Immigration and the Environment

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Former Colorado governor Richard Lamm, who's running for the Sierra Club Board of Directors, complains in today's San Francisco Chronicle that immigration hurts the environment:

The Sierra Club now has a Grand Canyon gap between its goals and its action plan. It cannot get to an environmentally sound America without considering population and immigration.

The present American birthrate will lead to a stable population around 2050, but with today's level of immigration, our population will be approximately 500 million, on its way to a billion. Which makes sense to you? I have yet to meet an American who wants a billion neighbors—or even 500 million. This is not as issue of immigrants, but of immigration. What possible public policy advantage would there be to an America of 500 million? Do we lack for people? Do we have too much open space, parkland and outdoor recreation spots? What will 500 million Americans mean to our environment? Are our schools unpopulated? Do we not have enough diversity? Will you live better lives if San Francisco and California double in size? These questions answer themselves. Can you imagine an America of a billion people that you would want to leave to your grandchildren? (link via RealClearPolitics)

(The issue is not a new one for the Sierra Club. As Virginia Postrel wrote in 1998, "a cultural-political movement opposed to mobility and change will, over time, come to support restrictions on technology, trade, and, yes, immigration…")

More on Lamm and other anti-immigration candidates for the Sierra Club board here. Their opponents are organized here. Is this a Malthusian civil war?

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  1. Joe,

    Why do you doubt Dick Lamm’s credentials as an environmentalist? Sure, he’s best known for certain controversial comments he’s made, but as governor of Colorado he was a big advocate of preserving open space and other environmental causes.

    Now, as for whether his followers constitute a faction within the Sierra Club or from without, I cannot comment. But I really don’t know why you would claim Lamm has nothing to do with environmentalism other than to guess it’s because you associate him with him infamous “duty to die” comments and the like.

  2. The Economist has a story comparing European and US population growth over the next 50 years. The projection they use has between 400 million and 500 million in the US in 2050.
    http://economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=1291056

  3. Joe, I think that St. Louis and Detroit (and most other non-coastal, non-south and non-west metro areas) are low-growth areas only because their central cities have emptied out so drastically. When you take that into account, it follows that all growth IS sprawl and vice versa. Like Brian said, you’re not going to convince America to grow otherwise without some sort of major catastrophe happening first.

  4. Screw the founding fathers. Look at the American Indians. They allowed unrestricted immigration and now where are they?

    In all seriousness, though, I don’t think people supporting immigration control are worried that we’re going to “run out of space.” As if someone is seriously worried about knocking into people all the time and running out of oxygen.

    It’s not whether you grow that determines your region’s health and quality of life, but how you grow.

    This being exactly why immigration matters. It is not the same kind of growth as increased birthrates. It’s far more chaotic and straining on public services. It also reduces assimilation and encourages cultural ghettoization. I’d love to see what studies say because I don’t really know. But that’s what I see happening around me.

  5. Most of the comments I’ve been seeing here come at the issue from a very urban point of view. “Intelligent development” is just a euphemism for stacking as many people (vertically or horizontally) in the “most efficient” space possible, i.e., like sardines.

    I have no problem if people _want_ to live in an urban setting in close quarters, relying on public transportation, visiting the municipal parks when they want a breath of “fresh air.” But “intelligent development” seems a bit too much like the urban schemes of the early-mid 20th century. “The City of Tomorrow” is not a city I want to live in.

    If others want to buy that particular dream of societal efficiency, fine, more land and open space for me and my homestead.

    However it’s not honest to justify large increases in the population by saying “our intelligently designed cities of tomorrow will be able to handle that.” You will always have a large portion of society that rejects the urban lifestyle. Turning the U.S. into one big efficient city may be a dream for some, but not nearly all. I realize that that is way down the road, but it’s somewhat dishonest to say that a population of 500 million in the U.S. will not have some deleterious effect on quality of life. Economically, it may mean more wealth to go around (and I’m no foe of immigration), but it’s no guarantee that well-designed and -run cities will be the answer.

