Rob Harding's picture


  by  Rob Harding

For 9 months, I've had scores of conversations with environmental leaders and thinkers about immigration's impact on the U.S. population and environment.

I heard some of this:

I hope the Trump administration is successful at reducing future immigration flows because such incessant population growth is inhibiting our ability to conserve other species' habitats. But I won't share this view publicly in today's polarized political climate." -- a university editor of an environmental newsletter

I'm all in on population control in the US, have a bookshelf full of [population-environment] books here at home, and I've never lost sight of the firm connection between population growth and habitat loss and global warming. But it has been increasingly challenging to come out for immigration reductions as the number of right-wing racist crazies has increased." -- a leader in a national conservation groupp


As we approach the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (in 2020), I've wanted to know why I'm not seeing much leadership from environmental groups, leaders and writers in supporting limits to immigration that would allow the U.S. population to stabilize in this century.

After all, the founder of Earth Day - Sen. Gaylord Nelson - (D-Wis.) was clear about the responsibility of environmentalists to address these issues:

The bigger the population gets, the more serious the problems become... We have to address the population issue. The United Nations, with the U.S. supporting it, took the position in Cairo in 1994 that every country was responsible for stabilizing its own population. It can be done. But in this country, it's phony to say 'I'm for the environment but not for limiting immigration.'" -- Gaylord Nelson, 2001 interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I've spent these last nine months in conversations with fellow environmentalists across several disciplines who understand our current state of global ecological overshoot and its axiomatic connection to the size and growth of human populations.

While most of the people I spoke with recognize immigration's role in driving continued U.S. population growth and acknowledge that such growth undermines U.S. ecological sustainability, many of the same people refuse to publicly support limiting immigration as a necessary component of any plan to achieve U.S. population stabilization.

The quotes below are representative of most of the answers I got over these months of searching.

The people with whom I spoke knew I was with NumbersUSA. But I do not use their names or identify their organizations because I wish to shine a light on the overall thinking behind the overwhelming silence of so many, rather than criticize specific individuals (and their organizations) who were kind enough to talk candidly with me.

We are practically on the same page except for migration. I believe that, in the short term, in order to avoid a major humanitarian calamity, the global North must be more receptive to migration from the global South, albeit with proper filters for troublemakers." -- an editor of an environmental journal

"On the immigration issue, if climate scientists are anywhere close to correct, the world may live to see huge movements of people this century. Compassion is the only appropriate response to such potential massive suffering, not laws to shut people out or pretend it is someone else's problem. I believe it is of paramount importance that we, environmentalists, steer fully clear of past mistakes of population controls and, relatedly, get a big chunk of the social justice contingent on our side. We should try to avoid recycling any past acrimonies and misunderstandings." -- a Southeast university author

. . . unsustainable human population numbers, overconsumption, and damaging resource extraction and production techniques are critical factors in the planetary extinction crisis, climate change and ocean acidification. However, because population, consumption and extraction/production are global issues that transcend national borders, we do not view national immigration policy as the appropriate target for addressing these issues.

"We do not oppose migration of people into the United States and do not support coercive population control measures of any kind. Immigration and the pursuit of better circumstances are basic human rights, and U.S. immigration policies should always be rooted in human dignity. While there is room for debate over the best methods to manage immigration, we do not view it as the way to address population growth, over-consumption, urban sprawl, unsustainable growth, and the effects they have on wildlife and the wild places they need to survive and thrive." -- a leader in a national ecology group

"[T]he idea that we should limit immigration into the US in order to combat this problem that we are contributing so extensively to worries me quite a bit. It feels like shutting the doors to protect our privilege, after we've done so much to make the world unlivable for some of the people trying to get in.

"[O]ne of the reasons we need to reduce fertility so aggressively in the developed (overdeveloped) world is so that we have room to do what justice demands, which is to let in refugees and those looking to improve their lot by taking advantage of our sunk carbon costs (infrastructure). This makes me unpopular with important allies, I know, as many overpopulation advocates are worried about immigration into high-consuming countries; but I think we get to work to correct one injustice through another injustice (one which, it so happens, protects those lucky few of us already on the inside of the right borders)." -- a Northeast university author


"Is it in [anyone's] interest to have a total societal collapse? No. If we want to prevent that we need to make some hard choices. Reduced immigration is important, but so is having fewer children." -- a leader in an environmental think tank

"The overwhelming view in international organizations -- and that means most environmental groups as well as the UN (including UNEP), World Bank, etc. -- is that population is an old and tired topic and can't be engaged in without hints of blaming the victim to outright racism. It's sad but real...For good or ill, when the immigration issue is added, the population issue becomes further tainted." -- a leader in a population organization

"I can't get into the subject of immigration, which is important but about which I am personally conflicted since I have family members who are immigrants." -- an activist in a national population group

"[We don't] engage on the issue of immigration because birds don't recognize borders and immigration in our country won't do anything for the bigger problem of world population...The immigrants who come here quickly learn to limit their families in order to have the chance to have the better life that fewer children can offer. Studies have shown that within a generation they learn that they don't have to have huge families and become Americans. I actually heard that we, as a nation, have attained population stability." -- a leader in a state chapter


I conclude after these first 73 conversations that, nearly 50 years after the first Earth Day, the goal of U.S. population stabilization in pursuit of domestic ecological sustainability remains disturbingly elusive.

Of particular importance here is that many environmentalists don't appear to value domestic ecological sustainability enough to publicly promote immigration policies that might make it possible, somehow viewing the population issue as a singular global issue rather than a widespread local one.

ROB HARDING is the NumbersUSA Sustainability Communications Manager

Updated: Fri, Jul 20th 2018 @ 5:25pm EDT

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