Environmentalists Should Focus on Curbing Population Growth -- Especially Via Immigration
Americans recently observed the 50th Earth Day — but the holiday's founder would find little to celebrate.
Former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, a lifelong, liberal Democrat and staunch environmentalist, originally created the event in 1970 to educate Americans about the threat of rapid population growth and other causes of environmental degradation. At teach-ins across America, college students learned about why slowing U.S. population growth was necessary to reduce sprawl, pollution, and unsustainable consumption.
At the time, the U.S. population had just surpassed 200 million. Today, that figure exceeds 330 million. And it'll exceed 400 million by 2060. Such persistent growth impacts biodiversity, wildlife habitat, endangered species, carbon emissions, farmland, soils, forests, air and water pollution, noise levels, and quality of life.
Yet mainstream environmental groups — like the Sierra Club — and corporations have turned a blind eye to the threat. They've helped transform the holiday into a feel-good event, marked by little more than tree-planting, stream cleanups, and grandiose proclamations about climate change. In fact, Senator Nelson ultimately became so dismayed by these groups' negligence that, when a Sierra Club campaigner showed up at his home later in life to solicit a donation, he gave the young man a lecture instead of a check.
A few years before his death in 2005, I had the privilege of visiting Senator Nelson at the Wilderness Society, where he served as a counselor. We commiserated over most environmental groups' unwillingness to support immigration reforms that would humanely slow U.S. future population growth. After all, about 90 percent of the projected population increase between now and 2060 will come as a result of foreign migration. There's simply no hope of limiting rapid growth without lowering immigration.
Many environmental groups don't merely deny that the unfettered immigration of 10 million people each decade causes profound environmental consequences. They actively oppose most border security measures or cuts to legal immigration, without advocating any feasible alternative means to control U.S. population growth.
Instead, they opt to treat the symptoms of unchecked growth. They propose denser urban living to minimize sprawl (now under scrutiny during the pandemic), water efficiency improvements to conserve rivers and aquifers, renewable energy to slash emissions, and recycling to curb pollution.
Of course, all of these are important — but they don't address the underlying problem of overpopulation.
The few mainstream environmental groups that do acknowledge the threat of rapid population growth claim it's a "global problem requiring global solutions." That's also true of climate change, of course — yet no environmentalist would ever suggest that Americans stop trying to reduce emissions just because we can't solve the problem entirely by ourselves.
Senator Nelson warned us that Americans would have to show leadership on this issue — or else watch our wilderness disappear. "We have a problem here at home, and if we wait for the rest of the world to come along and do what's right, we'll join the less-industrialized nations as a nation of degraded, overpopulated lands," he wrote.
"With twice the population, will there be any wilderness left? Any quiet place? Any habitat for songbirds? Waterfalls? Other wild creatures? Not much," he cautioned on a different occasion.
Senator Nelson told me that, in the end, he considered himself a failure because America was moving away from sustainability, rather than towards it. But the founder of Earth Day did not fail. His followers failed him — and the environment they claim to defend.
Leon Kolankiewicz is an environmental planner and Scientific Director of NumbersUSA, a non-profit organization promoting the recommendations of two Clinton-era presidential commissions on immigration and environmental sustainability.