Dave Foreman, a co-founder of EarthFirst! and the founder of the Rewilding Institute, is author of Rewilding North America. He is a member of the population stabilization group Apply the Brakes.
The Big Thing facing Earth today – dwarfing all else – is the mass extinction of animals and plants unprecedented in size and scope for 65 million years, and wholly unprecedented in its cause. This ghastly crash in species abundance is happening from highest peak to deepest sea, from the poles to the equator. It is caused by one species – we humans – and our breathtaking population boom. In the last two millennia our numbers have grown nearly thirtyfold, from a mere 250 million to more than 7 billion today.
Our leap in numbers has wounded Earth in seven deadly ways. One: Direct Killing – from overfishing to slaughtering elephants for ivory. Two: Habitat Destruction – wiping out wild ecosystems. Three: Habitat Fragmentation – isolating wildlife with roads and subdivisions. Four: Upsetting Ecological and Evolutionary Processes – wildfire, river flooding, predation. Five: Spread of Exotics – disease, plants, and animals that wreak havoc on native species. Six: Biocides – from pesticides to antibiotics. Seven: Climate Chaos – driven by greenhouse gas pollution from our addiction to fossil fuels.
More people – whether rich or poor, First World or Third – make each of these wounds more deadly. But thanks to our high-flying lifestyles and unwillingness to soften them, each of us in the United States contributes disproportionately to all Seven Deadly Wounds. This is why conservationists have long called for stabilizing America’s population. Simply put, the world cannot afford more Americans.
Some 40 years ago, Americans lowered our total fertility rate from the heights of the Baby Boom down to replacement level – fewer than two children per woman. At the time, demographers thought the US might peak at 250 million people. This was not to be, due to the 1965 Immigration Act and subsequent legislation that quadrupled legal immigration and ensured continued population growth. In the 40 years since Earth Day, our numbers have shot up to more than 300 million people due mostly to an imprudent immigration policy.
Acknowledging how a growing US population threatened wild things and human well-being, conservation groups such as the Sierra Club took ethical, thoughtful stands to stabilize population. Besides encouraging Americans to have fewer children, they also called for Congress to manage immigration for no net growth.
In 1989 the Sierra Club declared: “Immigration to the US should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the US.” Around the same time, The Wilderness Society wrote: “To bring population levels to ecologically sustainable levels, both birth rates and immigration rates need to be reduced.” The organizations’ policies had everything to do with the United States’ responsibility to lessen its impact on ecosystems and nothing at all to do with nativism or being anti-immigrant.
Unfortunately, conservation groups have lost the courage they had a couple of decades ago to stand up for wild nature. Now, organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are praising the Senate’s just-passed immigration “reform” bill. They are throwing their arms wide for more people, with little thought for those here now who struggle to find work, or for the wealth of wild things that need our protection more than ever.
How many more people would the Senate immigration law bring in? According to the Center for Immigration Studies, 30 to 45 million more people, on top of the 400 million currently projected by the Census Bureau for 2050. The Pew Hispanic Center forecasts that 82 percent of this growth will be from immigrants and their US-born descendants. If immigration were capped so that in-and-out migration matched (the Sierra Club’s earlier policy), the 2050 Census Bureau projection is 327 million. But the Senate bill doubles current immigration levels, blasting the 2050 population up to 445 million and putting the country on track for a population of 600 to 700 million by 2100.
No wonder the immigration boosters – right or left – never talk about numbers. The numbers are a nightmare.
What do these numbers mean? How many more tons of greenhouse gases? How many more wild acres taken over by housing, highways, shopping malls, coal mines, clear-cuts, and oil and gas drilling pads? How much more energy use? How much more water use, and the dams and groundwater pumping that’ll be required? How many other beings will we sentence to death to make way for more people? Will humanity’s footprint be allowed to stomp out the hope that is the heart of the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act?
Failing to address these questions in any discussion of immigration is irresponsible. Why has no one called for an environmental impact statement on immigration policies? I do so now. A thorough EIS on immigration to the United States might be the most important EIS ever done. It is one way to bring all the glossed-over, ignored consequences of a rapidly growing population into full public debate.
Environmentalist cheerleaders for the Senate immigration bill talk only about supposed social justice benefits for those in the US illegally. They overlook the impacts of population growth and bite their tongues on the ecological disaster of expanding the border wall. A comprehensive immigration EIS would bring such issues to the fore.
It should be clear enough: Twice as many people in little more than one human lifetime is not a sane person’s notion of progress.
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