    Looking at the long term record of most cities dealing with change, I’m not hopeful that growth can be managed “intelligently,” and that the best course may turn out to be to let things happen as they will, not to take a central planning stance on the problem.

  6. Take in concideration that most immigrant groups come to this country not knowing a single lick of english let alone have seen the wonders of a functional major city. Its like visiting a new world to them, they come here to seek a better way of life. Unlike our founding fathers they are here working as we accept our guests with discrimination. Remember that they are here to work. The few Mexican people that work in my office building are probably the lowest paid, and they dont complain. I speak with them every day, very nice people and very hard workers. So before we begin to complain about ghetto’s and assimilation. Let us make them feel at home cause they are not going anywhere. And in result of their neglect we our ghetto.

  7. The L.A. Times’ Steve Lopez comes down on the side of the restrictionists in Way Too Many People in Paradise (excerpts here).

    This is a big step up for the L.A. Times; they’re usually in the ‘any immigration restrictions means you’re a nazi’ camp.

    For more truth about immigration – rather than the glossy brochure version usually available from liberaltarian outlets – check out my Immigration category.

  8. fyodor, one thing I’ve discovered is that “open space preservationist” is not the same thing as “environmentalist.” People who wouldn’t think twice about pouring half a can of leftover paint in a stream suddenly discover they were a brown trout in a past life if someone wants to build a subdivision next to the one they live in.

    The “environmentalist” argument against immigrant is so transparently weak from the standpoint of environmentalism that I do not believe Lamm is making it in good faith as an environmentalist. Dick Lamm is the guy who turns up at the planning board to bitch about traffic nightmares from a 12 house subdivision. I’ve heard people like him sing the same song for years, and I know the words at this point.

  9. At: green swings Hard Right on immigration…

    The Nazis were some of the first environementalists in governement. Some of their gardening books were pretty menacing. A paraphrase: “To maintain aesthetic unity, we must remove alien weed species from our soil and create more living space for superior native species.”

  10. I don’t have a problem with immigration.

    But illegal immigration subverts those who go through the process that has been a part of naturalization for a long time.

  11. I don’t have a problem with immigration.

    But illegal immigration subverts those who go through the process that has been a part of naturalization for a long time.

  12. I have reason to believe that the big issue for this government is assimilation. This whole enviromentalist article is subliminal propaganda to stir the senses and create some type of awareness towards migrating groups. The people that come to this country from all over the world
    will eventually become vehicle and Home ownwers.
    The Mexican people alone purchase a lot more than other ethnic groups exceeding them by 30%(dont quote me though) with an average income of 33,000 a year this helps our economy. Instead of spending tax funds on taller walls why not spend it on training, after all they are coming here to join the work force.

  13. “The “environmentalist” argument against immigrant is so transparently weak from the standpoint of environmentalism”

    This RAND study discusses population’s effect on the environment. I just scanned the first part, but I’d imagine it refutes your statement.

    The end of this article has some historical information on environmentalism and population.

    Having been a Sierra Club member for one year (it got me a discount on a SC class), and having taken several hikes and fun outings with the SC, I think I can figure out why they don’t want to support immigration restrictions:

    1. They are almost all white, liberal, and guilty. They reflexively support People and Things of Color simply because they are Of Color; foreign things and concepts are automatically better than their American counterparts.

    2. They don’t like being called racist, xenophobic, bigoted, and/or mean-spirited. Which is just about the only argument the Open Borders types can come up with.

    3. They don’t want to piss off the extremist or far-left ethnic groups with whom they form coalitions.

  14. BTW, the word “fun” above should have had satire tags around it.

    Another data point is most members of the SC are sheep. The SC method of hiking involves a large group of people boxed in with a leader in front and a “sweep” in back making sure no one gets lost. That’s the safe thing, and the only way to do things for safety. However, it also seems to fit in with the ethos of most SC members.

  15. Lonewacko –
    “Having been a Sierra Club member for one year”

    I take it you are part of the bandwagon described here ? –
    http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0220/p01s04-ussc.htm

  16. You can read all about the exciting SC politics concerning the demise of the “Climbing-Knapsacking Section” here. Do they make black Nikes with lug soles?

