Population, Immigration, & the Environment


During March and April the national Sierra Club membership voted by a 20 percent margin
against a ballot initiative which would have adopted a Club policy calling for a reduction
in U.S. immigration. Out of the 78,069 members who mailed in ballots, a 60.1 percent
majority voted to preserve the Club’s long-standing position of
"neutrality" on the issue of U.S. immigration levels. It was a significant
victory for social and environmental justice activists within the Sierra Club who fought
hard against a racist, anti-immigrant lobby centered primarily outside the Club and which
spent thousands of dollars in an effort to influence the election.

Despite this victory, however, that the immigration issue made it as far as it did
within the country’s oldest and largest environmental organization demonstrates the
effectiveness with which the right wing has exploited people’s fears about the
"population crisis." It also reveals the level to which mainstream discussion of
the root causes of environmental degradation has fallen over the years.


The Population Problem

One organization working to unite environmentalists and social justice activists is the
Political Ecology Group (PEG) based in San Francisco. Another is the Institute for Food
and Development Policy, also called Food First, in Oakland. Both these organizations have
well documented research and analysis exposing the myths behind the "population
crisis" and revealing the root causes of environmental degradation—causes, they
say, which lie in social institutions that favor profits over people and the environment.

While most environmentalists today agree that profit-seeking corporations and
government policy play a critical role in the environmental crisis, many still harbor
oversimplified notions that population growth, if not a direct cause of environmental
degradation, is nevertheless the main ecological threat. Ever since the publication in
1968 of Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb, this notion has slowly increased in
popularity. The image of a run-away population "explosion" exceeding the
earth’s "carrying capacity" and leading to ecological devastation has a
certain dramatic appeal, yet adds little to the formation of effective strategies for
ecological sustainability. It also does much to foment racist, anti-immigrant sentiments.

The debate focuses almost exclusively on absolute numbers of people, ignoring the
varying environmental impacts of different social institutions and classes. Charts and
graphs depicting "out-of-control" population growth replace research analysis on
exactly which people, where, are affecting the environment, and how. The impact of an
immigrant family, for example, living in a one-bedroom apartment and using mass transit
pales in comparison to that of a wealthy family living in a single family home with a
swimming pool and two cars. "The average Swiss," points out Walden Bello, former
director of Food First, "pours 2,000 times more toxic waste into the environment than
the average Sahelian farmer." The U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s
population yet consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources, and with the richest 1.1
billion people on the planet consuming 64 percent of the wealth and the poorest 1.1
billion just 2 percent, it makes little sense to blame population as a whole for
today’s environmental crisis.

Despite the fact that the wealthy consume far greater resources than the poor, it is
not consumers, but producers—and the social institutions in which they
operate—which account for the vast majority of environmental degradation. Most
consumers have little control over industrial production and consumption decisions, and
most industrial production and consumption decisions are made with little regard for
population levels. The military, for example, is the nation’s largest single
polluter, and it does so regardless of the number of people who happen to be living. U.S.
transnational corporations are aggressively marketing to increase consumption in countries
like Mexico and China who have large populations yet have traditionally been low per
capita consumers. As Santos Gomez, member of PEG’s organizing board states,
"consumption varies far more widely as a function of marketing than the absolute
numbers of people, or even individual consumer choices." Only if one believes the
laissez-faire notion that supply merely fills demand (including a demand for nuclear
weapons, we presume, and answering machines designed to break down after 500 uses) can one
blame consumers for the environmental degradation resulting from industrial production.

Even land development has little to do with population growth. Sprawling suburbs in the
U.S. which gobble up prime agricultural land and wildlife habitat are planned and built by
developers for the sake of profits and are increasing six times faster than the
population. Population density also has no impact on the environment per se. Holland, for
example, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 4,500 people
per 1,000 hectares. It is also one of the most ecologically strong, devoting 10 percent of
its land to ecological protection. Compare this to Brazil with only 170 people per 1,000
hectares and an unprecedented rate of rainforest destruction and it becomes clear that
corporate and government policy, not population density, accounts for environmental
degradation. In the U.S. many environmentalists are actually calling for greater
population density with improved mass transit, thus reducing suburban sprawl and the need
for automobiles.

