Assessing immigration, population and environment

POSTED 22 APR 2004


1. A growing debate

2. Population growth: Environmental disaster?

3. Contrarians speak

Members of the Latin American community in Los Angeles raise their hands to bless fruit baskets, as a sign of immigrants daily work in California's fields. Sign reads: "This fruit is the product of Immigrant's labor." AP Photo by Damian Dovarganes

This satellite image shows city lights beaming from urban centers in the Eastern United States, Europe and Japan. Parts of Africa, Asia, Australia and South America remain largely rural. Photo: Mayhew and Simmon 2000, United Nations Environment Program

World population could reach nearly 10 billion by the year 2050. And that's the mid-range estimate.Graph: U.S. Global Change Research Program

Greenhouse gasses are produced by industry, farming, and many other human activities. The Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouses gases was supposed to have cut U.S. emissions by now. Instead, output has soared; the United States produces 25 percent of all greenhouse gases, which, many scientists conclude, are causing a noticeable uptick in global temperatures. Graph: United Nations Environment Program


The hidden issue
The Sierra club, one of oldest U.S. conservation organizations, has just finished a contentious election for board of directors. At issue: Should the organization, which long espoused population stabilization, take a stand on U.S. immigration policy? Mexican-Americans chanting, holding sign and fruit basket.After all, immigration and population are intimitaly related. In 2002, "middle-range" Census Bureau projection foresaw that the U.S. population would reach 404 million in 2050, based on current levels of immigration. With no further immigration, population would reach 327 million.

Some people feel that a club devoted to wildness, conservation and biodiversity cannot ignore immigration. For example, Richard Lamm, a former governor of Colorado who ran for the board, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, " Every organization must make sure that its solutions are equal to the magnitude of the problems it seeks to solve. The Sierra Club now has a Grand Canyon gap between its goals and its action plan. It cannot get to an environmentally sound America without considering population and immigration" (see "Lack of Border..." in the bibliography).

Others say that amounts to blaming immigrants for problems they didn't necessarily cause. "The evidence we have on the effect of increasing population on environmental problems is pretty flimmsy," says Alberto Palloni, who studies population and environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. From data on the relationship between population growth and environmental problems like pollution, deforestation or water deficiencies, he adds, "It's hard to conclculde that population has anything to do with it. It's more the institions within which populations are growing that causes the damage."

Satellite photo of Earth at night, some parts ablaze with light.

One equation. One simple equation.
Many years ago, Paul Ehrlich, an author of The Population Bomb, the book that put the relationship between population and environment on the political map, wrote an equation to explain the complicated relationship between population and environment:

I = P * A * T
Impact = Population * Affluence * Technology

As we'll see, the factors in this equation factor into today's discussion of immigration, population and environment.

Graph shows low estimate at 7 billion in 2050, mid-range at 10 billion, and high at 12 billion. Hold your fire!
The Sierra Club vote may be the nastiest in memory, with charges of an "outsider takeover," racism, and "demonizing immigrants" coming from the one side, and charges of "corruption and environmental McCarthyism" on the other.

Those details are important to some, but so is the larger question. We want to take this opportunity to talk about population and environment. After all, the opportunity does not arise every day: Population growth is so constant that it's not news.

Earth's population growing.

Well, you might as well try to sell newspapers with this one;
"Sun Rises in East"
There is a legend about lobsters: Throw them in a pot of tepid water and crank up the heat. The poor arthropods, none the wiser, will be cooked to death. But throw them in boiling water, and they'll look for the escape hatch.

We don't know if it's true, but the proverb still makes a point: Quick changes are much more obvious than slow trends, even if they both are heading toward the same end point. Whether it's sprawl, the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the depletion of fish in the oceans, or even the steady rise of population itself, slow, inexorable trends can hide in the background.

Graph shows projected gas emissions increasing until 2010, value much higher than Kyoto target.

Why wonder about a relationship between population, immigration and environment? Greenhouse gases are up, and so is global warming. Ocean fish are declining, soils are eroding, cities are swelling, fresh water is fading, and air polltution has reached choking levels in many of the new "megacities," like Shanghai and Sao Paolo.

At the same time, look at population:

World population is growing by 75 million per year. It's projected to almost double, from 6.3 billion to about 10 billion, before it stabilizes.

Almost all of the rapid growth will occur in developing countires.

The United States is the only developing country with fast population growth -- about 3 million per year.

In 2000, 31 million Americans were foreign born.

Legal immigration rates in the United States are almost as high as ever -- about 1 million per year (illegal immigration is roughly half that).

The most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate anticipates a 49 percent population increase -- to 419 million -- by 2050.

These numbers are just numbers -- until you do the math and try to assess their environmental implicatinos. Each additional American needs one acre just for new highways and other infrastructure, says David Pimentel, an environmental scientist at Cornell University. Pimentel, who ran for the Sierra Club board, says he has a "neutral position" on immigration. " I feel that there are far more important and pressing environmental problems than immigration, including pesticides, soil erosion, water pollution, air pollution, energy conservation, and protecting forests."

The United States is already the third-most-populous country in the world, and its population is rising faster than any other developed nation. No matter what the source of U.S. population growth, we wonder how it affects the environment. And if immigration plays such a major role in the increase, should we think about that, too?

Chart: Population and population density, 1790-2000
U.S. Global Change Research Program

Even before you put immigration into the mix, the relationship between population and environment is murky. You'd expect that more people would need more resources, but more Salvadorans would not place quite as much strain on resources as Americans.

And after immigration gets into the picture, well, it's a chance to be slammed, slurred and slandered as a racist, a xenophobe, or a hypocrite.

We're going to go out on a limb, and assume we can have a rational discussion, without name-calling or slander.

Does population growth cause environmental destruction?

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Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, project assistant; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2004, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.