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Population, Immigration, & the Environment
Eco-fascism and the environmental movement
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 Clubs 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 countrys oldest and largest environmental organization demonstrates the effectiveness with which the right wing has exploited peoples 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 degradationcauses, 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 Erlichs The Population Bomb, this notion has slowly increased in popularity. The image of a run-away population "explosion" exceeding the earths "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 worlds population yet consumes 30 percent of the worlds 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 todays environmental crisis.
Despite the fact that the wealthy consume far greater resources than the poor, it is not consumers, but producersand the social institutions in which they operatewhich 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 nations 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 PEGs 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 Clubs San Francisco Chapter and proponent of the defeated anti-immigration initiative says the solution to the ecological crisisalong with reducing population growthis adopting a lifestyle of "voluntary simplicity," a personal philosophy which he believes most immigrants dont share. "Most people arent enlightened in this way," he told me in a recent phone interview, "they just go to work in the factory and dont think about this stuff." Aside from stereotypical race and class assumptions, this view also embraces the false and extremely oversimplified assumption that overproductionand thus pollutionresults 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 publics 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 industrieslargely the result of "structural adjustment" programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF to benefit wealthy investorspoverty 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 Lankas 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, Keralas 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 Keralas remarkable decrease in birth rates.
Even Chinas 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: "Chinas 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 governments 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 childrenespecially boysas 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 peoples understandable fears of ecological destruction. Melanie Okamoto, PEGs 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 growthin particular the number of immigrantsas 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 Californias 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 Yugoslaviait 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 theyre going to kick the crap out of the environmentalists and turn California into a cesspool." PEB invited this group to the "Stabilizing Americas 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 Americas 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 Zuckermans 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 worlds 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 abroador for that matter at homeis 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 peoples 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.