Look at the top-priority campaigns of the nation’s big environmental groups and you’ll find endangered animals, pollution and global warming.
What’s largely missing are
high-profile, domestic initiatives that tackle what many conservationists agree
is a chief source of these and other challenges:
The environmental establishment has mostly abandoned talking about the nation’s growing populace, particularly as it relates to immigration. The topic is dogged by internal squabbles, divisive politics and a desire to avoid ethnic discrimination.
One result is that ecological factors are rarely mentioned in the current effort to establish a new immigration policy. The debate mostly centers on economics and national security.
“People have been avoiding it like the plague,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) a hawk on illegal-immigration issues.
“(Environmentalists) will sidestep major challenges to what their stated goal is because it may end up stepping on political friends’ toes,” he said. “They have credibility problems when they are willing to look the other way.”
Leaders of big-name green groups said they focus their energies on a larger issue: global population growth.
“Some people...want the Sierra Club to have a position that is more U.S.-centric,” said Stephen Mills, the club’s international program director in Washington, D.C. “We feel that the entire planet is worth protecting, not the U.S. over anywhere else.”
As the U.S. population increases, the link between population and the country’s environmental capacity—its water supply, farmland, fisheries and other natural resources—is getting more attention from groups that aren’t among the marquee names in environmentalism.
“It’s an issue whose time has come,” said Vicky Markham, director of the Center for Environment and Population, a nonprofit research group in New Canaan, Conn. “The scientific data pretty much across the board shows that we in the U.S. are reaching many of the nation’s ecological limits, one by one, and that many (limits) are linked to population trends.”
The group works with universities such as Duke and Yale
to assess the effects of population growth on the environment. It sometimes
teams with large, mainstream environmental organizations, including the
National Wildlife Federation.
Such alliances are one low-key way for conservation groups to dabble in domestic population issues. Other tactics include backing sex-education programs aimed at curbing teen pregnancies and printing articles in club magazines about, among other things, the human population’s impact on wildlife.
“It’s a shame that
(environmentalists) haven’t found a way to get involved” in a prominent way,
said Paul Steinberg, director of the Center for Environmental Studies at
Concerns Over Growth
Most academic efforts to study the environmental impact
of population growth focus on the global scale. More than 98 percent of the
world’s population growth is occurring in developing countries,
“America’s relatively high population growth and high rates of resource consumption and pollution make for a volatile mixture resulting in the largest environmental impact per capita ... in the world,” read a report by Markham’s center that’s scheduled for release in September. The San Diego Union-Tribune previewed the document.
The study, which gathered existing research from hundreds
of sources to highlight population-related trends, makes no policy recommendations.
Among its findings:
• Americans occupy about 20 percent more developed land per capita for housing, schools, shopping, roads, and other uses than they did 20 years ago. That’s partly because the average number of people per household has dropped while the average size of homes has swelled. The increasing sprawl tends to boost vehicle use and petroleum consumption.
• About 40 percent of the nation’s rivers and 46 percent of its lakes are too polluted for fishing and swimming. Wetlands, the biological filters for water pollution, are shrinking by 100,000 acres a year, mainly because of development.
• Roughly 6,700 species in the country are at risk of extinction, most often because of habitat loss.
• Half of the continental
More than half the
Such challenges are evident
in places like
Up and down the
Despite wide recognition of
population growth in the
“It’s really not a
scientific question,” said Jim Baird, director of sustainability education at
the Izaak Walton League of America, a national conservation group based in
“The number of people the
Doomsayers have long predicted that the world’s use of raw products will outstrip its resources and lead to massive human suffering.
That doctrine was
popularized in the late 1960s by Paul Ehrlich, a
“No substantial benefits will result from further growth of the nation’s population, rather... the gradual stabilization of our population through voluntary means would contribute significantly to the nation’s ability to solve its problems,” John D. Rockefeller III wrote to President Nixon and Congress in a landmark 1972 report by the Commission on Population Growth and the American Future.
Since then, the nation has grown by roughly 100 million people. However, technological advances that help clean the air, conserve water and grow more food on less farmland have helped to mitigate or delay predicted population-induced disasters.
Ehrlich’s recent writings
express doubt that the
“We are losing the struggle to create a sustainable society,” he wrote in a 2003 article in the journal Conservation Biology.
continue to discuss overpopulation in stark terms, but such talk is mostly
reserved for the international scene. Focusing domestically would be to ignore
the economic disparities among countries that spur people to immigrate to the
Last year, one of every five
immigrants worldwide lived in the
National Audubon Society supports international family planning while taking no
(Interview requests also were made to the offices of Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and San Diego Reps. Susan Davis and Bob Filner. Aides for each Democrat declined to comment or said their bosses weren’t available last week.)
Besides, sorting out the ecological costs and benefits of immigration and population growth can be enormously complex. That has led some environmentalists to say their groups should stick with core missions such as saving species, curbing pollution and preserving open space.
Then there are the racial and cultural sensitivities inherent in discussions of immigration and population control.
For example, aggressively advocating birth control or
abortion rights in the
Immigrants also play a key role in population growth once
they arrive in the
A 2005 bureau report found that there was an annual
average of 84 births per 1,000 foreign-born women of childbearing age in the
Latinos have the nation’s highest birthrates among major population groups, the report showed.
“It’s...a very touchy issue to deal with,” said Mel Hinton, president of the San Diego Audubon Society. “You are asking people to limit their reproductive rights or goals or desires, and that is very difficult.”
Also controversial is the issue of illegal immigration.
Immigration issues have proved highly divisive for the Sierra Club in recent years.
In 2004, for example, the organization was deeply split by three candidates who ran for board positions on platforms to limit immigration. Some of the group’s members saw it as a racist campaign, and none of the candidates won.
But the results didn’t quell
the debate among conservationists such as Alan Kuper of
These days, Kuper operates a nonprofit outfit that tracks how congressional members vote on immigration and population issues along with more traditional conservation topics. His group is called CUSP, for Comprehensive US Sustainable Population.
“What we are trying to tell
the environmental establishment is that they really can’t” ignore the