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Why I am an Environmentalist — For Immigration Reduction

author Published by cafaro

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Philip Cafaro is an associate professor of philosophy at Colorado State Univeristy. He recounts for NumbersUSA’s audience how he realized the beauty in nature, and then found that immigration-fueled population growth was a major factor behind every major threat to nature. )

I’m an environmental activist, and have been for over twenty years. I vividly remember the issue that made me one: a proposal to dam the Oconee River, a lovely, lazy river that runs for a hundred miles through the Georgia Piedmont.

I had moved to Athens, Georgia, in 1986, from Chicago. I came to study American history at the University of Georgia, but the main effect of moving to the South was to open my eyes to nature. Here, in a very different environment from the one I had grown up in, I realized the importance—and beauty—of nature.

A friend taught me bird watching, during the spring warbler migration. Another took me for my first canoe ride. Before long I was immersed in learning about the local landscape. I wrote my masters thesis in the then-new area of environmental history.

But as is often the case, I had hardly started to learn about the landscape, when I began to learn about threats to it. New highways. New sprawling subdivisions. The issue that really catalyzed my environmental activism, though, was the proposal to dam the Oconee, which flows through Athens. Its stated purpose: to provide “flood control” and drinking water to local residents. But its real purpose was to support continued growth, both economic and demographic. A dozen miles of the river were to be inundated, its lovely streamside forests drowned, its playful river otters displaced, to accommodate more of the bland sprawl spreading across north Georgia.

A number of us in the local Sierra Club group sprang into action. We wrote articles. We lobbied our public officials. We took reporters on canoe trips down the river, to show them what would be destroyed. As part of this effort, I read my first environmental impact statement on the proposal, prepared by the U.S. Corps of Engineers.

I’ve read dozens of EIS’s in subsequent years, but you always remember your first one, don’t you? I still recall my sinking feeling as I read, toward the very start of the report, its population projections for the northeast Georgia region, projected 50 years out. Was it possible, that our population was going to grow that fast? Perhaps these numbers were inflated. Examples of what people wanted to happen, not what was likely to happen.

Possible—but the numbers came from the U.S. Census Bureau. Our little group was hardly in a position to challenge federal demographers. Besides, houses were springing up daily all around the area. Project that out a few decades, and why wouldn’t we double or triple our population?

In the ensuing months, as I talked to city council members, county commissioners, water engineers and others, I noticed a pattern. I and my fellow enviros would talk about the river: its beauty and its history; the forests, fish and other animals that would be displaced by the dam. Our listeners would express sympathy, and say that of course they didn’t want to harm the river, either. Many of them had fished it or hunted along its banks, as kids. But more people were coming to north Georgia, lots more, and all those people would need water . . .

In the end, we fought the dam builders to a kind of a draw. Instead of a huge dam inundating a dozen miles of the Oconee River, the local communities pitched in and built—at great public expense—a smaller reservoir on a tributary, destroying 3 or 4 miles of Bear Creek.

With a stable population, the original reservoir never would have been proposed. There would have been no need. With those population projections from the Census Bureau, though, a smaller reservoir was really the best we environmentalists could hope for.

In other words, we were going to lose, one way or the other. The only questions were how big would we lose, and how quickly.

What with one thing and another, Bear Creek Reservoir took nearly a dozen years to build. It only came “on line” seven years ago—and almost immediately, it was being cited as inadequate to meet regional drinking water needs (see article in the Athens Banner-Herald).

The Bear Creek Reservoir was built to accommodate new water demands for the next fifty years, at the “middle” or “moderate” growth projections from the Census Bureau. But it turned out that the counties around Athens were among the fastest growing in the state. They actually grew faster than even the “high” Census Bureau projections.

Now there is talk of building a system of huge regional reservoirs in north Georgia, to handle all this growth—including that river-killer on the main stem of the Oconee River. Environmentalists, of course, oppose these plans. A new generation of activists will write earnest letters to the editor. They will lobby their public officials on behalf of the river they love. And they will lose.

I was thinking of all this half a year ago, as I sat through a public hearing held by the Corps of Engineers on another reservoir proposal. These days, I live two thousand miles from Georgia, in Fort Collins, Colorado. Once again, a lovely river flows through my town: the Cache la Poudre. Water is a scarce commodity here in the West, and river flows are sadly reduced from earlier times.

Still, there is usually some water in the river, and it supports a lot of life along its banks. I’ve helped the local Audubon Society census its bird populations , and wrote a proposal to have the river corridor designated a state important bird area. I’ve pointed out kingfishers, osprey and foxes to my sons on our river walks. And when I asked my wife Kris to marry me, the “natural” choice was along the banks of the Poudre.

I love the Cache. And I hate plans to siphon off its the last unallocated “flows” and pump them into a new storage reservoir, drying up our river in order to accommodate and promote more development in the boom towns east and south of Fort Collins. I’ve already lobbied my city council members on the issue, trying to put into words what the river means to me, and reminding them of the many benefits that it gives to residents of our city: aesthetic, recreational, economic, and spiritual.

