The Wednesday after the 2016 election, my son, Julien, arrived home from school crying. “Do we have to go home, too?” He had been talking with some of his first-grade friends at school, children of a migrant community that comes to northern Michigan, where the cherry orchards and vineyards offer plenty of work, especially in the summer and fall months. His friends’ families (of varying citizenship status) were weighing their options, in terms of remaining in Michigan or starting long journeys back toward the southern border—or maybe even up into Canada.
Let me back up: we live in New Orleans, but we were in Michigan for the year, where I was on sabbatical finishing a book. Julien was aware that we were not from Michigan—we had come north for a time. He was intuiting the charged nature of border politics, extrapolating repercussions of Trump’s draconian rhetoric and translating it to our own status of geographical displacement. I assured Julien that we weren’t going to be deported, but my assurance offered little comfort in those gloomy times, when the ontological status of so many people was suddenly made plain.
We were far away from the Mexico–US border, but, like others scattered in places across the whole country, we were feeling how a geopolitical map was being redrawn beneath our feet. And it hit us in a weird way: we were in the north woods on a national lakeshore that suddenly seemed precarious and even implicated in what John Hultgren describes in Border Walls Gone Green as “the discursive and institutional pathways through which nature is subtly woven into exclusionary political projects.”
Hultgren’s book is broadly about the subtle maneuvers that come to align certain pro-environment philosophies with anti-immigration groups. In short, Border Walls Gone Green shows how left- and right-leaning political positions commingle and converge at this awkward (and often obscured) juncture. It can sound deceptively like common sense to argue for immigration control on the basis of lower impact on the land and less demand on natural resources; however, these premises and correlations turn out to be far more nuanced—and even plain wrong, in most cases.
Drawing from on-the-ground case studies, political ads, ideas of wilderness, popular articles, and personally conducted interviews, Hultgren methodically develops an inquiry that is at once theoretically nimble and narratively gripping. For readers interested in migration, borders, political theory, and ecology, Hultgren’s analysis serves as an incisive, careful model for how to untangle the disparate and unexpected threads that are so often knotted around these topics.
“What if it is this unexamined commitment to ‘wild America,’” provocatively asks Hultgren, “that disables a transformative approach to the nature–sovereignty relationship?” He argues that we should work to articulate an “environmental political theory of migration,” which would take into account the interests and flows—the ontologies and epistemologies—that always accompany migrations and that can never be separated from the particularities of terrestrial places. This sounds like a tall order, but it turns out to be a quite grounded approach.
Border Walls Gone Green transported me back to questions I’d been asking many years before reading this book, and it also was eerily prescient, in terms of describing the contemporary moment of the long, early years of the Trump presidency. Environmental disasters and the effects of climate change loom large, while border skirmishes and specters of total domination haunt the daily news cycles. The America that Trump wants to make great again lingers simultaneously as a romantic natural(ized) landscape and as a living political juggernaut. This fantasy is being played out in high-level debates involving ideology and empire, but it’s equally in the most mundane images of country and landscape—from MAGA baseball caps and National Park sweatshirts to national anthems and SUV ads.
Several weeks after the election, we were going through the motions of insanely dark winter school-week mornings in northern Michigan: breakfast under black windows, layers and more layers of clothes, a schlep to the car, a drive north seven miles through the snow and ice to school. In the midst of one morning routine, I heard Julien and his four-year-old sister, Camille, giggling in their room. Julien shouted, “Papa, come look!”
I stumbled into their room and saw that they had piled all the pillows in the house on Camille’s bed in a neat, if somewhat teetering, line. Camille blurted out, “We built Donald Trump’s wall!”
My kids were intuitively parodying border politics, but I think they were also unwittingly enacting how, in Hultgren’s words, “a migratory politics of place draws knowledge from one locale into environmental attitudes and actions in another.” The cozy bedroom became a place to construct a boundary; the pillows mocked the as-if fortitude of a border wall, the very idea of a border wall—and the bed shrunk the scale of this endeavor to a laughably limited landscape. My children’s pantomime of the wall was just for fun, but it was also an attempt to think through this thorny topic: what it means to exert sovereignty over a place and how this necessarily involves claims to naturalize borders. The whole thing was shown, in miniature, to be a sham.