  17. SM: What was the point of including that article? It’s the same as dozens of other articles on this subject; in the second paragraph the supposedly objective “reporter” tells us where he stands: “…anti-immigrant activists…”

    I haven’t been a member for a few years and I have no intention of re-joining. You don’t need to be a member to go on most group hikes with them, and I’d rather avoid going on group hikes unless it’s safer to do so.

  18. Sounds pretty objective to me. If it walks like a duck etc.

  19. The world has the same number of people whether certain of them immigrate to America or not. In fact, in America they might have better access birth control than in a Catholic-dominated country. It looks as if “Think globally, act locally” means “not in my back yard.”

  20. As a native Coloradoan, I would like to apologize to the entire nation for inflicting Dick Lamm upon you.

    We replaced Dick as governor many years ago, but we are still haunted by his legacy of idiocy. He is our Jerry Brown.

  21. garym, in fact if anything, the more immigration to America the less people there’ll be overall because assimilation into America’s more modernized society will likely lead to lower birth rates. But rationalization knows no bounds. I have this extreme anti-immigration leftist friend who claims that restrictions on Mexican immigration to the US would limit overall population because the more Mexicans who come here, the more space they’ll have for reproduction in Mexico, and vice versa. I haven’t seen this cockamamie theory anywhere else, so I don’t know if my friend’s a lone wolf on this one, but it just shows how strong the human need to rationalize is.

    ACtually, truth be known, if I could wave a magic wand and make people from other countries lose their interest in coming here, I might do it because I have an aesthetic preference for less people around me rather than more. Unfortunately, I don’t have that magic wand, and there’s no real world way to try to stop people from coming here without undesirable repercussions.

  22. I do find this odd since the types who pledge their support for environmentalism tend to be of the same political stripe as those who proclaim that restrictions against immigration equates racism.

    Either some branches of the eco-kook movement are swinging hard Right, or the upper/upper-middle class disciples of the Serria Club are showing are throwing a green cloak around their white, patrician bigotries.

  23. Whoops! Never blog before your first cup of coffee. Make that:

    …of the Serria Club are throwing a green cloak around their white, patrician bigotries.

  24. The mind boggles. I have never seen any population projections that get the US over about 400-500 million people. Saying that the US would have a billion people is just scaremongering; not that I’m surprised that the Sierra Club (or members thereof) would resort to scaremongering, mind you, I just thought I’d point it out.

    But seriously ? if the US had a billion people, what would that do for the amount of poverty in the world? A billion people with the standard of living the US enjoys . . . that’s pretty powerful. And for the record, I think it more likely that the new immigrants would have their standard of living raised to the level of native citizens rather than the standard of living of native citizens going down.

    The statement “Do we lack for people” betrays a basic ignorance. Almost always, the more human capital, the better. Other things being equal, more people means more wealth. It’s not a zero-sum game here, people. We’re not dividing a fixed amount of wealth among ever more people. Those immigrants will create wealth, and the world will be the richer for it.

    The only problem is making sure that our traditions of liberty and freedom aren’t lost in the shuffle, but I think that that’s not likely to happen. I don’t care if three quarters of the people in the US are Hispanic or Asian or something other than white; no mourning the lost WASP way of life here (though I am the very prototype of the WASP ;-), just so long as the Bill of Rights continues to be observed (as much as it is now, at least).

  25. The world would increase its population because immigration acts as a temporary pressure release. Leaders of over-populated countries are reluctant to address population growth because it is generally unpopular and they would lose their jobs. Here and in Austrailia, Canada and Europe immigration is welcome because it keeps the pyramid scheme of Social Security and other social programs afloat.

    In both instances the people who make these decisions are being short-sighted and are simply putting off until tomorrow what should be addressed today.

  26. “pressure release”?? So I guess my friend’s not the only one who believes this. Fred, is there any evidence that emigration leads to greater birth rates in the vacated nation? Even if it’s true lower population concentrations lead to higher birth rates, immigration still wouldn’t effect overall population because that same effect would have to work in the opposite direction in the country being immigrated to. But no matter, the only thing that historical evidence shows leads to lower birth rates is modernization.

