What's In A Word?
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 States."
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.