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"Do I Have a Population Policy?"


It isn’t every day a person gets to sit down and chew the fat with one of their U.S. Senators. So I jumped at the chance to participate in an hour long Q & A session with Michael Bennet, the junior Senator from Colorado, who fielded questions from two dozen environmental activists here in northern Colorado.

Senator Bennet considers himself a strong environmentalist and in his first year in the Senate he has earned good marks from the League of Conservation Voters. He has a particular interest in promoting “the new energy economy” and promised his listeners that he would push as hard as he could for the strongest possible cuts in US greenhouse gas emissions. He has also earned praise from local enviros for supporting their efforts to prevent a new uranium mine from opening up on the outskirts of town.

However, Senator Bennet has earned the lowest possible rating from NumbersUSA for his immigration voting record. During 2009 he sponsored several major bills to increase the numbers of visas granted to foreign workers (this in the midst of the highest unemployment in the US in 40 years) and provided the decisive vote to defeat an effort to put the E-Verify system in place permanently (it was subsequently reauthorized for another five years). And he has promised Denver’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce that he will support an expansive amnesty bill, perhaps this year.

Sen. Michael Bennet

Sen. Michael Bennet

So when I had a chance to ask Michael Bennet a question, I took it. Senator Bennet, I said:

As you look around this room, you see people who have worked hard for years to fight sprawl, prevent river-killing dams, protect habitat for endangered species, get our cities to invest in mass transit and cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, and more. But at the base of all these problems is the problem of population growth.

More people means a greater need for water, hence for more dams and reservoirs.

More people means more greenhouse gas emissions.

More people means less room for all the other creatures that need some of this landscape to survive.

So here’s my question: How can we succeed in keeping water in our rivers, and condos from crowding out farms, ranches and wildlands on the Front Range, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, if you are working away in Washington to increase our population through your immigration bills?

Senator Bennet was polite enough in his response, but it was easy to see he didn’t really see any connection between his immigration bills and population growth, or between population growth and environmental degradation. At one point in his response, he brought out the old standby, “look, Colorado is going to grow. The key is to make sure that we have sustainable growth, growth that improves the lives of Coloradoans and improves the environment.”

But what is this “sustainable growth”? Does it even exist? Even at very slow rates of population increase, it is easy to see that over time, human beings will crowd all the other species off the landscape, and crowd ourselves more and more. At some point, we need to stop growing, or we’ll be standing on each other's shoulders.

The very notion of “sustainability” would seem to imply an end to the growth in human numbers, if not now, than at some point. And with the earth itself seemingly telling us, through global climate change, that we are bumping up against limits, perhaps the time to end the growth in human numbers is now.

In a follow-up question, my friend Glen Colton tried again. Look, he said: If we ended immigration now, our population would grow by a few tens of millions by 2050 as it leveled off. At current immigration levels, we are set to add perhaps another 100 million during that time. And the proposals pushed by immigration expansionists, such as yourself, will lead to even greater population increases. You say ‘growth is inevitable,’ but in fact you are helping push our growth rate higher, through your immigration and population policies.

To which the Senator laughingly responded:

I wasn’t aware I had a population policy.

To me that gets to the heart of the matter. Senator Bennet, the US Congress and the Obama administration are setting US population policy by default. They are making population policy, they just don’t know it. Thus we blunder into the future, talking about “new energy economies” and “sustainable growth,” while we undermine the possibility of creating a sustainable society.

PHILIP CAFARO is an associate professor of philosophy at Colorado State University

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information on how high levels of uncontrolled immigration impact the environment and our natural resources, check out our Change the Numbers interactive tool and our Quality of Life Maps.

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