The notion that higher population equals greater demand, however, and that individual
consumer choice fuels production, are basic assumptions underlying the arguments of
anti-population-growth environmentalists. Dick Schneider, for example, population
committee co-chair of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Chapter and proponent of the
defeated anti-immigration initiative says the solution to the ecological crisis—along
with reducing population growth—is adopting a lifestyle of "voluntary
simplicity," a personal philosophy which he believes most immigrants don’t
share. "Most people aren’t enlightened in this way," he told me in a recent
phone interview, "they just go to work in the factory and don’t think about this
stuff." Aside from stereotypical race and class assumptions, this view also embraces
the false and extremely oversimplified assumption that overproduction—and thus
pollution—results from consumer demand.

This is not to say that choosing a more environmentally and socially responsible
lifestyle is unimportant, but only that consumer choices have marginal impact on the
production decisions which really impact the environment, and over which the public has
little control. In fact, many corporate actions significantly restrict the public’s
ability to choose more sustainable lifestyles. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example,
General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil (now Chevron) bought out and dismantled the
electric trolley system in Los Angeles and 100 other cities in order to guarantee demand
for their products. Compared to the rail system in Europe, our highway-intensive
transportation system is but one example of how powerful corporate decisions make it
difficult for many people to "live simply."

The above examples are meant to demonstrate that in a system driven by profit fewer
people in no way insures less environmental impact. Likewise, more people in no way
implies greater impact. This is not to imply that numbers of people should be disregarded
altogether, but rather that the problems associated with high population should be
considered within the context of a capitalist global economy.


Population and Globalization

Overpopulation, environmental degradation, and social injustice all result from the
same global economic system that seeks to increase profits at all costs. As local
economies in the Third World are replaced with profit-driven, export-oriented
industries—largely the result of "structural adjustment" programs imposed
by the World Bank and IMF to benefit wealthy investors—poverty and inequality
increase. This leads to higher fertility rates as poor families have more children in
order to generate income and ensure economic security in their old age. As Bello points
out, "inequality amidst poverty provides the most fertile conditions for high
reproductive rates, just as rising living standards constitute the best guarantee that
countries will experience the demographic transition to lower fertility rates."

Sri Lanka is a case in point. Since the end of World War II the Sri Lankan government
sought to eliminate poverty by supporting free and subsidized food programs, higher
educational levels, and greater employment opportunities for women. These limited social
welfare policies have produced impressive results. Between 1960 and 1985, Sri Lanka’s
fertility rate dropped by a remarkable 40 percent, occurring hand-in-hand with a dramatic
decline in the infant mortality rate to 27 deaths per 1,000 live births.

The Indian State of Kerala is another example. Like Sri Lanka, Kerala’s fertility
rate dropped nearly 40 percent between 1960 and 1985, and during the decades prior the
government instituted a number of social welfare programs which significantly raised the
living standards of the poorest sectors of society. "Fair price" shops were set
up to keep the cost of rice and other essentials within reach of the poor. Increased
expenditures on public health, the construction of clinics in poor areas, and land reform
abolishing tenancy all greatly improved the economic security of poor families. Higher
education for women also led to greater control over reproduction. As Bello reports,
"the literacy rate for females in Kerala is two-and-a-half times the all-India
average." All these factors contributed to Kerala’s remarkable decrease in birth

Even China’s low birth rates were achieved during a pre-1980 system which
guaranteed roughly equal access to essential goods and services. Reversing the causal
connection advanced by proponents of draconian population control measures, Solon
Barraclough argues: "China’s one-child program would have gotten nowhere if land
reform, education, health services and relative food security for the vast majority of the
population had not come first." And Bello: "It was the radical opening up of
access to land and food, along with an assurance of old-age security, that allowed the
Chinese people to respond positively to the government’s family planning program and
opt for fewer children." The successes were short-lived as birth rates in China have
risen since 1980 when massive economic reforms privatized agriculture and a great part of
industrial production. These privatizings have been accompanied by the erosion of many
social welfare programs and the widening of income inequalities. Frances Moore Lappe and
Rachel Schurman explain the rise in birth rates as a direct result of these reforms:
"Thrown back on their own family resources, many Chinese again see having
children—especially boys—as beneficial, both as a substitute for lost public
protections and as a means of taking maximum advantage of the new economic system."

Overpopulation is not so much a cause as it is a symptom of the same corporate and
government policies that produce both environmental degradation and social injustice. The
solutions, therefore, are not coercive population control measures like forced
sterilization or militarizing the borders, but rather the radical transformation of the
global economic system. On a grassroots level much of this work is already being done, but
much more needs to happen.