  27. I have a hard time believing that a national population growth comprised of 80%+ immigration is a good thing.

    Yes, immigrants built this great nation. But maybe at some point we should stop building, huh? Especially when the only thing being built is ghettoized neighborhoods and a really competitive dishwasher and lawncare market.

    We’ve never had nonstop immigration in our history, but periods of assimilation and relative closure in between open doors.

    This is definitely an issue where I see cultural reality at extreme odds with libertarian theoretical fantasies. I’d like to see what other dissenters have to say.

  28. Garym:
    Most of the countries with population problems aren’t even Christian – the Mid-east, India, North Africa, and others. In fact the birthrates are lowest in Italy and Spain, which are Catholic dominated countries.

    Agressive use of birth control has more to do with high standards of living rather than affiliation with the pope.

  29. It’s not a question of wealth or population. It is, rather, a question of the quality of life. Sure, we could take 3/4 of the world’s population and jam them shoulder to shoulder into the US, but what would be the impact on our quality of life? We may be richer in terms of the dollars floating around in the economy, but I think that many of us would consider ourselves considerably poorer in that we did not have easy access to trees, grass, etc. in our everyday lives. Instead of parks, there’d be buildings, roads, and parking lots.

    If we could force people to live in areas like the midwest so that the poopulation is evenly distributed across the land, then we could of course accomodate a huge number of people and still have room for parks and other open space. The problem is, though, the people do not want to live in the midwest. They want to live on the coasts and the capacity of these areas to absorb new residents while still providing a decent quality of life in terms of income potential, affordable housing, environment, crime rate, etc. is extremly limited.

    For all of the many wonderful things – and there are many to be sure – that technology and the continued growth of the economy bring us, there are also considerable downsides that should be considered. Modern life is a trade off, and I don’t think that it’s so wacky to believe that limitless growth and expansion is a poor tradeoff for a decent quality of life. You don’t have to be a anti-capitalist tree hugger to realize that reasonable limits on population and economic growth can benefit people too.

  30. The population rate would remain the same in the vacated country which means that if it is over-populated now, it will continue to be over-populated.

    Modernization is at the heart of my thinking. If an African, Asian or South American were to emmigrate to an economically advanced country, it would not take them long to realize that to be prosperous, 2 kids are better than 12. Whereas their fellow counrymen they leave behind would not have any motivation to have less children.

    Population will continue to rise in every country under these conditions until there is some sort of breakdown, like the Potato Famine, which I am told left a social shock that kept population growth at zero long after emmigration subsided. I said every county’s population will continue to rise, but I guess Russia is a glaring exception. Get my Drift?

  31. NotSoSure,

    Agreed. Especially when we are a welfare state and most of the immigrants we are getting are poor third-worlders.

  32. “The problem is, though, the people do not want to live in the midwest. They want to live on the coasts and the capacity of these areas to absorb new residents while still providing a decent quality of life in terms of income potential, affordable housing, environment, crime rate, etc. is extremly limited. ”

    I think the solution here is obvious: Flood the midwest. Seriously. We can get all the food we need from the agricultural countries of the Third World. Turning the Midwest into a sort of New World Mediterranean would be a perfect solution. No more drab states to drive across during your family vacations (who even stops for more than a night’s sleep in Kansas and Nebraska, anyway?)

    Adding more coastline will relieve the pressures on California and the big Eastern cities while offering a whole new vacation spot for the rest of the country.

    Landowners in the Midwest could be compensated for their losses by estates and farms in the newly vacated (and less boring) areas of Africa, Asia, and South America whose residents could now stream into the U.S. to enjoy a new urban life. Think of it as a landowner exchange program.

  33. Is “Let’s do it for the natives” the corollary to “Let’s do it for the chilren”??

  34. “Can you imagine an America of a billion people that you would want to leave to your grandchildren?”

    Our American ancestors of a couple hundred years ago might have asked, “Can you imagine an America of 50 million that you would want to leave to your grandchildren?”

