Cut Immigration, Save the Environment

Ben Zuckerman, an astronomer and member of UCLA's Institute of the Environment, is one of the initiators of the Sierra Club immigration vote now in progress

We in the Sierra Club have a dream--of clear free-flowing streams, of protected towering wilderness, of bracing clean air and of stability in the lives of all. Sadly, reality is quite the opposite.

Last June, the president of the U.N. General Assembly opened Earth Summit II saying: "We as a species--as a planet--are teetering on the edge, living unsustainably and perpetuating inequity, and may soon pass the point of no return."

What causes environmental damage? Not surprisingly, it's too many people using too much energy and materials. The United States is now the third most populous country after China and India. Because the average American consumes so much, we 270 million Americans have as much worldwide environmental impact as the more than 4 billion people who live in all of the developing countries of the world combined. To mitigate our impact, we must cut high individual consumption and stabilize the U.S. population.

Our population is growing more quickly than that of any major industrialized country. We should give incentives to families to have no more than two children (replacement fertility). But, according to the Census Bureau, post-1970 immigrants (when Congress raised immigration levels) and their descendants will account for more than 80% of U.S. population growth between now and mid-21st century, when, at present growth rates, our population could exceed half a billion.

This is why many environmentalists believe it essential to change U.S. immigration laws. And this is why the more than half a million members of the Sierra Club are now voting on what The Times has called a "litmus test" of "huge importance": An affirmative vote will direct club leadership to address the environmental consequences of U.S. immigration policies.

Virtually all environmentalists recognize the huge negative impact of the ever increasing American population. So why has it been so difficult for the Sierra Club to take a stand on the immigration issue? Diane Wittenberg, CEO of Edison EV, speaking at a UCLA symposium last April, captured the essence of the problem when she pointed out that most Americans are "environmental-ish" rather than true "environmentalists." Americans give plenty of lip service to the environment and perhaps recycle a few items, but when push comes to shove, the environment takes a back seat. Even many Sierra Club members, unfortunately without careful thought, rank certain nonenvironmental issues higher on their agendas than the environment.

Charges of racism and elitism are often leveled at those who would limit immigration. Given that numerous polls have shown that a clear majority of African Americans and Latino Americans favor substantial reductions in both legal and illegal immigration, how can it be racist to agree? Given that these polls show that it is the poorest Americans who most strongly favor drastic cuts in immigration levels, how can it be elitist to agree?

The Wilderness Society and a few other environmental groups have stated publicly that ecological sustainability requires lower immigration rates. But most leading environmental organizations are merely environmental-ish and, like the Sierra Club, have remained quiet on this subject. Compounding the problem are two other environmental-ish players: the liberal media and "environmental" politicians like Vice President Al Gore.

Gore and the Democratic Party support continued high levels of immigration and have rushed to naturalize immigrants even when that meant shortcuts on checking their criminal records or legal status. In the short run this will produce more Democratic voters, but in the longer run such policies will lead inexorably, sometime in the 22nd century, to a nation of 1 billion Americans with their highly polluting lifestyle. The five do-nothing years since Earth Summit I coincide precisely with those of the Clinton administration.

The liberal media have published millions of words about the trials and tribulations of individual immigrants. While individuals deserve compassion, the media should also illuminate how so very many millions of immigrants, eager to embrace the highly consumptive American lifestyle, impact the environment both here and abroad. In an avalanche, each unique, beautiful snowflake pleads not guilty.

Politicians and leading news media and environmental organizations should be engaging in serious dialogues that will produce an effective policy that will stabilize the U.S. population; otherwise we can only anticipate a worse report card for the U.S. at Earth Summit III.

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