Tragedy at Discovery

On Wednesday, 43-year-old James Jay Lee was killed during a four-hour standoff with police after walking into the Discovery Network headquarters with a handgun and a bomb secured to his chest, and taking three workers hostage.

In news reports, Lee is being called an environmental militant and an eco-terrorist. Blogs like Center for New Community’s Imagine 2050 and Think Progress’ Wonk Room point out that his views also reflect population control alarmism and anti-immigrant politics.

Lee’s anguished, vitriolic political views are visible across a series of websites and blogs, as well as traditional newspapers, like the free D.C. Express, where he published a full-page ad condeming the Discovery Network and calling for an extended protest of their offices. His own website, as confirmed by federal law enforcement sources, contained a list of eleven demands, which seem to be directed at humanity as a whole, rather than Discovery alone.

These demands range from the specific (that Discovery and affiliates screen daily prime time programs based on Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael [#1] and cancel “all programs promoting war” [#3]) to the incoherently broad.

“Civilization must be exposed for the filth it is. That, and all its disgusting religious-cultural roots and greed. Broadcast this message until the pollution in the planet is reversed and the human population goes down! This is your obligation. If you think it isn’t, then get hell off the planet! Breathe Oil! It is the moral obligation of everyone living otherwise what good are they??” [#4]

Throughout the document, which includes several references to climate change, the US economy and unemployment, the most consistent theme is that human beings are filth, our existence is literal pollution, and there are too many of us. Specifically, Lee targets immigrants to the US as being responsible for pollution and environmental degradation — a message that white nationalist foundations have consistently tried to portray as ‘green‘ — and writes of “anchor-babies,” a dehumanizing epithet for the children of immigrants popular among right-wing activists hoping to dismantle the fourteenth amendment.

Of eleven demands, only two fail to reference human population and “overpopulation” as leading causes of global problems. The other nine rail against “glorifying human birthing” [#10] and “feeding the population growth of the Third World” [#5], and demand that the Discovery Channel “talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people’s brains until they get it!!” [#7].

Lee’s unbalanced ranting and violent actions may indicate an unaddressed mental illness, but his fury and misery have been stoked by external political and cultural scapegoating. As the Washington Post observed today, the reactions of those commenting on this story have by and large “devolved into a raucous right-left argument.” Who will claim responsibility for this enraged and dangerous man? The left, which acknowledges the frightening realities of climate change, or the right, which openly blames social problems on undocumented immigrants?

Unfortunately, the foundation of Lee’s confused arguments — that there are too many people and they are destruction incarnate — appears in different guises throughout the political spectrum. Many within the mainstream environmental movement prefer to blame human fertility rather than consumption levels for resource depletion and environmental degradation. This belief has found allies and supporters among funders on the political right, who see an opportunity to broaden support for population control and increased criminalization of undocumented immigrants. Resistance has appeared in the form of coalitions, like those environmental organizations and other activists currently pledging their commitment to building an anti-racist movement.

As I wrote in DifferenTakes earlier this summer, using arguments like overpopulation theory and scapegoating is unnecessary and unhelpful in attempts to mobilize around the imminent climate crisis or global social inequity. In fact, these tactics actively endanger our ability to create broad, justice-centered social movements. We on the left risk the integrity of our work unless we accept this unsettling event as a catalyst, calling us to examine what our underlying beliefs are, and what they mean about us. Hopefully we can resist the pull of apocalyptic thinking, and work instead to highlight the fact that humanity has the creative capacity to change the destructive behaviors, systems and structures we are responsible for. This is the belief that will carry us forward toward new solutions.

•   •   •

Katie McKay Bryson is Assistant Director of PopDev, a small, progressive think tank and activist organization housed at Hampshire College; working to support new global feminist voices in the intersecting fields of reproductive freedom, environmental justice, international development, and peace.  Katie is an activist and writer who has previously worked on issues of environmental justice and military contamination in Alaska, as well as access to housing and free legal aid.



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