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Meet Michael Tobias: Ecologist, Animal Lover, Anti-Immigrant Activist

Guest Blogger • Mar 02, 2012

by Sophia Olkhova

What makes environmental racism so insidious is that at first glance is that it seems to rely purely on numbers and nature: two realms that purportedly exist outside of politics. However, ecologist Michael Tobias has made his career out of drawing connections between these apparently disparate ways of seeing the world.

Tobias relies on the assumption that numbers are indisputable and separate from politics, to issue his new public-service announcement—a to-the-point tally of the increasing populations of California, the United States, and the planet. Ominous background music and lighting accent his urging for “a serious dialogue” about curbing population growth—with clean water, air, food, and our children’s future listed as the victims of our inability to enact such austerity measures.

At first, it seems very straightforward: acting for the health of our planet helps everyone, regardless of political affiliation, race, class, gender, or nationality, ecology says. It ensures enough resources to continue going around, now and in the future. However, this viewpoint both fails to account for the true mis-distribution of resources currently in effect today, and also aims not for an equal distribution of future resources, but for a continued disproportionate favoring of resources for the Western, white world.

How about the animals, though? Surely animal rights exists outside the realm of human bigotry, right? The website of the Dancing Star Foundation, of which Tobias is president, would certainly have you think so.

The site’s soothing National Geographic-esque graphics feature a peacefully poised butterfly, with text promoting a healthy setting for its species to continue making its home. Who could argue? Through his work on Forbes’ blog, as well, Tobias advocates for less reliance on oil for agriculture, so as to produce less fossil fuels and keep the planet cleaner.

In these articles, he frequently features adorable pictures of animals with the stated reason of showing readers the preciousness of lives that are endangered, but also with the intended effect of also manipulating readers. And it works: I had no issue with any of these factors, at first. Tobias seemed like a stand-up humanitarian guy, who just wanted the best for our planet.

Unfortunately, there are many more overlaps between ecological and political lenses than first appear. To start with, Tobias’ PSA features Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) in the credits—the anti-immigrant organization that also helps fund his Dancing Star Foundation. The PSA is uploaded by user crowdifornia on behalf of CAPS; on its Youtube.com channel, it is sandwiched by more blatantly anti-immigrant videos, which blame immigrants for the state’s dissatisfying job market, gang violence, declining public school systems, and global warming.

Such unapologetic ties to CAPS belie the Dancing Star Foundation’s claim to encourage respect for all living beings. Here is where this piece of the environmental-justice movement proves to be rotten: ties to the Tanton Network, which attempts to diminish the amount of resources “taken up” by immigrants of color, imply an attempt by ecologists such as Tobias to preserve world resources only for a select population.

The welfare of immigrants—and, in a large sense, people of color worldwide—seems to be a lower priority to Tobias than the welfare of animals, casting his crusades on behalf of animal rights in quite a dim, un-humanitarian light.

The contradictions abound in what seems at first like a straightforward push for ecological health. In claiming to be simply about facts, and beyond political motives, ecologists like Tobias can avoid tough questions about the implications of their messages; and can escape examining the tangible effects that their scary predictions about the future level on vulnerable populations of today.


Sophia Olkhova is completing her senior thesis in cognitive science at Hampshire College, and an intern for Hampshire’s Population Development (PopDev) program.

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