The Greening of Hate

The controversy within the environmental movement over immigration has much to do with
racist, right-wing organizations exploiting people’s understandable fears of
ecological destruction. Melanie Okamoto, PEG’s campaign organizer, has been tracking
the growing number of anti-immigrant, pseudo-environmental groups that have been forming
over the years. According to Okamoto, these racist organizations, many with environmental
sounding names and white supremacist connections, have been "sounding the alarm about
population growth—in particular the number of immigrants—as the chief threat to
the environment." In order to further their anti-immigrant agenda they have been
heavily lobbying the environmental movement, including mainstream organizations like the
Sierra Club.

One such group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, was a leader in the
campaign for Proposition 187. Their founding president and current board member, John
Tanton, heads the anti-bilingual group, U.S. English, and has specifically targeted the
Sierra Club for the anti-immigrant message. In a 1986 memo printed in the San Jose
Mercury News
Tanton writes, "as whites see their power and control over their
lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an
explosion?" He also said, "The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration
issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club." Another group is
the Carrying Capacity Network (CCN). Along with their professed environmental concerns,
CCN sponsored the grossly inaccurate and now discredited Huddle study on the costs of
immigration which was used to rationalize California’s Proposition 187. Their 1996
briefing book contains a 200-page section of arguments against immigration based on an
explicit belief in the superiority of white, Anglo-Saxon culture. "There is certainly
no reason for Western civilization to have guilt trips laid on it by champions of cultures
based on despotism, superstition, tribalism and fanaticism," they argue. "In
this regard the Afrocentrists are especially absurd. The West needs no lectures on the
superior virtues of those ‘sun people’…who show themselves incapable of
operating a democracy."

A third organization, Population-Environment Balance (PEB) sent out a mass mailing in
January 1998 urging readers to lobby the Sierra Club, and even provided instructions on
how to join the Club in order to pack the vote for the anti-immigrant position. Their
honorary chair and member of their advisory board is a biologist named Garrett Hardin, a
former vice-president of the American Eugenics Society and also board member of Federation
for American Immigration Reform. In Omni magazine Hardin is quoted as saying,
"It would be better to encourage the breeding of more intelligent people rather than
the less intelligent." He also opposes sending food relief to the poor because their
numbers are straining the "carrying capacity" of the planet, and the Los
Angeles Times
reports him saying, "People are mistaken in taking a rosy view of
multiculturalism. Look at Yugoslavia—it leads to tyranny and social chaos." PEB
has also been associated with a San Diego anti-Mexican group, Voices of Citizens Together,
whose web site proclaims "When the Mexicans take over they’re going to kick the
crap out of the environmentalists and turn California into a cesspool." PEB invited
this group to the "Stabilizing America’s Population Conference," where
attendees learned how to attack immigration using environmental arguments.

A fourth organization, Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS), worked on the
original Sierra Club initiative drive, gathering signatures. CAPS endorses the program of
the Alliance for Stabilizing America’s Population (ASAP) which calls for increased
deportations, repealing the 14th amendment, and denying citizenship to children born to
undocumented parents. Eugenicist Garret Harrett is on their advisory board.

The racist underpinnings of these pseudo-environmental organizations are underscored by
the fact that many of them and their board members receive money from the Pioneer Fund,
which has been described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a New York
organization that finances research seeking proof of the genetic superiority of the white
race," and by the London Sunday Telegraph as a "neo-nazi organization
closely integrated with the far Right in American politics." The Pioneer Fund was
established in 1937 by Wycliffe Draper a "textile millionaire who advocated sending
blacks back to Africa" (Discovery Journal, 7/9/94) and Harry Laughlin, a
"eugenics advocate [who] received an honorary degree from Heidelberg University for
his contributions to Nazi eugenics and ‘racial hygiene’" (Irish Times,
May 23, 1994). Since 1982, the Pioneer Fund has given over a million dollars to the
Federation for American Immigration Reform and other anti-immigrant organizations.

Just before the Sierra Club election a new group was formed to support the
anti-immigrant initiative calling themselves Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization
(SUSPS). In January they sent a mass mailing to the entire Sierra Club membership of over
500,000 people. With seemingly ample resources to influence the election, they have yet to
disclose their budget or funding sources. SUSPS advocates a return to pre-1965 immigration
levels established by the overtly racist Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed strict
ethnic quotas to ensure that most immigrants were from Northern and Western Europe.

