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During the months of March and April, 1998, the national Sierra Club membership -- over half a million people-had the opportunity to vote in a referendum on whether to adopt a policy advocating a reduction in US immigration. Called the "Comprehensive Population Policy" by its proponents, the mail-in ballot initiative, if passed, would effectively reverse a 1996 Board decision stating that the Sierra Club will "take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States."
The initiative was sponsored by a group of "population activists" within the Sierra Club who, angered by the 1996 board decision, collected over 1,300 member signatures to get the question on the ballot. In a recent mailing they cite US population growth as the number one factor leading to environmental degradation, and criticize the Board for taking a "non-environmentalist path."
That an anti-immigrant initiative could make it so far within the country's largest environmental organization demonstrates the effectiveness with which the right-wing has exploited people's fears about the "population crisis." It also reveals the level to which mainstream discussion of the root causes of environmental degradation has fallen over the years. A careful examination of the these issues is therefore necessary if environmentalists and human rights activists are to work together for both ecological sustainability and environmental justice.
The Population Problem: An Emotionally Potent Oversimplification?
While most environmentalists today agree that profit-seeking corporations and government policy play a critical role in the environmental crisis, many still harbor oversimplified notions that population growth, if not a direct cause of environmental degradation, is nevertheless the main ecological threat. Ever since the publication of Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968), this notion has slowly increased in popularity. The image of a run-away population "explosion" exceeding the earth's "carrying capacity" and leading to ecological devastation has a certain dramatic appeal, yet adds little to the formation of effective strategies for ecological sustainability. It also does much to foment racist, anti-immigrant sentiments.
What exactly is wrong with the way population is discussed among environmentalists today? Perhaps most important is that the debate focuses almost exclusively on absolute numbers of people, ignoring the varying environmental impacts of different social institutions and classes. The impact of an immigrant family, for example, living in a one-bedroom apartment and using mass transit pales in comparison to that of a wealthy family living in a single family home with a swimming pool and two cars. "The average Swiss," points out Walden Bello, former executive director of Food First, an Oakland-based organization working to expose the root causes of world hunger, "pours 2,000 times more toxic waste into the environment than the average Sahelian farmer." The US is home to 5% of the world's population yet consumes 30% of the world's resources. And with the richest 1.1 billion people on the planet consuming 64% of the wealth and the poorest 1.1 billion just 2%, it makes little sense to blame population as a whole for today's environmental crisis.
As S/R goes to press, it has just been announced that the 78,000 (of 550,000) Sierra Club members who voted rejected the anti-immigrant policy by a 3 to 2 margin.
Despite the fact that the wealthy consume far greater resources than the poor, it is not consumers at all, but rather producers-and the social institutions in which they operate-which account for the vast majority of environmental degradation. Most consumers have little control over industrial production and consumption decisions, and most industrial production and consumption decisions are made with little regard for population levels. The military, for example, is the nation's largest single polluter, and it does so regardless of the number of people who happen to be living. US transnational corporations as well are aggressively marketing to increase consumption in countries like Mexico and China that have large populations yet have traditionally been low per capita consumers. As Santos Gomez, member of PEG's organizing board states, "consumption varies far more widely as a function of marketing than the absolute numbers of people, or even individual consumer choices." Only if one believes the laissez-faire notion that supply merely fills demand (including a demand for nuclear weapons, we presume, and answering machines designed to break down after 500 uses) can one blame consumers for the environmental degradation resulting from industrial production.
Overpopulation, therefore, is not so much a problem as it is a symptom of the same corporate and government policies that produce both environmental degradation and social injustice.
Even land development has little to do with population growth. Sprawling suburbs in the US which gobble up prime agricultural land and wildlife habitat are planned and built by developers for the sake of profits and are increasing six times faster than the population. Population density also does not directly correlate with environmental degradation. Holland, for example, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 4,500 people per 1,000 hectares. It is also one of the most ecologically strong, devoting 10% of its land to ecological protection. Compare this to Brazil with only 170 people per 1,000 hectares and an unprecedented rate of rainforest destruction and it becomes clear that corporate and government policy, not population density, accounts for environmental degradation. In the US many environmentalists are actually calling for greater population density with improved mass transit, thus reducing suburban sprawl and the need for automobiles.
