Thursday, August 15, 2019

Cordelia Scaife May, Environmentalist to Nativist

The most stridently anti-immigrant person I ever met was an activist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who at the time was working to restore sea grass in the Nansemond River. She told me that we should have a register of all the families in the country, and nobody should be allowed to breed unless somebody else in their family had died, and nobody allowed to enter the country until somebody else left. The places she cared about were being destroyed by population growth, and the only way she could imagine to save those places was to wall the people out.

I was reminded of her by this Times story about Cordelia Scaife May, a millionaire heiress who went from birth control activist to environmentalist to the world's biggest funder of anti-immigrant groups. This trajectory feels predictable to me, and honestly I am surprised that more people have not moved along it.

Listening to people like Trump talk about immigrants, the main emotion I hear is disgust: disgust at  unwashed masses of nonwhite people dirtying up the world. This revulsion at the dirtiness of humanity is an old sentiment, common among medieval monks. Cordelia Scaife May for a while made it her cause to prevent, not just unwanted births, but all births:
The unwanted child is not the problem, but, rather, the wanted one that society, for diverse cultural reasons, demands.
Ever since steamships and world wars began moving masses of people around the globe this disgust has commonly been attached to immigrants and perhaps especially to refugees, who arrive damaged and forlorn from someplace that didn't want them.

Pondering why more people have not made these connections, I come up with two thoughts. The environmental movement has become more global, more concerned about deforestation in southeast Asia than about sea grass in the local river. This renders immigration irrelevant or even positive, since people who move from poor nations to rich ones see their birth rates fall. And, over the past thirty years the dominant strain of thought on the left has become anti-racism. To avoid seeming racist or colonialist, environmentalists have mostly stopped talking about population growth, leaving those who still obsess over the sheer number of humans to drift toward the right.

1 comment:

Shadow said...

These connections sound tenuous at best, but regarding ships and immigrants and refugees, the identifying, if archaic, word is probably "steerage."