to injure or kill at least ten people, had been expanded to include property crimes in the wake of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in which a white supremacist targeted worshippers at a black church. 

Given the depravity of these killings and the significant rise of racist attacks, it’s not difficult to understand why both victims and observers might want assailants prosecuted as harshly as possible. But even when domestic terrorism laws and federal surveillance powers have been expanded with white supremacists in mind, investigators and prosecutors have dedicated time and resources to targeting anti-racist and environmentalist protesters. Nowadays, you can get called an ecoterrorist for nothing more than trespassing in a forest. Acts of real eco-sabotage have become so unthinkable that even the most anodyne acts of environmental protest are considered noteworthy. Tennis fans heckled climate activists who disrupted the U.S. Open, and cops pulled guns on protesters who blocked the road to Burning Man — which, just a few days later, was itself shut down by a flood of biblical proportions. It’s hard to fathom that, just twenty years ago, ELF was torching ski resorts.


Whether or not the oil executives who funded Tanton’s decades-long xenophobic project actually believed we were headed for a population crisis is irrelevant, because in the end, they won: the American counterterrorism apparatus quashed radical environmentalism, and the extractive projects that eco-saboteurs fought have, for the most part, continued unabated. Tanton won, too, helping make immigration restriction a central issue of contemporary American politics, but it’s hard to know whether he felt at peace with the compromises he had to make along the way: to make immigration restriction possible, he had to align himself with politicians who deny the existence of climate change and oppose even the most basic environmental protections.

Donald Trump’s election on a decidedly xenophobic platform handed Tanton’s disciples the levers of power. Stephen Miller, one of the campaign’s first hires and a fan of The Camp of the Saints, had gotten close to lobbyists from CIS while working for Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (who became Trump’s attorney general). Jon Feere, who worked as an analyst at CIS for a decade, joined Trump’s transition team and was later hired as a senior adviser to the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2016, CIS published a 79-point wish list for the next presidential administration, and by the following year, Trump’s DHS had discussed more than a dozen items on it. During his term in office, the department pursued several crucial points, such as denying asylum to migrants who crossed through another country en route to the United States (Sessions announced that policy in 2019), encouraging mass imprisonment of asylum seekers “with few, clearly articulated, exceptions” (ICE opened forty new detention centers by 2020), and withholding visas from pregnant women (the State Department amended its regulations to curb “birth tourism” in 2020).

When Tanton died in 2019, the war against the “invaders” continued without him. A few weeks after his death, Patrick Crusius loaded his guns and drove through the night. Mark Krikorian, CIS’s executive director, dismissed any similarities between Crusius’s stated motives and his own group’s ideology. But it’s not difficult to follow the path from the population debates of the ’70s to the mass murder in a big-box store. A handful of oil executives joined forces with an eye-doctor-turned-population-control-obsessive in order to convince Americans that brown-skinned immigrants were the foremost threat to the environment. Over the course of four decades, they’ve seen the conversation change exactly as they hoped: immigration restriction is now the standard position for both Republicans and Democrats. President Biden has abandoned the “immigrants are welcome here” lawn-sign ethos that helped get him elected, opting instead to keep some of Trump’s most egregious border policies in place

Tanton may not have gotten environmentalists to embrace nativism, but a small faction of the right has indeed begun to experience climate anxiety. Today, while Republican presidential candidates shrug off suggestions that the U.S. should do anything to slow climate change, a new generation of conservatives is casting around for explanations and solutions in the face of increasingly unignorable ecological collapse. The conservative writer Rod Dreher, whose 2006 book Crunchy Cons made the case for a more environmentally-minded conservatism and was more prescient than anyone could have imagined during the Bush era, wrote in 2018, “I believe that global warming is real, and that it is man-made.” He continued: “I believe that there is a direct connection — not causal, but still a connection — between the exploitation of the natural world that is causing the earth to revolt, and the destruction of the concept of the natural family, of sex, and even of the human person.” Other establishment-skeptical conservative commentators are seizing upon a brand of contentless environmentalism as another weapon in their anti-immigration arsenal. Ann Coulter has claimed immigrants hail from “primitive societies [that] have no concept of ‘litter,’” a sentiment Tucker Carlson echoed in 2018 when he said that one of the reasons he opposes immigration is because it “produces a huge amount of litter.”

Grassroots conservatives have also latched onto the idea that the environment is under threat, but not for the reasons that scientists and liberals say it is. A growing number of people on the fringes of the Republican Party are drinking raw milk and buying organic meat as acts of resistance against so-called globalists, who, they claim, pump our food with hormones to masculinize women and make Western men weak and effete. Ted Kaczynski’s musings on industrial society and its consequences have garnered a new currency among those who are moving to rural areas, getting into canning, and building climate-disaster-proof bunkers. These are people who believe our institutions are beyond repair, that society as we know it is on an inevitable collision course. In this framing, the only way to ward off climate disaster is to return to the land and eschew industrialization and globalism in favor of localism. Their view of nature verges on the mystical — but their environmentalism, if it can be called that, is individualistic rather than communitarian. Meanwhile, some extremists who lack the means to protect themselves from ecological collapse are fantasizing about killing off the competition. Tarrant and Crusius have become martyrs on 8kun (the successor to 8chan, which was shut down in the aftermath of the El Paso shooting) where posters are reading up on ecofascism. If sea levels and global temperatures are rising, so be it; their climate strategy is to protect their own, everyone else be damned. 

It’s hard not to despair in the face of nihilism on the far right and incrementalism in the liberal establishment, but amid the incessant scolding of even minorly disruptive climate protesters, there have been calls for real action. The indie film How to Blow Up a Pipeline made the moral case for bombing fossil fuel infrastructure. So far, no one has been moved to literally blow anything up, but the recent heavy-handed prosecutions of Cop City activists seem to have emboldened demonstrators across the country. In September, two protesters chained themselves to equipment at a construction site in West Virginia in protest of the controversial Mountain Valley Pipeline. Two days earlier, protesters in Montgomery County, Virginia were arrested for attaching themselves to construction equipment. Nearby, twenty other activists rallied with a banner that read, “STOP COP CITY NO MVP.” Almost two decades after federal counterterrorism programs decimated radical environmentalism, activists are once again putting their bodies on the line to protect the planet, and forging alliances to fight interrelated issues like racist policing and environmental degradation. If anything, they’ve been galvanized by state repression rather than deterred by it. But with even the most peaceful activists being accused of terrorism, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides that, rather than pouring sand into the gears of the machine, they should just blow it all up — or burn it all down.

Gaby Del Valle is a writer living in Brooklyn.