In 1970, the Committee on Population and the Environment created the first Earth Day. At that time, the undeniable connection between U.S. population growth and continued environmental degradation was widely discussed and accepted. Scholars held teach-ins at universities across the country, calling for every country to stabilize its population, especially developed nations such as the U.S., whose per capita resource consumption is 25 times that of poor countries. Sen. Gaylord Nelson, “father of the environmental movement,” declared that stabilizing U.S. growth was our No. 1 environmental priority.
Two months after the first Earth Day, the National Congress on Optimum Population and Environment convened in Chicago. Protestant religious leaders urged, for ethical and moral reasons, that the federal government adopt policies that would lead to a stabilized U.S. population. President Richard Nixon addressed the nation personally and talked about the problems we would face if growth continued.
He subsequently signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act, which often is referred to as the “environmental Magna Carta.” The act begins with these words: “The Congress, recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth.”
President Nixon and Congress created the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (the Rockefeller Commission). After studying population issues for two years, the commission concluded: “We have looked and have not found any convincing economic argument for continued population growth. The health of our country does not depend on it, nor does the vitality of business, nor the welfare of the average person.”
And the American people responded. Fertility rates rapidly declined, and by l972 we achieved replacement level fertility. The Census Bureau projected that our population would stabilize in the next century, well below 300 million.
But then, a very puzzling thing happened. Without consulting the American people, Congress radically changed our course, bringing upon us a massive population explosion with no end in sight.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that our population is 310 million. We’ve added 60 million people since 1990, and we’re growing faster. Between 2000 and 2007, just seven years, our population grew a whopping 20.2 million.
The Bureau estimates that immigration is driving 80 percent of current growth. Since the first Earth Day, immigrants and their children have added at least 55 million to our population, more than the combined populations of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Ireland, Denmark, Belgium and Austria.
Today there are more than 50 environmental organizations with offices in Washington, and very few even mention the goal of stabilizing U.S. population. During debate in the Senate in 2007, when a population impact study concluded that the Kennedy-McCain “comprehensive immigration reform bill” would add between 100 million and 200 million more immigrants in the next 20 years, not one environmental organization responded. Al Gore was urging the nation to reduce carbon emissions, in light of global warming, but he was dead silent about the population effect of this bill. So, what’s next?
We basically have three choices. First, continue the current level of immigration, and don’t talk about it. Talk about population growth in other countries instead, which is popular with today’s environmentalists.
Second, increase immigration. Pass another amnesty for illegal immigrants and their families, and expand legal immigration visas. This option is the Gutierrez immigration bill, now in Congress with 91 co-sponsors in the House (including Chellie Pingree) and supported by President Barack Obama, Democratic leadership, and neocons in the Republican Party. No one has called for a population impact study of this bill.
Third, reduce immigration. Enact the recommendations from President Bill Clinton’s U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. Return to the founding principles of Earth Day, and set an example of responsible stewardship for other nations.
Last year more than 6 million faxes were sent from the website www.numbersusa.com calling on Congress to reduce immigration. Environmental leaders are mostly silent, but the grass roots are taking action.
One thing is clear. We’re making decisions today that will dramatically affect future generations. Our grandchildren don’t get to decide if they’re going to live in a country that is massively more populated. We’re deciding it for them.
Jonette Christian of Holden is a member of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy.