By Donella Meadows
–April 2, 1998–
Given our history, our beneficent self-image, and the fact that we are nearly all descendants of immigrants, Americans get emotional about immigration. So the Sierra Club is in trouble.
As early as 1970, the Club resolved to “bring about stabilization of the population first of the United States and then of the world.” In 1989 it stated that “immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization.” These brave stands did not go so far as to suggest specific immigration limits — which made some Sierra Club members mad.
Population activists within the Club pushed for a zero net migration policy. Social justice activists said no, the problem isn’t poor immigrants, it’s rich folks driving sports utility vehicles. “We could stop immigration tomorrow, but would that save the environment?” “If we try to make the U.S. an oasis in a desertified world, our days on this land are numbered.”
In 1996 the board decided that the issue was so divisive that the Club should have no immigration policy. The population folks found that unacceptable and forced a referendum, which is going on now. All 550,000 Sierra Club members have their ballots and are being deluged with broadsides. Immigration opponents are accusing the leadership of denial, disinformation, and dirty tricks. They in turn are being called racists and elitists. Environmentalists can be amazingly nasty to one another.
I have opinions about immigration, but I have even stronger ones about the nature of the debate. There can be virtuous or selfish reasons to be on either side. Pro-immigration positions are held by honest sympathizers with the downtrodden of the earth, by employers of minimum-wage laborers, and by the Home Builders Association of Northern California. Anti-immigration positions can be consistent with racism or a defense of one’s own privilege, but also with justifiable concern about environmental limits or the welfare of the poor who are already in the country. I’m bothered by the folks who claim noble reasons for their own side and assume the worst of the other side.
I’m also bothered by the numbers.
In 1950 the U.S. population was 150 million. Now it is nearly 270 million. About half that increase has come from immigrants and their descendents.
The U.S. population currently grows by about 3 million a year. Of that number 1.6 million come from natural increase, 1 million from legal immigration, and 3-400,000 from illegal immigrants who manage to stay.
While we take in 1 million immigrants a year, the third world increases in population by 80 million a year.
The average number of children born to an American woman has been close to 2.0 for the past 25 years. That means our population will stop growing by natural increase in about 20 more years, when we finally have more older people moving out of reproductive age than young people moving in.
About 200,000 people emigrate from the United States every year. A policy of zero net migration would permit that many annual immigrants.
Immigrants classified as refugees average 125,000 per year.
The United States takes in more immigrants than all other industrial nations combined.
If illegal immigration were stopped and legal immigration limited to 200,000 a year and birth and death rates do not change, the U.S. population would stabilize at 320 million in 2025.
If immigration and natural increase rates remain unchanged, the U.S. population would reach 340 million by 2025 and 540 million (and still rising) by 2060.
The net cost to U.S. citizens of public goods and services supplied to immigrants (taking into account the taxes paid by those immigrants) is $68 billion a year — $250 for each man, woman, and child of us.
There is also a cost in lower wages and unemployment to our low-skilled workers with whom immigrants are likely to compete. It has been estimated at $133 billion a year.
Over 90 percent of our old-growth forests are gone, and 99 percent of our tall-grass prairies, and half our wetlands, and vast quantities of soil and cropland, and hundreds of species of plants and animals. We are pumping down groundwater aquifers, filling up dumps, and pouring forth toxic materials. Any land whose resource stocks are dropping while its pollution sinks are rising is, by definition, being used beyond its carrying capacity.
Some number of people at some standard of living in any nation is too many. We don’t help either the rich or the poor by going beyond that number. What is it? Who decides? Could we be beyond it? Is stopping immigration the way to deal with our limits, or cutting our birth rate further, or reducing our consumption? (No one seems to be creating Sierra Club referenda to set limits on consumption.) Could we move toward sensible lifestyles and greater social justice at the same time we take seriously the task of controlling our numbers? Might those objectives even go together?
Ignoring these questions because they are uncomfortable, because they are emotional, because they cause decent people to call each other names, does not make them go away. They are questions not just for the Sierra Club, but for all of us.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998