This spring the members of the Sierra Club made a historic decision. On this
year's Club ballot, they were asked whether we should address the problem of
overpopulation by limiting immigration or by dealing with its root causes.
Six out of ten voted to defeat the immigration initiative. In doing so, they
chose to embrace the concept of global
not merely nationalstewardship, and shunned an attempt to reduce environmental
stress in the United States by increasing it elsewhere. Taking responsibility for
their own resource use, they refused to blame newcomers to our country for our
The controversy over immigration, sadly, distracted us from much more important
population issues. While we were busy debating the impact of hundreds of
thousands of immigrants, Congress was dismantling U.S. support for international
family-planning programs serving hundreds of millions of families. We owe it to
those families and to the environmental movement to learn from this process and
get back to work.
This is not to deny that immigration is an important topic. It has economic
consequences, it influences our sense of who we are as a people, and it even has
local environmental impacts. But while Sierra Club members share the country's
strong (and varied) feelings on immigration, they declined to make it a Club
issue. Restricting immigration, they decided, is not the best way for us to
protect the environment.
I believe they made the right choice. Immigration restrictions don't solve
environmental problems, they merely shift them elsewhere. Proponents of the
immigration-restriction initiative argued that we need to protect our own
backyard, or "lifeboat," in environmental philosopher Garrett Hardin's metaphor.
Immigration controls, they said, are how we keep others from swamping ours.
Instead of a lifeboat, the Sierra Club chose Buckminster Fuller's vision of
"Spaceship Earth." After all, the lesson of the Kyoto Global Warming Summit was
that the nations of the earth must act not only individually but also in
coordination. Photos from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii show a huge brown
plume carrying pollution to the West Coast of the United States from coal-fired
power plants in Asiaat the same time that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions threaten
to warm the earth enough to flood out hundreds of millions of people in
Bangladesh and island nations.
Proponents of immigration restrictions tried to make their own global case.
Because Americans consume more than their share of natural resources, they
argued, it follows that the more Americans, the more environmental destruction
globally. The problem with immigration, this position suggests, is that it raises
the living standard of those who come here. But raising living standards
elsewhere would have the same effect, so this logic would compel us to oppose
economic growth in the Third World as well.
There is no doubt that Americans use too many natural resources, and in doing so
generate a disproportionate amount of pollution-more carbon dioxide, for example,
than any other nation. But the average inhabitant of Mexico City puts more
pollution into the atmosphere than the average Angeleno; the average Greek
accounts for more heavy metal in the ocean than the average American; and adding
100,000 people to the population of Sumatra displaces more critical habitat for
more endangered species than adding the same number to New York or Illinois.
Sorting out the global environmental effects of immigration, we soon find, is too
complicated for anyone to reasonably calculate. And pretending that we can set
immigration levels solely based on rates of consumption sends a terrible message
to the rest of the world: "We know that our way of life is fatal to the
biosphere, but we don't plan to change it, and we can't afford to have you join
us. Please don't imitate us back in your own countries either."
Some people leave their homes looking for a better life, while others are forced
to leave because of war, repression, environmental degradationand sometimes U.S.
policy. In three short years since the approvalover Sierra Club objectionsof
the North American Free Trade Agreement, its agricultural provisions have forced
some 400,000 families off the land in Mexico. Many of those displaced headed for
El Norte. The proposed remedies to the financial crisis in Asiabacked by the
United States and the International Monetary Fund
could, if adopted, send another tidal wave of migrants across the world. Rather
than slamming the door, members directed the Club to devote its energies to
global stewardship, to mitigating the conditions that drive people from their
There is also much to be done in our own country. The United States has the
highest fertility rate in the industrialized world, the highest rate of teen
pregnancy, and the highest rate of unplanned pregnancies. (We have more unplanned
pregnancies than we have immigrants1.3 million versus 1 million.) Bringing down
these scandalous numbers would give the rest of the world a model, not a slap in
The approach adopted by Sierra Club members is a policy to be proud of. It
commits us to reducing the impacts of our way of life, rather than restricting
access to that way of life. It encourages us to tackle the human and
environmental tragedies that force people to migrate. It suggests that global
overpopulation can best be solved by providing all people a decent standard of
living and by giving all women the means to control their fertility. It says,
most importantly, that we don't have to push people off the lifeboatbecause
we're all in it together.