But Solutions go Deeper than Building Fences
Immigration has become a “hot button” issue, but often for the wrong reasons, reports the May/June 2008 issue of E – The Environmental Magazine (now posted at: www.emagazine.com). What’s missing is frank discussion of its impact on overall population growth and on the environment — and on how to address its fundamental causes.
Largely because of immigration, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that from 303 million today we’ll grow to 400 million people as early as 2040, and 420 million by 2050. While some parts of the world, including western Europe and Japan, are experiencing below-replacement-level fertility, the U.S. is growing so fast it now has the third largest population in the world, after only India and China.
There are strong and compelling voices on both sides of the immigration debate, and few definitive answers. America is, as we’re frequently reminded, a nation of immigrants. We absorbed 25 million people between 1860 and 1920, and most observers believe we are a stronger nation because of it.
So why is immigration an environmental concern? The fact is that America’s rapid population growth makes it nearly impossible to achieve sustainability. According to Population-Environment Balance, 93 percent of U.S. increases in energy use since 1970 can be attributed to population growth. To house our growing numbers we pave over an area the size of Delaware every year, the group says. And every day we remove 3.2 billion gallons of water from aquifers that are not replenished by natural processes.
Although increased population has many other environmental effects (urban sprawl and the loss of open space, to name two), energy and climate effects are central and little understood. Any efficiency gains we make are being swamped by rapid population increases and their attendant increased energy demand.
Of course, the wasteful American lifestyle is one major culprit. With just five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is the top consumer of 11 of the world’s top 20 traded commodities. We use a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel. We have more private cars than drivers with licenses. Between 1975 and 2002, the average American home grew 38 percent, even though household size declined.
The increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which rose 13 percent between 1990 and 2000, closely mirrors the just-over-13-percent population increase. A huge percentage of climate emissions can be attributed simply to population growth.
It’s hardly surprising that so many people want to come to America from the overpopulated developing world, and the “push factors” that cause them to seek a new life in the U.S. are compelling. Who can blame a family mired in poverty for wanting a better future for themselves? According to Population Connection, the swelling numbers abroad create pressures leading to “increased poverty, hunger, land degradation, a lack of health services and limited social and economic mobility.”
How do we address these emigration pressures without calling for the mandatory caps on U.S. immigration that are a taboo subject to many? Population Connection wants to combine action at home (reducing teen pregnancy, ensuring contraceptive availability, defending reproductive rights) with foreign aid. If people see real hope for better lives at home, the group says, they will feel much less pressure to emigrate.
Such views have many supporters. “What would stop the illegal migration?” asks G. Jefferson Price, III, a former Baltimore Sun foreign correspondent, now with Catholic Relief Services. “A reversal in the trends that have devastated the economies of the countries whose people feel they have no alternative but to leave. We are spending a lot of energy and wealth to keep immigrants out of the U.S. If we and the governments of the countries they are coming from were to devote as much to improving their standard of living at home, they might not feel the need to come to America.”
The obstacle is to get countries around the world to focus on eradicating hunger, infant mortality and poverty, and limiting births through universal access to family planning and maternal health programs. In 1994, 179 countries met in Cairo, Egypt for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which issued a 20-year plan to address these issues. Unfortunately, for the most part, this agenda has languished as donor countries — including the U.S., despite having spent more than $500 million on the Iraq War — have fallen short of meeting their financial commitments.
In addition, the reinstatement by George W. Bush of the “Global Gag Rule” (which mandates that no U.S. family planning assistance be provided to foreign organizations that use funding from any other source to perform abortions or lobby to make abortion legal or more available in their country) has had a severe impact, denying much-needed services and contraceptives to agencies on the front lines. Cultural and religious opposition have also combined to thwart efforts.
Nevertheless, Thoraya Ahmed, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says that the ICPD process offers the best hope for reducing migration pressures. “Today it is clear that the growing inequity between and within countries affects migration patterns. To address migration, the growing poverty and demographic divide between rich and poor countries must be addressed.”