The “Nature” of Borders

Yesterday’s New York Times has an article detailing the increase in border-patrol sweeps in areas far removed from the geographic border-region.   This is yet another piece of evidence that confirms what immigration experts have been arguing for some time now: that post-9/11 immigration controls have created a shift in governance where the literal spatial “border” has, in a sense, expanded to encompass a wide-swath of areas unrelated to the usual strategy of keeping out, but more suitable to the new and complementary strategy of removing those deemed socially undesirable.  The immediate cause for this shift relates to both (1) new networks of cooperation (funding, information sharing, enforcement and detainment) between national, state and local governments; and (2) localities and states acting independently of the federal government in granting state and local law enforcement unprecedented authority to detain illegal immigrants (Coleman 2007).  And the consequences of the new immigration regime are clear: the so-called “militarization of the border” is more a militarization of social life writ large.  This creates particularly pressing problems for those who aren’t “white,” and increases the likelihood that anyone can hear the old fascist refrain, “let me see your papers,” at any point in time.  For the most vulnerable, the secretive procedures of “extradited removal” and “extraordinary rendition” are quickly becoming the norm.  Cloaked in the exigencies of “national security,” neither of these processes are anywhere near what we might call transparent or accountable.

To get at the deeper forces behind this militarization of social life, however, it is necessary to think beyond this topographic shift, and to consider the topological terrain on which contemporary political debates play out.  As Giorgio Agamben has argued (and as I have previously written about), contemporary life is characterized by the ever-present potential of a “state of exception” in which some emergency situation warrants the suspension of the normal workings of the political order, in the very name of saving that order.  Intimately linked with the declaration of such a state is a drive to not only keep out our external “enemies,” but to weed out those enemies within (think Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the Japanese internment during WWII, access to library records and phone-tapping under the Patriot Act, etc.).  The logics undergirding such a declaration relate to numerous issue areas – threats to national security, economy, cultural identity, and, increasingly, the environment.  More often than not, those who wish to declare a state of exception attempt to articulate connections between several such issue areas (e.g. the argument that resource scarcity will produce a “flood” of environmental refugees from the Global South, which threatens American political, economic, and cultural stability).  Invoking some national crisis or state of emergency is politically significant because it removes a particular issue from the realm of day-to-day politics as usual; the time for dialogue is over – immediate action is required.  And while the ultimate decision to declare a state of exception is often understood to lie solely with state elites, both the pressures they face from particular segments of the populace, and the discourses of securitization that they latch onto come from below.  More so, popular societal debates are particularly influential in an increasingly decentralized realm like immigration, where state and local decisions have practical impacts that should not be underestimated.

The important question that emerges, then, is: what are the various material, symbolic and rhetorical pathways through which certain populations are deemed desirable or undesirable, threatening or promising, a significant contributor to a multicultural political community or a drain on societal resources? After all, despite rhetoric to the contrary, not all immigrants are being targeted equally.  As political geographer Matthew Sparke reminds us, the “so-called Smart Border programs exemplify how a business class civil citizenship has been extended across transnational space at the very same time as economic liberalization and national securitization have curtailed citizenship for others” (2006: 151).  Certain lives are deemed valuable – they fit within a dominant national imaginary or contribute to a national economic project – while others are easy to abandon or exclude.  Anthropologist Aihwa Ong has commented on the seemingly paradoxical situation this creates, where states often grant transnational elites more rights than many of their own citizens (particularly marginalized groups) in an effort to attract skilled labor that fits some national development strategy.