  35. “Sure, we could take 3/4 of the world’s population and jam them shoulder to shoulder into the US, but what would be the impact on our quality of life? We may be richer in terms of the dollars floating around in the economy, but I think that many of us would consider ourselves considerably poorer in that we did not have easy access to trees, grass, etc. in our everyday lives. Instead of parks, there’d be buildings, roads, and parking lots.”

    This is a common fallacy. Population growth need not result in the elimination of open space and the paving over of the countryside. Building in an efficient, traditional, transit-oriented land use pattern can not only protect open space, but increase the amount of open space that people actually have access to, while reducing the pollution and traffic impacts of growth by allowing for more convenient commutes and shopping trips.

    Assuming that all growth is sprawl, or that all sprawl in growth, is a common mistake on both sides of the political fence. Some of the most sprawly, inefficient metro regions in the country – St. Louis and Detroit come to mind – are areas with low overall growth. It’s not whether you grow that determines your region’s health and quality of life, but how you grow.

  36. Fred Gillete wrote –
    “Leaders of over-populated countries are reluctant to address population growth because it is generally unpopular”

    Not a fact-based assertion at all. China is currently the world’s most populous nation and the leaders there do considerably more than just “address” population growth, they harshly censor it. India, the other populous country has innumerable population control schemes; leaders, political and civic, in that country talk about the neccessity of reigning in population growth all the time. In Iran, which experienced population growth a couple of decades back, the mullahs actually came up with a fatwah OKing contraception. Contrary to Fred’s assertion, population control is in fact an easy sell in most populous nations. All these nations are in declining rates of population growth.
    It always helps to do a little research before leading with one’s prejudices.

  37. BTW, the anti-immigrant candidates should not even be described as a faction of the Sierra Club that is interested in anti-immigrant policies, so much as a collection of anti-immigrant activists from outside the Sierra Club, who are trying to seize control of an organization whose name would be useful on their press releases.

    Dick Lamm is an environmentalist like Lenora Fulani is a Perotista.

  38. joe –

    You are of course entirely correct. Unfortunately the kind of growth you describe is also highly unlikely given the realities of politics and economics combined with mankind’s woeful inability to think and act for the long term. Historical land use patterns, current zoning ordinances that discourage/prevent intelligent development, entrenched bureaucracies funded by the building and devlopement industries, the ubiquity of automobiles and cheap gas (yes, I’m aware of the recent price hikes) and the deeply ingrained belief “American Dream” of home ownership (ususally exmplified by the 2500 square foot single family home on a half acre or more of land) all conspire against intelligent growth. Maybe I’m too pessimistic, but I don’t see the kind of growth you describe (and which I wholeheartedly support)happening on any large scale any time in the near future. Until people can no longer afford cars or gas and until our political system stops encouraging “tradtional” development and land use practices, and until land stops being viewed as a commoodity rather than a resource, sprawl will be the way of all growth.

    I’d love to be wrong about this…..

  39. “Our American ancestors of a couple hundred years ago might have asked, “Can you imagine an America of 50 million that you would want to leave to your grandchildren?””

    Not to argue with your general rhetorical thrust, but it hardly seems necessary to point out that the land area of the U.S. 200 years ago was rather smaller. Anyway, there’s no shortage of people who, reflecting on the eastern megalopolis, would agree that any hypothetical founders who asked this were indeed right.

  40. no, no, please continue.

    I’ll just add, the single family home mania is not exclusively the result of the market. Developers putting 1 house on half an acre and selling it for $450,000 would be happy to put 10 townhouses and sell tham for $230,000 each.

    As for the neighborhood you describe, it sounds like it would be better off if the houses were all on 6000 square foot lots, and there were a couple of decent sized parks.

  41. Brian, db, your comments vastly exaggerate the implications of smart growth. I have never heard anyone with anything approaching credibility recommend that construction be limited to high rises. Very nice neighborhoods with a distinctly suburban, leafy character can be built at 5-6 units/per acre (higher, if you mix in 2 family and multifamily houses). In Massachusetts, we have both sprawly and traditional suburbs, and property values and quality of life are as high or higher in the latter than the former.

