April 20, 2019
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How environmentalists were silenced on immigration

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Population can be a touchy subject. Add the word “control” and it gets toxic. The discussion quickly degenerates into charges of eugenics, misogyny and worse. But it wasn’t always so.

In the 1970s, college campuses were buzzing with “teach ins” connecting population, consumption, the environment and the catastrophic impacts of endless human beings on the biosphere. David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, was blunt: “You don’t have a conservation policy unless you have a population policy.” For 30 years, the Sierra Club endorsed stabilizing U.S. population, and in 1989, its board adopted as a policy that “Immigration to the United States should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization.”

The first Earth Day inspired a massive grassroots groundswell that propelled Congress to enact sweeping environmental laws. The National Environmental Policy Act, the “environmental Magna Carta,” began with these words: “recognizing the profound impact of man’s activity on the interrelations of all components of the environment, particularly the profound influences of population growth.” We didn’t tiptoe. We knew that American consumption patterns gave us a higher moral imperative to stabilize our numbers. Baby boomer fertility rates plummeted to replacement level, and many assumed that stabilization was a done deal.

But Congress sent immigration numbers skyrocketing. The U.S. population has grown by 75 million since 1990, mostly because of immigrants and their children. Big money poured into environmental organizations. And by 2000, the public was oblivious to population numbers, and intimidated by the charge that population activism was driven by racism.

[Opinion: Immigration is predominantly an income redistribution policy. Is that what we want?]

The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau’s projections for 2100 were virtually ignored. Based on assumed immigration numbers set by Congress, the bureau projected that a “low immigration” scenario would result in a population of 283 million in 2100. (Our population in 2018 is already 327 million.) A “high immigration” scenario would produce a population of 1.182 billion. The “middle” or “most likely” projection of 570 million is double the 2000 population. That’s the road we’re on. Do we want it?

How does doubling our population help us reduce poverty, raise wages, balance our budget, rebuild our infrastructure, reduce carbon emissions, traffic, pollution, etc.? We aren’t talking about it.

The National Environmental Policy Act required Congress to authorize an environmental impact study of any federal legislation that significantly impacts the environment. But Congress never authorized an impact study of immigration policy.

Why aren’t prominent environmentalists demanding an environmental impact analysis of immigration? Big money. Environmentalism began as an unfunded, populist movement. The backlash was covert, well-connected and very rich.

Consider hedge fund magnate David Gelbaum, a major Sierra Club donor. In 1995, Gelbaum told Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope that “if they ever come out anti-immigration, they would never get a dollar from me.” Pope apparently got the message.

Within a year, the club reversed its immigration limitation policy, and it has vehemently fought all attempts to restore it, most famously in 2004 when club leadership branded a slate of pro-stabilization candidates, (which included a former Democratic governor and former Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation) as “ in bed with racists.” It worked. The pro-stabilization Sierrans lost. Gelbaum has remained a reliable donor, giving at least $200 million to the club.

[Opinion: Billionaires try to convince Americans it’s good to import foreign workers, increase immigration]

Unlike the poorly funded grassroots college activists of 1970, today’s environmentalists are generously funded with big money, and silent on U.S. population growth. It would have been unthinkable in 1970 for the Census Bureau to identify a federal policy driving our population toward a billion and environmental titans, like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, remaining silent.

Today, we hear that population is a “global issue” and immigration is a “symptom.” Climate change is a global issue, too, but we don’t ignore our own emissions. Both climate change and population are global issues that require national solutions.

Progressives for Immigration Reform, which has been smeared as “a cynical greenwashing campaign” to recruit environmentalists to the anti-immigrant cause, in 2016 released a 480-page study based on federal data that examined the environmental the environmental impacts of U.S. growth. If the current population growth rate continues, then American carbon dioxide emissions will be 70 percent greater in 2100. A recent U.N. global warming report is calling for a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030. These are the numbers the EPA should be analyzing.

Most discussion today of the environmental impact of America’s population growth has been silenced by a powerful combination of big money, the charge of racism and spineless leadership. We stumble into the future.

Jonette Christian of Holden is a founder of Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy. She can be reached at jonettechristian@rocketmail.com.

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