American Environmentalism and the “Immigration Problem”

Interestingly, one phenomenon that has been occurring alongside and reinforcing the topological expansion of the border is a concomitant naturing of the border.   By this, I mean that the boundary between the United States and Mexico is increasingly argued to represent a fault line between environmental civilization and environmental savagery.  Most prominently, a number of groups have recently been highly vocal in furthering the argument that immigration is linked to environmental degradation; many even going so far as to assert that immigration poses the greatest contemporary threat to the United States’ natural environment.  Their logic proceeds as follows: United States’ citizens have taken significant steps toward the adoption of a progressive environmental culture (having fewer children, recycling, and developing renewable energy sources); however, “we” continue to import population growth.  This offsets “our” (allegedly) diminishing consumptive habits and puts serious stress on ecosystems that are already at or above their carrying capacities.

The argument isn’t new – it has historical roots in 18th and 19th century anxieties over the possibility that “our” vast tracts of vacant land would be populated by “foreign” races, and it more recently gained momentum along with the rise of neo-Malthusian population anxieties in the late 1960’s.  However, the argument has grown quite sophisticated, and has taken on forms – and appeared in forums – that are generally assumed to be benign or even progressive.  In an era in which environmental concerns occupy an increasingly prominent place on the political agenda, the danger here is that a concern for “Nature” will function as a subtle pathway through which exclusionary articulations of citizenship gain momentum.  Through these logics, certain bodies are deemed ecologically beneficent (thus warranting inclusion within the political community), while others are deemed ecologically negligent (thus warranting exclusion).

These “environmental restrictionist” arguments have long drawn condemnation from a variety of social and environmental groups who have noted the seemingly arbitrary relationship between ecosystems and socially constructed borders, have decried the restrictionist focus on population over consumption, and have called attention to the deep-seated historical and structural roots of both immigration and environmental degradation.  Recently, such groups have focused largely on the relationship between certain vocal restrictionist proponents and overt hate groups.  The immigration meets environment argument, it is argued, is reflective of efforts to appropriate nature in the name of hyper-nationalism.  Those advancing the greening of hate are not “real environmentalists,” but are merely greenwashing nativism is order to advance an overtly racist and xenophobic agenda.

Genuine Commitments, Natural Exclusions

While I agree 100% with the sentiments of these arguments – and obviously strongly disagree with any alleged immigration/environmental degradation connection – I worry that by mischaracterizing environmental restrictionist arguments as a mere veil over hyper-nationalist causes, progressives are failing to grapple with the potentially exclusionary implications of certain conceptions of nature themselves…conceptions that, unfortunately, remain deeply institutionalized within certain vectors of Green thought.  While numerous individuals and groups are merely using environmental concerns as a veil over racist beliefs, many restrictionists have long histories of environmental activism and have political commitments that generally place them on the “progressive left.” A concern for nature is often seen as a progressive bulwark against a dominant free-market ethos (and often is), but leftists need to recognize that genuine concerns for “Nature” also have a long history of involvement with conservative, exclusionary movements. From the blatantly racist positions of John Muir[i] and George Perkins Marsh to the eugenics of Madison Grant to the more recent misanthropic statements of Edward Abbey and Garrett Hardin, efforts to “speak for” nature have historically been bound up in efforts to marginalize difference.  These exclusionary positions stem from an overwhelming belief amongst greens that we can somehow speak for Nature in a neutral, universal manner that is wholly detached from our cultural location.  However, “Nature” is always already shot through with culture, and certain conceptions of “Nature” emerge through cultural lenses interwoven with place-based identities, bourgeois preoccupations with recreation and “wilderness,” and conservative attachments to past national myths.

While most environmentalists seem all too willing to chalk up the aforementioned green exclusions to a few crazy people with antiquated commitments, there is a well documented trend where many of the most committed green thinkers support socially problematic policies.  While environmental restrictionist positions have grown quite nuanced, adherents to the argument include many of the so-called “fathers” of modern American environmentalism: Herman Daly, Paul Ehrlich, Lester Brown, David Brower, E.O. Wilson, Gaylord Nelson, George Sessions…the list goes on.  In fact, the list of environmental restrictionists reads like a veritable “who’s who” in the environmental movement.  In this sense, the contemporary debates over immigration and the environment are instructive, because they demonstrate the ways in which commitments to a deep ecological conception of “Nature” have intersected with concerns for social justice that have become relatively institutionalized within the environmentalist movement; producing a variety of positions that are often contradictory and always divisive.