Now one by one, dozens and dozens of my fellow citizens walk up to the microphone, at the Corps of Engineers hearing. Many are obviously nervous, but they overcome their fear, in order to speak up for “their river.” And again and again, I hear, in a variety of ways, that they love this river. They want it to live.

The hundreds of people who have gathered in this immense hall (the Corps had to move the hearing from its original location, to accommodate the crowd) have spent thousands of hours pouring over the proposal and assorted technical documents. Their testimony is by turns analytical, personal, passionate, funny, and nutty. But overall, the message is clear. My fellow citizens want us to build a community that respects and protects the river, and that leaves enough water in it for the fish, the birds, and the trees that grow along its banks.

Their testimony is inspiring. But of course the reservoir’s proponents also get to have their say, and the water district has hired a fetching young woman to tell their side of the story. She begins a fancy power point presentation. And here they are, two slides into the proceedings . . .

The population projections! Again, looking thirty to fifty years out from the present. Again: low, medium, and high growth projections. And again, it is obvious: we’re going to have more people here. They will need water. Etc. The whole rest of the presentation flows from that one slide. And with that one slide on their side, the presentation will be very tough to argue away.

Nevertheless, local environmentalists have formed a coalition to fight the dam project (you can learn about our efforts at We debate whether to address population issues, but decide not to. We want to avoid a polarizing “growth / no growth” debate. Besides, if we bring up population, we will play to our opponents’ strength: when everyone takes population growth as inevitable, arguing against it means arguing against common sense.

No, we will have to just accept the population numbers and argue that despite them, we can conserve enough water or find enough water from other sources, to get by without the reservoir. It is a weak hand, but it is the only one we can play—because of population growth.

It turns out to be easy enough for us to show that the city governments who are proposing the reservoir haven’t done much to conserve water. “Don’t build a dam and take more water out of the river,” we shout, “until you’ve done the most with what you’ve already got.” We’re the soul of reason.

The problem is that reservoir proponents can easily plug more water conservation into their models, and by looking another ten or fifteen years down the line, see the same looming water shortages. More people will need more water. It’s as simple as that.

If our population wasn’t growing, no one would be proposing this reservoir. In fact, there are plenty of opportunities to save water through conservation and put it back in the river, where it belongs. But an ever growing population takes those conservation measures, swallows them with hardly a “thank you,” and demands more. At some point, even under the most rigorous or optimistic measures, that means taking water out of the river to satisfy human beings. It means dams, reservoirs and, in this case, a dried-out Cache la Poudre River.

As along the Oconee River, environmentalists cannot hope to keep water in the Cache permanently, in the context of endless population growth. We may well be able to defeat this reservoir proposal, but others are “in the pipeline.” Sooner or later, the last bit of water will be sucked out of the river that so many of us love. I’ve got tenure here at Colorado State University and my family and I like it here. So I expect I’ll have a front row seat for the destruction of our local river. Through the bird censuses that we have started, we should be able to document one important aspect of its ecological decline. I don’t look forward to it, but there it is.

After all these years, I’m more convinced than ever of the goodness of the environmentalist cause. I still want to win—and I’m still willing to put in the time and effort needed to win.

What I’m not willing to do is go through the motions, playing my assigned role in environmental fights that can’t be won, simply because that’s what environmentalists are supposed to do. And I’m no longer willing to keep my mouth shut about population growth, just because most population growth in the U.S. is now caused by immigration and the topic makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Hell, discussing immigration makes me uncomfortable! I would much rather avoid the topic, particularly among my fellow progressives. More than once, I’ve been called a nativist, a xenophobe, a racist—not because of anything objectionable I’ve said about any racial or ethnic group, but simply for saying that we should reduce immigration. Who needs it?

The answer, I think, is that nature needs it. Nature needs fewer people—globally, but also right here, in the United States.

America’s rivers, forests and grasslands; the birds and mammals and other species with whom we grudgingly share the landscape; desperately need fewer Americans, not more. It is ridiculous and ultimately futile to try to fight sprawl, or stop environmentally damaging water projects, in the context of an endlessly growing human population.

Worldwide, nature also desperately needs fewer, not more, Americans. With our voracious appetite for resources and our disproportionate role in stressing global ecosystem services, the last thing the world needs is twice as many Americans. But we’re on track to double our population within the next sixty years.

This is not an excuse for continued American overconsumption! Americans need to rein in our gluttonous resource consumption, for our good and the good of the rest of the world. We need to cut energy and other resource consumption, for nature and for future generations.

But stabilizing our population is a necessary part of reducing Americans’ overall consumption of resources. After all, all else being equal, more people equal more consumption. Whatever our success in convincing our fellow citizens to consume less in the coming decades, that success will be furthered by population stabilization—or undermined by continued population growth.

The reality is that environmentalism is a dead letter in the context of endless population growth. The sooner American environmentalists acknowledge this unpleasant fact and begin to grapple with its implications, the better.

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