The notion that higher population equals greater demand, however, and that individual consumer choice fuels production, are basic assumptions underlying the arguments of anti-population-growth environmentalists. However, consumer choices have marginal impact on the production decisions which really impact the environment, and over which the public has little control. Many corporate actions actually have the reverse effect, significantly restricting the public's ability to choose more sustainable lifestyles. In the 1930s and 1940s, for example, General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil (now Chevron) bought out and dismantled the electric trolley system in Los Angeles and 100 other cities in order to guarantee demand for their products. Compared to the rail system in Europe, our highway-intensive transportation system is but one example of how powerful corporate decisions make it difficult for many people to live ecologically.
The above examples are meant demonstrate that in a system driven by profit fewer people in no way insures less environmental impact. Likewise, more people in no way implies greater impact. This is not to argue that numbers of people should be disregarded altogether, but rather that the problems associated with high population should be considered within the context of a global capitalist economy.
Over-population, environmental degradation, and social injustice all result from the same global economic system that seeks to increase profits at all costs. As local economies in the Third World are replaced with profit-driven, export-oriented industries-largely the result of "structural adjustment" programs imposed by the World Bank and IMF to benefit wealthy investors-poverty and inequality increase. This leads to higher fertility rates as poor families have more children in order to generate income and ensure economic security in their old age. As Bello points out, "inequality amidst poverty provides the most fertile conditions for high reproductive rates, just as rising living standards constitute the best guarantee that countries will experience the demographic transition to lower fertility rates."
Sri Lanka is a case in point. Since the end of the Second World War the Sri Lankan government sought to eliminate poverty by supporting free and subsidized food programs, higher educational levels, and greater employment opportunities for women. These limited social welfare policies have produced impressive results. Between 1960 and 1985, Sri Lanka's fertility rate dropped by a remarkable 40%, occurring hand-in-hand with a dramatic decline in the infant mortality rate to 27 deaths per 1000 live births. The Indian State of Kerala is another example. Like Sri Lanka, Kerala's fertility rate dropped nearly 40% between 1960 and 1985, and during the decades prior the government instituted a number of social welfare programs which significantly raised the living standards of the poorest sectors of society. "Fair price" shops were set up to keep the cost of rice and other essentials within reach of the poor. Increased expenditures on public health, the construction of clinics in poor areas, and land reform abolishing tenancy all greatly improved the economic security of poor families. Higher education for women also led to greater control over reproduction. As Bello reports, "the literacy rate for females in Kerala is two-and-a-half times the all-India average." All these factors contributed to Kerala's remarkable decrease in birth rates.
Their honorary chairman ... is a ... long-standing supporter of eugenics who opposes sending food relief to the poor because their numbers are straining the "carrying capacity" of the planet.
Even China's low birth rates were achieved during a pre-1980 system which guaranteed roughly equal access to essential goods and services. Reversing the causal connection advanced by proponents of draconian population control measures, Solon Barraclough argues: "China's one-child program would have gotten nowhere if land reform, education, health services and relative food security for the vast majority of the population had not come first." And Bello: "It was the radical opening up of access to land and food, along with an assurance of old-age security, that allowed the Chinese people to respond positively to the government's family planning program and opt for fewer children." The successes were short-lived as birth rates in China have risen since 1980 when massive economic reforms privatized agriculture and a great part of industrial production. These privatization's have been accompanied by the erosion of many social welfare programs and the widening of income inequalities. Frances Moore Lappe and Rachel Schurman explain the rise in birth rates as a direct result of these reforms: "Thrown back on their own family resources, many Chinese again see having children-especially boys-as beneficial, both as a substitute for lost public protections and as a means of taking maximum advantage of the new economic system."
In recognizing the importance of limiting population growth, the above examples are meant to demonstrate the connection between high birth rates and the global economic system that increases poverty and inequality worldwide. Overpopulation, therefore, is not so much a problem as it is a symptom of the same corporate and government policies that produce both environmental degradation and social injustice. The solutions to both, therefore, are not coercive population control measures like forced sterilization or militarizing the borders, but rather the radical transformation of the global economic system. On a grassroots level much of this work is already being done, but much more needs to happen.
