Population Growth Still Isn't a Problem. Anti-Immigrant Groups Still Think It Is.

It shouldn't be surprising that a misanthropic worldview like Paul Ehrlich's can be taken in xenophobic directions.


When Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb in 1968, he predicted that the 1970s would see an unavoidable period of widespread famine and death. That decade—and many since—have proven Ehrlich wrong. But that didn't stop him from warning of another impending catastrophe in a Sunday 60 Minutes appearance, claiming that "the next few decades will be the end of the kind of civilization we're used to."

That line has long been popular among the environmentalist left, despite all evidence to the contrary. Anti-immigrant groups and politicians keep echoing Ehrlich's worldview too. They say Western countries should reduce the number of immigrants they accept or else face the environmental degradation and increased pollution that migrants from poorer countries will inevitably bring.

Two notable environmental lawsuits have leaned into that logic. In August, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform (MCIR) v. Department of Homeland Security could proceed. Filed by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), the suit claimed the Biden administration had violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by failing to conduct environmental analyses before ending several of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies.

Former Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich made the same argument in an April 2021 suit against the Biden administration. "Population growth has significant environmental impacts," said a press release on the lawsuit, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) "and other federal officials did not provide environmental impact statements or environmental assessments when DHS abruptly halted ongoing border wall construction" and began allowing more migrants to enter the country by ending Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy.

These ideas have found supporters in Congress as well. In March 2021, Reps. Bruce Westerman (R–Ark.) and Paul Gosar (R–Ariz.) claimed in a letter to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that "decreasing illegal crossings protects our border environment." They cited research from CIS fellows to build their case.

Ehrlich's worldview sits at the core of CIS and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), two organizations at the forefront of anti-immigrant environmentalism. Both push for drastic reductions in legal and illegal migration alike, often citing worries about overdevelopment and pollution. They were founded by John Tanton, an ophthalmologist whose restrictionist views on immigration included an environmental focus—and a warmness to eugenics and racial quotas. "Though fertility rates had fallen, he saw a new threat emerging," read a New York Times profile of Tanton. "Soaring rates of immigration."

"Tanton came to his beliefs about population control in the 1960s and through the writings of antinatal zealots like Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich," Manhattan Institute senior fellow Jason Riley wrote for The Wall Street Journal. In the 1970s, Tanton took over as president of Zero Population Growth, a pro–population control organization that was founded by Ehrlich.

Ehrlich was a "longtime FAIR adviser," according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and served on FAIR's board (though he quit in 2003). "Rapid achievement of [zero population growth]," he and his coauthors wrote for Population and Environment in 1995, would "require a complementary restriction of immigration." Immigrants become "superconsumers, furthering both local and global environmental deterioration," they claimed; they "often bring with them cultural preferences for large families…adding to our nation's gross overpopulation." And, though they wrote they "have long been fans of diversity," they wondered "whether the American political system can stand much more without grinding to a halt."

But this is a faulty way of thinking about immigration and the environment. According to research from Michigan State sociologist Guizhen Ma, places with larger foreign-born populations tend to have better air quality, as immigrants tend to "use less energy, drive less, and produce less waste." Compared to native-born Americans, immigrants are also disproportionately employed in "jobs that either benefit the environment directly or make their establishment's production more environmentally friendly," per 2021 George Mason University research. Immigrants largely settle in urban areas, contradicting the claim that they foster the overdevelopment of pristine lands.

According to Reason's Ron Bailey, "Current trends in agricultural productivity, population, urbanization, and dematerialization will likely negate [Ehrlich's] extinction auguries and predictions of civilizational collapse." That's because "an increasingly wealthy and technologically adept humanity will be withdrawing from nature over the course of this century." Just as an increased birthrate will lead to more minds and helping hands to solve pressing environmental problems, so will increased immigration.

It shouldn't be surprising that a misanthropic worldview can be taken in xenophobic directions. The reality of immigrants and the environment should, however, offer yet another reason to be skeptical of Ehrlich's prognostications and the steps that might be taken to keep them from coming true.