The Sierra Club's Immigration Problem


When Sierra Club members recently voted down a resolution calling for greatly restricting legal immigration levels, the organization's leadership and many of its allies were elated. Club president Adam Werbach had threatened to resign if the measure passed. "I was terrified," he said.

Its opponents often characterized the resolution as a product of outside agitators. "Zealots Target Sierra Club: Immigration Foes Working to Usurp Club Elections," screamed a headline in the left-leaning L.A. Weekly. Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope called the measure's supporters "nativists" and "right-wingers." Los Angeles Times columnist Al Martinez described it as "a clumsy, right-wing effort" and its backers as "a small group of super-ethnocentrists."

Things are not that simple, however. The resolution sprang not from right-wing outsiders, but from the vital intellectual core of the environmental movement. Its backers included long-time environmental leaders such as Worldwatch Institute head Lester Brown, Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson, and EarthFirst! founder Dave Foreman.

And the ideas behind it have not gone away. They will inspire many such efforts in the future. After all, the leading anti-immigrant group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, has its roots not on the nativist right but on the green left, among population-control advocates. And the Carrying Capacity Network, dominated by environmentalist intellectuals, strongly opposes immigration.

The resolution's supporters may have been reactionaries, in other words, but they were not simple nativists. They were stasists–people whose ideological goal is a static, unchanging society. According to this strain of environmental thought, the ideal society should resemble an ecosystem whose flora and fauna remain constasnt, the so-called "climax" stage. The eminent environmental historian Donald Worster thus yearns for "a stable, enduring rural society in equilibrium with the processes of nature" and deplores the "constant innovation, constant change, constant adjustment [that] have become the normal experience of this culture."

Large-scale immigration is simply incompatible with a "stable, enduring rural society." It allows peasants to leave their traditional villages, and permits the societies to which they travel to evolve in unexpected ways. In one of the most influential environmentalists tracts ever, Small Is Beautiful, green guru E.F. Schumacher condemned modern transportation and communication for making people "footloose" and allowing mass migrations. How surprised should we be when that sentiment translates into anti-immigrant activity, whether by properly "left-wing" population controllers or their "right-wing" fellow travelers?

These views are more mainstream than they first appear. Even Sierra Club president Werbach, a self-described Valley boy,buys into a suburbanized version of Schumacher's peasant ideal. In his 1997 book, Act Now, Apologize Later, Werbach celebrates the static peasant village, where "whatever is produced in the village must be used, first and foremost, by the members of the village." Although he is too much the liberal to condemn immigration, he has no trouble denouncing trade: "We should demand that the Safeway in Idaho carry only native potatoes. And we should draw the line when department stores bottom out prices, muscle out local businesses, and eradicate local culture."

To its opponents, immigration is just another way to "eradicate local culture" and "bottom out prices," in this case for labor. If we should buy only native potatoes, how much more should we employ native workers, regardless of the value immigrants offer. All of Werbach's arguments for "radical localism" can be turned to serve immigrant bashers, because those arguments are, at bottom, opposed to the unpredictable dynamism of choice, competition, and mobility. They prefer stability to freedom, and cultural stasis to individual happiness.

A cultural-political movement opposed to mobility and change will, over time, come to support restrictions on technology, trade, and, yes, immigration–regardless of what its leftist allies think. The Sierra Club vote forced environmentalists to recognize the nativism in their midst. But they're a long way from fully rejecting it.

A version of this article appeared in the Los Angeles Times on May 5, 1998.