What’s In A Word?

Betsy Hartmann

Conservative anti-immigrant and population control forces are once again

threatening to take control of the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s most

influential environmental organizations. A September 26 resolution by the Board

of Directors changed Club policy on population from supporting population

stabilization to advocating "reductions in the population of the United

States and the world." Progressive population activists in the Club are

disturbed by the serious nature of this change in policy. What may seem like a

minor change in language has major implications for the reputation of the Sierra

Club and its relationship to immigrants, communities of color and women’s groups

in the US and overseas.

Population stabilization, the term used by most US environmental

organizations, implies declining population growth rates over time, a phenomenon

now occurring more rapidly than anticipated in most countries of the world. The

world’s annual population growth rate is now 1.33 percent a year, down from a

rate of over two percent in 1965-70. The UN estimates that world population will

reach an estimated 9 billion in 2050, at which point it will start to level off

as most families achieve ‘replacement-level fertility’ or a two-child norm.

The Sierra Club’s call for population "reductions" instead endorses

negative population growth, below replacement level fertility. How does the Club

hope to achieve this, given that most demographers agree that barring disaster,

three billion more people will be added to the planet’s population in the next

fifty years?

Here the logic of the Club’s new population policy is seriously flawed. It

combines support for population reductions with other Club policy which

advocates addressing population by positive means. These include championing the

empowerment and equity of women, supporting reproductive health services, and

addressing the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic

security, human rights, and environmentally sustainable consumption.

These lofty goals, if fully implemented, would contribute to the present

trend of declining population growth rates, but not to reductions in population

size. These reductions would result from a likely combination of three very

negative factors: on a purely national level, a halt to immigration, and on a

global level, draconian one-child family policies and/or a massive rise in death

rates — hardly a women’s health and human rights agenda.

Unfortunately, rising death rates are already a reality in many African

countries hard-hit by the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of

the UN AIDS agency, estimates that half of all newborn babies in Africa now

carry the HIV virus. In the 29 most severely affected countries, life expectancy

has decreased to 47 years and population growth rates are dropping. So far the

UN says absolute population size is not likely to decline in Africa as a result

of AIDS, but that scenario cannot be ruled out entirely.

Given the severity of the AIDS crisis and the coercive means required to

achieve negative population growth, advocating population reductions is

ethically problematic, to say the least. Why then is the Sierra Club willing to

risk alienating health and human rights activists? The answer lies in the Club’s

internal controversy over immigration.

In April 1998 Sierra Club members voted on two ballot initiatives.

Alternative A, put forward by anti -immigration proponents, would have put the

Club on record as supporting a "reduction of net immigration" as a

component of a "comprehensive population policy for the United


Alternative B, supported by the Club’s staff, Board of Directors, and many

grassroots volunteers, reaffirmed the Club’s neutral policy on immigration and

adopted a women’s empowerment/human rights approach toward population and

migration issues. Many in the environmental community breathed a deep sigh of

relief when Alternative B won by a 60 percent majority. The ‘greening of hate’

— the scapegoating of immigrants for environmental degradation — had been

soundly defeated.

But not for long. Almost immediately after their defeat, Alternative A

proponents set out to push environmental justice and reproductive and human

rights advocates off the Club’s National Population Committee (NPC) and fill it

with their own sympathizers. Judy Kunofsky and Director Anne Ehrlich, both

prominent members of the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform

(FAIR), meanwhile maintained their important oversight positions of the NPC.

Currently serving on the NPC is Carole Wilmoth, Executive Director of the US

Sustainable Population Policy Project, largely a coalition of anti-immigration

groups which are pushing for a US ‘national population policy’ to combat the

threat of overpopulation.

In a December 22, 1998 letter to the Board of Directors, former NPC members

Karen Jones, Karen Kalla, Julie Beezley, Santos Gomez and Cathi Tactaquin

expressed their disappointment that "the NPC we were part a part of — the

most racially and ethnically diverse in the Club, with a majority of female

members, has been treated in a manner where none of us could ethically reapply

for membership. Our committee has been replaced with an all Anglo, two-thirds

male committee which includes strong national leaders closely associated with

organizations providing substantial funding for Alternative A." They

pointed out how "the wording, spirit, and intent of Alternative B have been

subverted to the extent that many of the racial and ethnic minorities we’ve

worked with have been, or will be, driven from association with the Club."

Activists also charge that the Club’s leadership has been moving to undercut

democratic decision-making procedures. In September the Board of Directors

sought a legal opinion under the California Non-Profit Corporations Code which

limits the power of members’ initiatives. Members’ votes no longer have the

authority to bind the Board on general matters involving conservation policy or

governance. This legal opinion could further undermine Alternative B. It also

changes the very nature of the Sierra Club, which has had a long tradition of

membership democracy.

The recent policy shift from population stabilization to population

reductions reflects the disenfranchisement of those who supported the

Alternative B approach to population issues as well as the growing power of

anti-immigration proponents. These include Dr. Alan Kuper, chair of the

population and environment committee of the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club. The

policy change was made as part of a deal to keep an initiative from Kuper off

the ballot. Hence, the schizophrenic message it conveys. The population

reduction language is Kuper’s, the rest on women’s empowerment and human rights

the language of Alternative B. The two mix as well as oil and water.

Negative Population Growth and other anti-immigration groups have heralded

the policy change as a victory for their side. Meanwhile, Carl Pope, Sierra Club

Executive Director, is busy doing spin control, claiming that the Club has not

altered its population policy or retreated from its neutrality on immigration.

But no amount of spin control can obscure the fact that calling for

population reductions gives succor to the Right and implicitly, if

unintentionally, endorses some combination of coercive birth control, increasing

death rates and restrictive immigration policies. In 1998 the Sierra Club

membership voted overwhelmingly against such a program. They should ask why a

year later the Board of Directors is dismantling democracy and going against

their will.

— Betsy Hartmann is the Director of the Population and Development Program

at Hampshire College and a founding member of the Committee on Women,

Population and the Environment. A version of this article originally appeared

in the January 2000 issue of The Progressive. It is also forthcoming in

Political Environments.


Leave a comment