Meet the Enemy

by Carolyn Chase


alk radio and immigration can be a volatile mix on any day. So when Barbara Whitesides' KFMB show called and asked me to go on the air to discuss the Sierra Club's internal discourse about population policy, the alarm bells went off. Was the host left, right, or middle- of-the-road? Even the mere fact that the Club's membership is voting on changing their neutral policy on immigration's contribution to population growth had been met with charges of racism.

Like California, the national Sierra Club has an initiative process. If enough of the members sign petitions, they can put an proposal on the ballot for a national vote. A big enough group (only 2% out of 550,000 members were needed) did just that. The initiative asks the members to vote to: "adopt a comprehensive population policy for the United States that continues to advocate an end to U.S. population growth at the earliest possible time through reduction in natural increase (births minus deaths,) but now also through reduction in net immigration (immigration minus emigration)." and to "reverse its decision to take no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration into the United States."

The Board of Directors used the perks of their position to place their own alternative on the ballot: "The Sierra Club affirms the decision of the Board of Directors to take NO position on U.S. immigration levels and policies. The Sierra Club can more effectively address the root causes of global population problems through its existing comprehensive approach:
*The Sierra Club will build upon its effective efforts to champion the right of all families to maternal and reproductive health care, and the empowerment and equity of women.
*The Sierra Club will continue to address the root causes of migration by encouraging sustainability, economic security, health and nutrition, human rights and environmentally responsible consumption."

The stage has been set to choose between a global vs. a local view of the impacts of the movement of people. Although the outcome of the vote is uncertain, all sides agree there's an underlying problem.

Locally and globally, human population growth - regardless of what race - is the biggest single common threat to species diversity, air and water quality, peace, individual liberty, and overall quality of life.

The global dominance of humanity is dumbfounding. We use or degrade one-fourth of all the plant matter that grows each year, along with one-third of the water that falls as rain. Human enterprise has thinned the protective ozone layer and altered global climate. We have degraded or destroyed two-thirds of the world's forests and three-fourths of its grasslands, wetlands and fisheries.

Growth worsens the contamination of drinking water supplies, augments air pollution, drives urban sprawl, overfills roads and sewers, crowds beaches and parks and imposes ever more stress on already declining forests, rivers and ecosystems.

People can be quite strident about the need to crack down, enforce and otherwise defend ourselves from immigration's contribution to these problems. Upon further examination, most are really upset about illegal immigration and are unaware of the levels of legal immigration. Foreign-born legal residents of the United States total about 24.5 million people, or 9.3 percent of the U.S. population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60 percent of this population has entered the United States since 1980. But the impacts are not solely caused by immigration. It is mismanagement of growth from all sources that causes degradation.

Of the next million in population growth that County demographers are predicting, about 1/3 comes from legal immigration. The other 2/3 is from "natural growth" - those born here. It's the natural increase that's the ultimate, global problem. Migration simply shifts the burden from one place to another.

It has not been demonstrated that we can be responsible for our population growth. Habitats and farmlands continue to be eaten up. Proponents of the policy change state: "There is going to be a water shortage, but it will really be a people overage."

They have also used the following analogy for the problem as they see it: "If you came home one night and the bathroom was overflowing, would you just indefinitely keep throwing towels down and re-using them? Or would you turn the spigot off first?"

But analogies are not useful when discussing population growth. This topic is one where most metaphors hurt more than help. People are not water. When we take the path of reducing people to analogies and numbers, we are on a path traveled by a variety of dictators and fascists throughout the ages, regardless of their justifications. The ends cannot be used to justify the means with this issue.

Nor can we circle up the wagons and hope to isolate ourselves. There is a great human tendency to insulate and avoid the controversies of this complex problem. No one really likes to talk about it because population is really just a four-syllable-word for us.

The Sierra Club membership will vote in April.