Q&A on the Environmental Connection
Why do you say that immigration must be reduced in the interest of preserving the environment?
Since 1970, our population has grown by over 103 million people. At present, half of our population growth is due to legal and illegal immigration. However, due to the stabilization of native-born population growth, more than 80 percent of future population growth is projected to derive from post-2005 immigrants and their children. In absolute terms, immigration will add a further 108 million people to the U.S. population by 2050.1
This substantial increase in U.S. population will result in unsustainable demand for natural resources, habitat destruction, pollution, and urban sprawl. Each year 3.2 million acres of farmland are ‘developed’ into suburbs to meet the demand of a rising population. Meanwhile, additional agricultural yield is required to feed to burgeoning population. The result is deforestation, soil erosion, and the accelerating use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.2
Population growth is the main impediment to the achievement of our environmental goals. Our best efforts to conserve water and energy, reduce pollution, control sprawl, and preserve habitat are negated by population growth.
But we have always had immigration. This country was built by immigrants. How could we maintain the country’s vitality if we closed the door on immigration?
The United States today is a far different country than that which received our forebears. We have settled the last frontiers. Population density has tripled since 1900. The industrial revolution has given way to the technological revolution. And the need for large pools of unskilled labor has been replaced by the need for skilled and highly educated workers. In short, the time is ripe for stability.
Common sense and the law of exponential growth dictate that all countries must reach population stability at some point. Our current growth rate will burden our great-grandchildren with a population larger than China’s. Instead, we should learn from China’s mistakes and stabilize our population while quality of life remains high and our environment intact.
Besides, we’re not advocating closing the door on immigration, but a return to traditional levels of about 300,000 per year. America thrived with immigration at less than one third of the current level until 1970, and we need to return to a less disruptive flow.
Isn’t population growth essential to economic growth?
Some industries lobby for increased population growth as a stimulus for economic growth but we must realize that such a policy is intended to meet their short-term interests, not the long-term interests of the American public.
In 1972, a joint presidential-congressional commission concluded that continued population growth was no longer useful for our country. In the words of the commission, “We have looked for, 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.”3
Not only is continued population growth unnecessary for economic growth, it necessarily degrades the quality of life of individual Americans and to the quality of our environment.
Couldn’t we avoid having to deal with immigration policy if we just corrected our wasteful consumption habits?
In 1950 the U.S. population was 152 million, today is it 306 million, and it is projected to reach 438 million by 2050.4 Simply to keep our ecological footprint constant we would have to reduce per capita consumption by 50 percent or more.
Will you and your 300 million fellow Americans consume 50 percent less energy, eat 50 percent less food, and live in a house that is 50 percent smaller next year? Unlikely. Rather, current trends show that per capita consumption of most resources is increasing. Thus, while we must strive to reduce consumption, that alone is not a realistic solution.
Population stabilization is essential to environmental stability, and the only barrier to attaining rapid population stabilization is the enactment of policies for zero net immigration.
But if we reduced immigration significantly, that alone would not bring us to a sustainable population, so isn’t that a false solution?
No. But is it an essential part of the solution. National sustainability has three essential components; stabilizing the population, reducing per capita consumption, and developing efficient technologies. We must pursue all three parts of the equation in order to ensure that our descendents enjoy a quality of life on par with our own.
The reduction of immigrants to the United States will not reduce the world’s population. By restricting our immigrant intake, we will simply reduce the number of people who share our consumption patterns. Meanwhile, we should commit to assisting family planning programs in nations with high birth rates. Even more than in America, overpopulation degrades ecosystems and reduces the quality of life in developing countries.
As the leader of the capitalist world, America has the responsibility to show that economic progress is possible with a stable population. Many developing countries continue to accept Mao Zedong’s view of population growth as a means to national power. The U.S. can provide a better example than Chairman Mao by legislating zero net immigration and adapting our economy to a stable population.
Isn’t it simply “mean-spirited” to pull up the gangplank after you and your family are aboard?
We seek to preserve a basic quality of life for present and future generations. The U.S. has already exceeded its sustainable population level; we must now take firm and responsible measures to minimize further environmental degradation.5 Would anyone seriously argue that Americans should consider a “one-child” policy rather than bringing immigration to a sustainable level?
How can you justify favoring American citizens and discriminating against people outside our borders?
The world population is growing by about 80 million per year. Meanwhile, the U.S. accepts 1.5 million immigrants (legal and illegal) annually, roughly 1.9 percent of total world population growth. Obviously there is no way that the United States is going to solve the world’s population problem through its immigration policy.
If we wish to alleviate world population pressure we should support family planning and economic development in countries that request our assistance. Population stabilization and economic development are mutually beneficial, and both are needed to improve the quality of life in developing countries.
Footnotes and endnotes
- Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050, Pew Research Center, February 11, 2008.
- National Resource Inventory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2008.
- John D. Rockefeller 3rd, The Report Of The Commission On Population Growth And The American Future, March 27, 1972.
- Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, U.S. Population Projections: 20052050, Pew Research Center February 11, 2008.
- Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity, Global Footprint Network, 2005.