    Also, the term “cities of the future” implies that I’m suggesting something that’s never been done before, a novel experiment. In fact, I’m advocating for the types of traditional neighborhoods that have succeeded for 4000 years – with a few tweaks to accommodate modern life.

  42. Joe,

    “The “environmentalist” argument against immigrant is so transparently weak”

    I agree, but I sure wish you’d convince my environmentalist friends of that.

    As for Lamm, what makes you think he’d pour paint in a stream? Well, he may or may not be that kind of hypocrite — I don’t know him that well — but he definitely was and is a liberal Democrat who carved out an environmental image and record as governor of Colorado (he was the Gov when I moved here in 1981). When he ran for the Democratic nomination for the Senate against Ben Nighthorse Campbell, he just barely lost after receiving much support from environmental groups. Comparing him to NIMBY’s you’ve seen complaining to planning boards says more about your own perspective than Lamm’s. I think you’re just practicing wishful thinking because you don’t want to admit there’s folks with his stand on immigration in your own camp.

    That said, I disagree with the POV oft expressed here that anti-immigration environmentalists are necessarily racist. I think they’re just misguided, and I have the first-hand experiences to prove it.

  43. Considering that Lamm knows there are going be exactly the same number of Mexicans having an impact on the environment, his support for keeping them OVER THERE, and away from HERE, is the very definition of NIMBYism.

    And I maintain the NIMBYs are not environmentalists.

  44. Joe,

    “there are going be exactly the same number of Mexicans having an impact on the environment”

    Well, yeah, you know that and I know that, but environmentalists apparently have this rationalization going that Mexican immigration to the US will lead to greater birthrates in Mexico. I have friends who have environmentalist views across the board who have very specifically told me this! For you to say that they’re not environmentalists because of this one opinion on one issue is to simply to define the word to suit yourself. But by the commonly understood meaning of the word, my friends and Lamm are clearly environmentalists! Well to borrow your own phrase, I’m not going to waste any more time trying to convince you that water flows downstream.

  45. Joe –
    I too live in Massachusetts in a town that’s one of the top three in the state in terms of it’s rate of development (i.e. Single family home builiding). I’ve seen the efects of unplanned, unregulated devlopment on a once-rural community: Incredibly high priced houses jammed together on small lots on almost every buildable parcel of land in the town. We have well over 30,000 people and little open space (one park, a few soccer fields here and there, and a couple of tiny bits of public access right of way to a large lake that borders the town.) We also have three supermarkets, a Home Depot, a zillion other strip mall type store and restaurants and major traffic congestion. We have a brand new high school (which we can’t afford) that opened last year and is already too small to accomodate the students projected to arrive in 3 or 4 years. Quality of life? I guess it’s nice for the folks that can afford the $450,000+ houses. They never have to leave their little private pieces of heaven. As for the rest of us who are barely able to afford to live in the town, all this development has meant that we have to go out of town for recreation and relaxation (if we can get through the traffic, that is).

    No, I’m not equating “smart growth” with high rises or exclusively urban-type development. What I am saying is that growth cannot be left exclusively up to the market. It has to be planned at some level and the near and not so near future (i.e. 20 – 50 years down the road) has to be considered. Otherwise, unrestricted growth will lead inevitably – at least in this part of the country – to uncontrolled sprawl surrounding scattered enclaves of huge and outrageously expensive single family homes. Unrestricted growth means unreastricted demand for municipal services which means unrestricted demand for tax income which puts pressure on the town to increase business and inductrial development (’cause homeowners can’t afford to/don’t want to pay higher property taxes) which means that all available land will be built on by somebody which means that there will be significant pressure against the town acquiring and protecting any more open space. Land values will rise as the supply dwindles increasing pressure on devlopers to maximize the return on the properties they build. In my town, they do this by building bigger and more expensive single family houses because zoning laws prohibit mixed housing (single family and multi unit buildings in the same neighborhood). It’s a vicious cycle that ultimately leads towards sprawl and a lowering of the quality of life for everyone.

    ummmm…sorry ’bout the rant. What was the question?

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