I know I’m relying on this domestic case study to do a lot of theoretical work, but hear me out. Hultgren rightly asks early on in Border Walls Gone Green, “what, exactly, is ‘nature’ for restrictionists,” or those who want to limit immigration to preserve an ideal of nature? Weren’t my children asking something similar, by exposing the very ground and everything built atop it to be layers of mattress, mattress pad, sheets, blankets, and pillows? There wasn’t any bedrock beneath—no layer of natural substratum, from which a boundary would spring forth. It was constructed—all the way down. I couldn’t help but recall this little skit, and reflect on it, as I read Border Walls Gone Green, having been coaxed to pay “attention to how nature is produced,” to how we decide what constitutes nature, and, implicitly, how we decide who is welcome and who is forbidden.
The Future of Migration
This past summer, back up in Michigan, I found myself at a family gathering chatting with my cousin, whom I had not seen in many years. He owns an industrial cleaning company based in Florida. They service one of the major airports in the state, and other big places like that. At one point, my cousin was complaining about the dearth of good workers he had been able to hire of late, and he said, offhand, “I mean, you know, the wall is practically built.” I was struck by this claim for several reasons.
First off, the wall was not—and still is not, as far as I can tell—“practically built.” Second, I wasn’t sure if he was saying this hyperbolically—like, the wall might as well be built, due to the political climate. And on top of all this, I couldn’t tell if my cousin was bemoaning these fraught times and wishing migration was a more relaxed affair, or if he was celebrating the wall (and all it stands for) but just complaining about how it was affecting his business arrangements. For we know that, contradictorily, pro-market-force individuals can be surprisingly fine with sacrificing profits, if the political winds are blowing in the right direction.
This exchange was indicative of how talk of migration rights and borders almost always involves a veiling of, in Hultgren’s words, “actual social desires.” Whatever my cousin was actually communicating about laborers and national strictures was obfuscated by his recourse to “the wall”—a figure that also worked to reify the as-if natural boundary in question. There was America, and there was Mexico: two discrete places, the line between them clear. It was such an offhand, passing comment—and yet it also evinced how, as Hultgren puts it, “the migrant is a liminal figure who operates on the fringe of Empire.” My cousin was, in some way or another, referencing border politics as it relates to actual workers—people who could be hired to clean airports, stadiums, and more. These workers cross borders, or inhabit urban or rural spaces that seem clear and distinct. But, as Hultgren deftly points out, “workers interact with very different natures”—the “wall” in my cousin’s formulation is constructed in an altogether different imaginary, a wilderness that has more in common with the Romantic sublime than with 21st-century territories in a global matrix.
“Border Walls Gone Green” was researched and written well before the election of Trump, which makes it all the more chilling to see how certain political attitudes have congealed since it was published.
As I read Border Walls Gone Green, I had the uncanny feeling that I was reading something I’d read before, or something I’d even just vaguely thought before. This really overcame me as I read Hultgren’s careful analyses of several of the ads by the immigration control alliances that he cites. Then I realized it’s familiar, because it reminds me of what I had tried to do—far more clumsily—in my master’s thesis 16 years ago. In that project, I was looking specifically at SUV ads to see how they deployed ambiguous images of nature as a necessary backdrop and grounding for selling the features and luxuries of their vehicles. I spent time reading—tediously, relentlessly—the language and semiotics of magazine ads for Lincoln Navigators, Subaru Foresters, the Lexus GX, and others. I lingered on the most minor details in the images of the ads and pulled out phrases that drew from the raggedy canon of American nature writing—all to show that the “textual landscape of nature” was totally paradoxical, fraught with ideological assumptions and blind spots.
Describing this early graduate work of mine here, it doesn’t sound as profound as it felt to me then, but reading Hultgren’s book spurred in me a weird feeling of affinity. This work, the painstaking reading through of sometimes obvious-seeming texts, is important and utterly worthwhile, particularly when we are dealing with topics that so easily get glossed over for their surface meanings when it comes to the nature–culture divide—or what should be unquestionably understood as wild space to be protected but also controlled, bordered.
I hadn’t looked seriously at SUV ads in a dozen years. So, with Hultgren’s book in mind, I delved back in. I visited the websites of Jeeps, Blazers, Enclaves, and Explorers. I was both surprised and unsurprised to find so many of the same tropes, the same conundrums, the same contradictions at play. And throughout these sites, I saw how, in Hultgren’s words, “the nature–culture dualism is contingently produced in ways that legitimate particular forms of sovereign power.” Automobility is, of course, entangled with contemporary patterns of migration and political power, and, in SUV marketing materials, these entanglements are put on full display.
It may seem like a swerve away from the contents of the book, but I found myself wanting to do collaborative ad analyses with Hultgren of some of these recent SUV ad campaigns. To look with him to understand how in the selling of these more-natural, border-crossing vehicles, we can also see how “ecocentric epistemologies are themselves imbued with the residues of cultural exclusion.”
