With the election of President Biden, the project to build the border wall got shut down. Funds were cut, and contractors received orders to halt construction. Many miles of wall/fence got built, but the project stopped before critical animal migration corridors could be completely cut off. It’s tempting at this point to pat ourselves on the back and celebrate the wall’s death. After all, it’s dead, right?
But the wall isn’t really dead. It’s a lot more like the bad guy in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s frozen and pieces of it are laying about, but the pieces are only waiting for a better political environment that will let them come together and form a complete wall. In fact, it’s already starting to happen under our noses.
Why The Wall Is A CleanTech Issue (& An Important One)
Before I get into the ways the wall just won’t die, I do want to give readers a quick refresher on why we cover this topic. CleanTechnica isn’t a political website, and we have writers from all over the political spectrum. The point in covering this isn’t to shame Republicans or lift Democrats up, nor is it to push progressive policy or “open borders” when we know readers don’t all agree on these divisive issues. The goal is to use modern technology to minimize harm to the environment.
To explain the real goal of this article, I need to compare it to transportation.
If we wanted the cleanest possible form of transportation, we’d all be walking and taking the most efficient forms of public transit, and we would try to stay home as much as possible. At the same time, though, we have to be practical. People want to leave the house, even when it’s not strictly necessary, because we’re human. Some people literally can’t walk to the nearest transit station. Public transit sucks in many places, especially in the United States, and there’s no political will to fix that. On top of that, many people just don’t want to use transit, so electric cars and micromobility have an important role to play in reducing emissions and addressing climate change, even if they’re not the absolute best solution possible.
People and goods must be moved, and we have to pick from the best available and workable solutions to meet human needs.
The wall is much the same. There’s a need, real or perceived (take your pick), to control the movement of people between the United States and Mexico. Regardless of one’s personal views on the issue, it’s undeniable that there’s a lot of political demand to do something to exert control of immigration and imports between ports of entry. Those of us who disagree with controlling the border and even militarizing it aren’t going to convince the people who want that to just give up on it any time soon.
But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still choices to be made. We have to look at the range of politically realistic technologies choices and choose which set of minimizes negative environmental effects.
The Range Of Choices We Actually Have
The strictest possible control would probably be something like a double wall on the border with a trench full of deadly snakes between the walls, and a literal army of people to both feed the snakes and shoot anyone who still gets through. Then, there’d be a third army tasked with destroying any drones or planes that go over the top without authorization. I don’t have to explain why nobody supports something that extreme. The monetary, environmental, and human costs of such a deadly impassible line are more than 95-99% of the population can stomach.
Within the Overton window (the range of policy measures are acceptable to the public), more rational solutions for border control present themselves. A single wall patrolled by Border Patrol officers who arrest those who still get through is one example that’s toward the edge of the window. Vehicle barriers and mostly non-deadly enforcement are another possible solution, and one that’s less environmentally destructive. There are also ideas like a “virtual border fence” that relies on sensors, cameras, and a smaller cadre of law officers that respond in a more targeted fashion to what the robots detect (assuming it doesn’t become a dystopian surveillance nightmare) .
Even milder is the idea that we should use intelligence agencies, radar, and aircraft surveillance to target only the gravest of actual threats crossing the borders, and leave the migrant laborers and small-time smugglers alone, similar to the border policies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (before Pancho Villa raided Columbus). But we’re getting to the edge of the window with this one.
On the other side of the Overton window, there are other policy options, like eliminating all border enforcement, creating a North American Union that mostly functionally borders on the continent like the EU, or embracing anarchism and a stateless society of some kind (which would eliminate the border). These options are obviously outside of what most or nearly all of the population would find acceptable in 2022, and will remain politically impossible unless the window moves or expands to the left or toward non-conservative libertarianism.
Minimizing Harms Is Key
Personally, I’m for a package of policy that solves root causes of problems in the United States and Mexico, minimizes or eliminates the need for border enforcement, and then ends it as much as possible. We would still need some basic barbed wire fences to keep cattle from straying too far from their owners, but a properly-designed fence wouldn’t have any measurable effect on the movement of wildlife, water, etc. We’d also save a lot of emissions by not needing to send tens of thousands of cops out there every day in gas-powered vehicles. There may even be room for protected wilderness areas as needed for wildlife to thrive and move, and for people on foot, horses, and e-bikes to go enjoy (if we can embrace more rational wilderness regulations).
But I realize that this is all very politically unlikely. We’re stuck choosing between options that are politically possible and figuring out which ones present the smallest threat to the environment.
To minimize harms, we need to move away from wall-building and toward things like vehicle barriers and virtual fences. But, that’s not what’s happening. If things stay on their present course, we can expect continued construction of the wall in Texas and a complete wall in 2023 or 2025. In Part 2, I’m going to explain why this is and that if we act fast, we can still keep this from happening.
Featured image by US Department of Homeland Security (Public Domain)
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