"The Greening of Hate"
According to Melanie Okamoto, campaign organizer for the San Francisco-based Political Ecology Group, a growing number of racist organizations, many with environmental sounding names and white supremacist connections, have been "sounding the alarm about population growth-in particular the number of immigrants-as the chief threat to the environment." In order to further their anti-immigrant agenda they have been heavily lobbying the environmental movement, including mainstream organizations like the Sierra Club.
One such group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), was a leader in the campaign for Proposition 187. Their founding president, John Tanton, heads the anti-bilingual group, US English, and has specifically targeted the Sierra Club for the anti-immigrant message. In a 1986 memo printed in the San Jose Mercury News Tanton writes, "as whites see their power and control over their lives declining, will they simply go quietly into the night? Or will there be an explosion?" He also said, "The Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club." Another group is the Carrying Capacity Network (CCN). Along with their professed environmental concerns, CCN sponsored the grossly inaccurate and now discredited Huddle study on the costs of immigration which was used to rationalize California's Proposition 187.
A third organization, Population-Environment Balance (PEB) sent out a mass mailing in January of this year urging readers to lobby the Sierra Club, and even provided instructions on how to join the Club in order to pack the vote for the anti-immigrant position. Their honorary chairman and member of their advisory board is a biologist named Garrett Hardin, a long-standing supporter of eugenics who opposes sending food relief to the poor because their numbers are straining the "carrying capacity" of the planet. The Los Angeles Times reports him saying, "People are mistaken in taking a rosy view of multiculturalism. Look at Yugoslavia -- it leads to tyranny and social chaos."
The racist underpinnings of these pseudo-environmental organizations are underscored by the fact that they all receive funding from the Pioneer Fund, which has been described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a New York organization that finances research seeking proof of the genetic superiority of the white race," and by the London Sunday Telegraph as a "neo-nazi organization closely integrated with the far Right in American politics." The Pioneer Fund was established in 1937 by Wycliffe Draper a "textile millionaire who advocated sending blacks back to Africa" (Discovery Journal, 7/9/94) and Harry Laughlin, a "eugenics advocate [who] received an honorary degree from Heidelberg University for his contributions to Nazi eugenics and 'racial hygiene.'" (Irish Times, 5/23/94). Since 1982, the Pioneer Fund has given over a million dollars to FAIR and other anti-immigrant organizations.
Prior to the election a new group formed within the Sierra Club calling themselves Sierrans for US Population Stabilization (SUSPS). They recently sent out a mass mailing to the entire Sierra Club membership of over 500,000 people supporting the anti-immigrant initiative. In it they advocate a return to pre-1965 immigration levels established by the overtly racist Immigration Act of 1924 which imposed strict ethnic quotas to ensure that most immigrants were from Northern and Western Europe.
In a January SUSPS mailing Ben Zuckerman gives a rather subtle but disingenuous argument against immigration: "The US already contributes much more to global environmental impacts than any other nation, and the larger the US population, the more havoc we cause ... population growth in the U.S. must be addressed because it strengthens the very multinational economic forces that lead to environmental destruction abroad." How population growth "strengthens" multinational corporations he does not explain, yet with the stroke of a pen he relieves them of responsibility for their socially and environmentally destructive actions in the developing world, blaming instead the very people who seek refuge from those actions.
The argument that American consumer demand causes multinational corporations to employ environmentally destructive practices abroad-or for that matter at home-is patently false, yet the seemingly simple logic of the capitalist argument that supply merely fills demand has a firm hold on the imagination of many mainstream environmentalists who blame themselves for the plastic container their ice cream comes in rather than the corporation that produced it and the macro-economic system that locks us all into a perpetual cycle of over-production and over-consumption.
The efforts of the racist right may be having some influence within the environmental movement. Yet most mainstream environmental organizations are not buying the anti-immigrant argument. "Out of hundreds of environmental organizations lobbied by these groups," says Brad Erickson, coordinator of the Political Ecology Group, "only the Wilderness Society has officially signed on to the anti-immigrant position."
While the Sierra Club Board and most of its active members have, throughout the Club's history, consistently supported immigrant rights, its 550,000 less active members are also likely to be less educated in issues of social and environmental justice. As I write this the Sierra Club vote should be under way.
January 23, 1998. For more information please contact the Political Ecology Group at 965 Mission Street, Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94103 or check out their web page at http://www.igc.apc.org/peg/index.html