The anti-immigration lobby in the US has a new argument – that immigration, and the resulting population growth, is harmful to the environment and should be stopped.
This is, of course, complete nonsense. The neo-malthusian argument that population growth cannot continue forever has been repeatedly disproved. It is surprising that immigration conservatives are trying to use the environment as their new rallying call. What is worrying, however, is that they are succeeding – and the Christian Science Monitor is asking if “immigration is an ecoissue.” Nor are their efforts new – in 1998 the Sierra Club membership was forced to go to the ballot on the issue; two years ago the CSM reported on a widening (and possibly imaginary) rift amongst environmentalists.
Who is Behind this Argument?
Before addressing the argument, it is interesting to evaluate who is behind this “population-growth” environmentalism. A quick search reveals two organizations that frequently pop up – Population-Environment Balance (or BALANCE) and the even more right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).
Their agendas are straightforward, alarmist, and (contrary to the name), completely unbalanced. An alarmist article on BALANCE calls for an immigration “moratorium,” claiming that “since 1945 the U.S.’s population growth rate has equaled that of India’s.”
Such statements reveal both the line of attack being deployed by these groups and its weakness. The arguments are targeted at a traditionally liberal group. After all, who would not be concerned about the “War on Poverty,” or on America’s carbon footprint. But they implicitly associate the environmental failures of the US on a single bogeyman – population immigration. Yet, that link between population and environment has been repeatedly disproved.
But first, is immigration event a problem? According to the Pew research center, 82% of US population growth has been due to immigration. But in this era of aging populations and underfunded pension systems in much of Europe, a large and young population is, in fact , an asset. So if America’s population is growing like India’s – American’s should rejoice at their own demographic dividend.
At the micro-level however, BALANCE’s two arguments deserve credible responses.
The Neo-Malthusian Thesis
The first argument is an absolute one – that America cannot afford more people, given the limited natural resources available. It is, in this view, critical to “stabilize” the population to preserve American’s quality of life.
Yet, this argument has been repeatedly debunked. Donald Boudreaux, from George Mason University, did it well in 2006, in his article “Absorption Nation“:
I agree that America’s ability to absorb immigrants has changed: it’s higher today than at any time in history.
Only by naively supposing that a country’s ability to absorb immigrants is determined chiefly by the availability of unsettled land do people conclude that America today is less able to absorb immigrants. It’s true that more land was available for settlement in the 19th century. That land, however, was never much of an attraction to immigrants. Historically, most immigrants settled in cities — think, for example, of Manhattan’s Little Italy and San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Also, of course, we’re better able to feed ourselves today, even though the amount of land used for growing crops and pasturing animals is no larger now than in 1900. Higher agricultural productivity enables farmers and ranchers to produce more output on the same amount of land.
What about workers? A measure of ability to absorb workers is capital invested per worker. Today, the amount of capital invested per worker is nine times greater than it was just after World War I. Because a worker’s productivity rises when he has more capital to work with, and because his pay is tied closely to his productivity, workers today produce and earn more than workers did during the open-borders era.
If there is no particular “absorption limit,” there is also no correlation between population density and environmental degradation:
Holland, for example, is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with 4,500 people per 1,000 hectares. It is also one of the most ecologically strong, devoting 10% of its land to ecological protection. Compare this to Brazil with only 170 people per 1,000 hectares and an unprecedented rate of rainforest destruction and it becomes clear that corporate and government policy, not population density, accounts for environmental degradation.
Clearly, the ability to absorb immigrations has little to do with natural resources. Land is abundant – only 3% of America’s landmass is urban; agriculture is flourishing; and quality of life keeps rising. Immigration does not pose a threat to the sustainability of American’s quality of life.
The Impact of Immigrants in America
There is a second argument. Since Americans consume more than others, a lower population is desirable by itself in order to keep overall consumption low. And, since immigrants use more resources in America than they would in their home country, less immigration implies a better planet. A Carry Capacity Network article states:
As an example consider the impact of a typical family of seven, immigrating from a country where their owning a car was highly unlikely. When they come to America they are likely to acquire cars (0.76 cars per family member). For every mile they drive, they pollute and deplete resources that could have been relatively unaffected had they continued their prior lifestyle. The act of border crossing enables them to make lifestyle changes that adversely affect the environment; by becoming Americans they adopt the consumption and pollution patterns of the world’s most environmentally destructive lifestyle.
In evaluating this argument, it is useful to view environmental impact as a combination of three variables – population, consumption, and technology. America has higher consumption – thus it should have a lower population.
First, this argument is egregiously elitist, for it condemns immigrants – who have the natural right to seek a better life – to misery and poverty. Indeed, the natural extension of this argument would be to force people outside America to live in utter deprivation, so that American’s can continue their polluting ways.
This argument is misguided, overlooking the actual problem – the high consumption lifestyle of Americans. Real environmentalists would convince Americans to consume less.
Finally, this argument focuses attention on the least important of the three solution variables – technology. It is technology that helped humanity avoid a malthusian famine by increasing food and worker productivity. It also offers solutions to problems such as energy, waste generation, and water conservation. True environmentalists would recognize both the true problem (consumption), and the potential solution (technology), and focus efforts there.
The Ugly Truth
The population-growth environmentalist’s arguments hold no water. Yes, America’s population is increasing and “far from stabilized.” Yes, this is largely due to immigration:
[Hispanics] are 14.3 percent of the overall population, but between July 2004 and July 2005, they accounted for 49 percent of US population growth. Of the increase of 1.3 million Hispanics, the Census Bureau reported, 800,000 was because of natural increase (births minus deaths), and 500,000 was due to immigration.
“The Hispanic population in 2005 was much younger, with a median age of 27.2 years compared to the population as a whole at 36.2 years. About a third of the Hispanic population was under 18, compared with one-fourth of the total population,” according to the Census Bureau report.
In view of humanity’s ability to adapt and develop new technologies, there is no known limit on the Earth’s “carrying capacity.” And while environmental degredation is a phenomena, it is occuring not because of large populations or higher density, but because of overconsumption in America, by native-born Americans. Ironically, it is these immigrants which will pay the pensions of the population-growth environmentalists that oppose them.
These pseudo-environmentalists would do well to reveal their true agenda of preventing immigration. This love for environmentalism is old wine in a new bottle – and the environment has nothing to do with it.