How would an “environmental political theory of migration” interpret the marketing campaigns of these vehicles today, as they tout their relative advantages and proliferate their ideological underpinnings? I’ll end this essay with three quick case studies.
Chevrolet’s 2019 Blazer is advertised as “a stylish utility vehicle”:
Blazer is all new, and with versatile two-row seating it’s the right size to fit just about any need. It’s sculpted and stylish with utility inside and out. … Blazer is the perfect sporty SUV for all of your adventures.
The sport utility vehicle has been domesticated: adventure has become a matter of style. All the images on the home page of this SUV are urban, sleek, contemporary.
We have come a long way from the rugged mountains of the SUV ads I was looking at back in 2003. This is a vehicle for migrations complete. In other words, I see in the Chevy Blazer a settling of terms, a strange sense that SUVs no longer need to dominate the wilderness, the borderlands—all have been conquered. The city is the new sole domain of utility. Yet, if this is the case, that migration has become a settled matter in the imaginary of Blazer, then I wonder, to borrow a question from Hultgren, “To what extent can migration function as a form of resistance against dominant forms of sovereignty?”
For much of 2018 the landing page of the Ford Explorer featured a panoramic beachside vista, rocky dome in the background—and a red SUV gleaming in the Pacific surf, appearing to almost float atop the wet sand. So much depends on a red Explorer, glazed in ocean water, beside a sovereign land. The obviousness could not be more plain, and yet, in crafting this picture of an SUV literally on the coast—another sort of as-if neat and tidy border—we see precisely why we need to pursue, according to Hultgren, “less attachment to localized places and more attention to the social connections that weave places together; less apprehension about the end of nature and more attention to ending nature (as a universalized ontological zone).”
Finally, I went to the website for the 2019 Jeep Wrangler, and here I was swept over by some good old-fashioned Nature: craggy peaks, turbulent rivers, piny hillsides, scree fields, snowy vales … all the hallmarks of what I set out to explore 16 years ago, here underscored as “Freedom refined.”
The Jeep is perhaps the apotheosis of a certain environmental aesthetic. This is a way of organizing humans and other living and nonliving things into a strict hierarchy, from a position of power that must be “wrangled” by exclusively “free” agents. As such, I see in Jeep how the practice of environmental organization must be “imbued with an alternative ontology.”
This menagerie of aesthetics and rhetoric leads me to one of Hultgren’s late, poignant questions in Border Walls Gone Green: “Who, then, is the ‘we’ of an environmentalism of migration?”
This “we” cannot be adequately addressed or defined apart from its modes of transport—which are also often its modes of border patrol. I have just touched lightly on three recent SUV ad campaigns here, but I think there is important work to be done at this dissolving juncture of automobility, so bound up with the politics of national identity, and yet where we might also begin to more rigorously think about, in Hultgren’s astute phrasing, “the collective idea of ‘America’ [as] not rejected but [as] retooled by a critical ethos that seeks to nurture respect for difference.”
The all-too-common occurrence of road rage is ground zero for an expressed lack of respect for difference; glitzy images of SUVs ditching civilization for the wilderness only romanticize this sentiment. What would it mean to radically revise our dependence on all the technologies and presuppositions that undergird automobility? Striking out for the mountains in a Jeep or Explorer is always dependent on walls, boundaries, and borders that keep others far away and lower in a class system. Disentangling this knot is critical to actually changing the ways we erect, enforce, and travel across political boundaries.
Hultgren’s book was researched and written well before the election of Trump, which makes it all the more chilling to see how certain political attitudes have congealed in the few years since Border Walls Gone Green was published. Hultgren’s analyses offer a schematic of what would become the new normal in border debates.
But Border Walls Gone Green also exhibits philosophical equipment that we might use to carve a way out of this mess, especially a supple formulation of place-in-relation. This is a conceptual framework that shatters any fantasy of neat and tidy borders, making way for other modes of coexistence that can recognize locality without reifying it.
Even as Hultgren seems to have anticipated a swell of anti-immigration in the US (and elsewhere), he also lays out the issues at stake in a way that is refreshingly clear-sighted. With a raft of new political hopefuls heading toward 2020, the southern border of the US is sure to be newly contested and defined (or, perhaps, undefined). Trump’s recent insistence that the US is “full” evinces this, if obliquely. In such a discursive matrix with real political implications, Border Walls Gone Green becomes an urgent text for reassessing the presuppositions of nature and culture that delineate how national lines are drawn—and how they might be sketched anew.
This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.