There is a real danger that in a period in which the overt racism and nativism of the past has become socially unacceptable, exclusionary positions are being recoded into a language of “progressive environmentalism.” Rather than dismissing environmental restrictionist arguments as the “greening of nativism,” we ought to use this unfortunate occurrence as an opportunity to think reflexively about the political implications of certain cultural conceptions that American greens have passively inherited.  The fact that so many otherwise progressive environmentalists buy this argument is evidence enough that it is not merely ancillary to the movement.

Building Transnational “Green Public Spheres”

To conclude, I would argue that we need a model of ecological responsibility based on a proper understanding of contemporary social connection.  Immigration is created by an amalgamation of historical interconnections in the Southwest, the structural dominance of neoliberalism (think NAFTA, IMF, WTO), environmental devastation in Mexico (itself caused by northern consumption patterns, as well as IMF, World Bank, and NAFTA policies), and a host of other complex multi-scalar interactions.  There is too little water flowing into Mexico, and too much wheat; too little foreign aid, too many conditionalities; too many guns in, too many drugs out; too many conservative ideals centered around sovereignty and nationhood, and too few ethical flows centered around an engagement with and respect for difference.  Similarly, when we think about who is responsible for environmental devastation, it makes little sense to speak in terms of a unified state (e.g. Mexico or the United States) and even less sense to argue that vulnerable Mexican and central-American immigrants are to blame.  So long as the aforementioned structural conditions are in place (many of which citizens of the United States benefit from), it is ethically abhorrent to argue that we ought to block the flow of poverty-stricken immigrants, in order to protect “our” Nature.

In upcoming immigration debates, the economy and national security are sure to be top issues, but I would venture to guess that the environment will play an escalating role, and will link up with these matters of “high politics” in interesting ways.   If we aren’t careful in coming years, “nature” could serve as yet another wedge that divides leftists, and prevents the implementation of the kind of progressive, ethical immigration policy that is needed.  In a broader sense, in an issue area in which calls of “crisis” and “emergency” are common, environmental “exceptions” are sure to link up with social exclusions in intricate ways.  Leftists ought to be prepared to counter this by seeking to further emergent forms of transnational environmental politics.


Coleman, Matthew. 2007. Immigration Geopolitics Beyond the US-Mexico Border.Antipode 39 (1): 54-76.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sparke, Matthew. 2006. A Neoliberal Nexus: Economy, Security and the Biopolitics of Citizenship at the Border. Political Geography 25 (2): 151-180.

[i] According to Jake Kosek, Muir “wrote disdainfully about the ‘Chinaman’ and ‘Digger’ Indian who first set off with him into the Sierra, and about the lack of enlightened appreciation on the part of the Hispano herders for the majestic grandeur of the mountains.  Along with scorn for the ‘filthy,’ ‘lazy’ habits and perpetual ‘dirtiness’ of the herders, he also deplored the sheep themselves, calling them ‘wooly locusts’ that were ‘dirty,’ ‘wrteched,’ ‘miserably misshapen and misbegotten’…He saw both sheep and men as out of place in the mountains and placed them all – sheep, Hispanos, ‘Chinamen,’ and Indians – in opposition to the purity and grandeur of ‘Nature’” (2006:156; citing Spence 1999).


~ by iamtomjoad on August 31, 2010.

One Response to “The “Nature” of Borders”

  1. Concluding with transnational green public spheres is a brilliant move. I particularly like the series of “flows” you talk about between Mex and US (i.e. “too many guns in, too many drugs out,” etc). When it’s put in terms like this, hopefully it will become increasingly obvious that political borders are arbitrary when put in ecological terms!

    Great post. Nice links, too.

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