The exact connection between SUSPS and the racist Right is unclear, but their January
SUSPS mailing contains an article by Ben Zuckerman entitled "The Ballot Initiative
and Humanitarian Concerns," which reveals the sentiments behind their anti-immigrant
position. The article argues that even if the environmental problem were not a
consideration, Sierrans should oppose immigration for "humanitarian" reasons.
Pitting low-income Americans against immigrants, Zuckerman writes, "consider first
the implications of massive immigration on people already in the United States…Poor
Americans and persons of color realize their lives are impacted adversely by… the
downward pressure on wages caused by increased competition for jobs, the dislocation of
residents from traditional neighborhoods, the burdens on schools from masses of
non-English speaking children, the competition for other government-supplied services by
increasing numbers of newcomers, and so on… the Sierra Club has chosen to ignore
disadvantaged Americans in favor of immigrants, many of whom are not disadvantaged at
all." And just in case the reader thinks Zuckerman’s heartfelt concern for the
poor extends only to Americans, he goes on to tell us why closing the borders helps poor
people in other countries as well: "Many more mouths to feed here may mean that the
US will be unable to export food to the world’s hungry," he argues, completely
ignoring the economic and political factors which have always determined food distribution
and relief.

In a much more subtle but equally disingenuous argument he also writes, "The US
already contributes much more to global environmental impacts than any other nation, and
the larger the US population, the more havoc we cause…population growth in the US must
be addressed because it strengthens the very multinational economic forces that lead to
environmental destruction abroad." How population growth "strengthens"
multinational corporations he does not explain, yet with the stroke of a pen he relieves
them of responsibility for their socially and environmentally destructive actions in the
developing world, blaming instead the very people who seek refuge from those actions.

In the same mailing Dick Schneider gives a similar argument, subtly blaming immigrants
for environmental degradation. "Many immigrants," he says, "are moving away
from their native lands because of environmental degradation at home [which results from]
the high demand Americans place on foreign resources. As U.S. demand grows because of its
growing population, that in itself causes more environmental destruction abroad, which in
turn forces more people to flee their homelands, some of whom emigrate here." The
only way to stop this "destructive feedback," Schneider says, is by
"stopping the growth of the U.S. population."

The argument that American consumer demand causes multinational corporations to employ
environmentally destructive practices abroad—or for that matter at home—is
patently false, yet the seemingly simple logic of the capitalist argument that supply
merely fills demand has a firm hold on the imagination of many mainstream
environmentalists who blame themselves for the plastic container their ice cream comes in
rather than the corporation that produced it and the macro-economic system that locks us
into a perpetual cycle of over-production and over-consumption.

Another dangerous tactic being used by the anti-immigrant Right is their effort to
divide environmentalists from social justice activists. Consider the aptly misnamed
National Grassroots Alliance (NGA), an anti-immigrant organization claiming to represent
over 40 "immigration reform groups" nationwide. In a Spring article, NGA board
member Gary E. Jordan accuses the Sierra Club board of a "calculated conspiracy"
to pack their National Population Committee with "outsiders from the
pro-immigration/social justice clique." He continues, "in recent years
immigrant, feminist, gender/bender and worker rights have oddly become foremost goals for
the Club… eclipsing valid environmental concerns." He also lambastes PEG, calling
their criticism of the anti-immigrant position "unsubstantiated accusations mixed
with heavy doses of ‘social justice’ babble," with the words "social
justice" in quotes.

These efforts may be having some influence, yet most mainstream environmental
organizations are not buying the anti-immigrant argument. "Out of hundreds of
environmental organizations lobbied over the years by these groups," says Brad
Erickson, coordinator of PEG, "only the Wilderness Society has officially signed on
to the anti-immigrant position." The recent victory within the Sierra Club is a good
sign that the alliance between environmentalists and social justice activists remains
strong. However, until our mainstream environmental awareness is more clearly focused on
the corporations and profit-based economic systems that are truly responsible for
environmental degradation, the racist right will still be able to exploit people’s
fears about the "population crisis" to further their anti-immigrant agenda.

Emanuel Sferios is a social justice activist living in Berkeley, California. For more
information contact: Political Ecology Group, 965 Mission Street, Suite 700, San
Francisco, CA 94103; www.igc.apc.org/peg/index.html.