Global and local solutions -
Why global solutions are inadequate to solve local problems
The Sierra Club categorizes overpopulation exclusively as a worldwide problem requiring only global solutions53:
"Sierra Club takes an integrated and international approach to the global need for slowing population growth. By working to improve the status of women in society and protecting women's health, we can protect the earth's health and the global environment."
This policy implicitly assumes that if global population can be stabilized, the influx of people into the U.S. will decline and U.S. population can be stabilized. Unfortunately, this grossly oversimplifies complex social and demographic forces.
Today's current world population harbors millions - if not billions - of people who are eager to enter the U.S. This degree of immigration would devastate our remaining open spaces and ecosystems and place an unacceptable burden on our infrastructure. Unfortunately, economic and social conditions in the primary migration source countries will not approximate those in the U.S. in the forseeable future. Stabilizing world population in 50 or 100 years will not solve population problems within the U.S. because the flow of migration will continue unabated. Therefore we must address overpopulation in our own country as well as in other countries throughout the world.
The pervasive problems of pollution, deforestation, air pollution, water shortages, topsoil depletion and potholes can similarly be called "global". Yet the solutions to many of these problems certainly can not be global.
Biologist Garrett Hardin observed34:
"The moral is surely obvious: Never globalize a problem if it can possibly be solved locally. It may be chic but it is not wise to tack the adjective global onto the names of problems that are merely widespread - for example, 'global hunger,' 'global poverty,' and the 'global population problem.' We will make no progress with population problems, which are a root cause of both hunger and poverty, until we deglobalize them."
"Populations, like potholes, are produced locally and, unlike atmospheric pollution, remain local - unless some people are so unwise as to globalize them by permitting population excesses to migrate into the better-endowed countries."
Thus, while we support the Sierra Club's current global policies designed to stabilize world population, we urge the Sierra Club to return to the roots of the environmental movement that encompass U.S. population - to preserve and protect our own environment for the benefit of future generations.
The road to U.S. population stabilization
The U.S. - at a population of 292 million in 2004 and the world's highest-consuming country - is projected to grow to over 570 million this century.2 This demographic time bomb can be avoided, but only if both causes of population growth (fertility and immigration) are addressed. Consumption levels must also be reduced in order to achieve an environmentally sustainable society.
Biologist Garrett Hardin points out that unending population growth is unsustainable:36
"The idea of perpetual growth is embraced with religious fervor by mainstream economists and other worshipers of 'Progress' - the material sort of progress, that is... Exponential growth needs to be seen as a severely time-limited process, for which costs must be paid. Growth is ultimately limited by the environment, a truth that ecologists encapsulate in the concept of 'carrying capacity'."
From an ecological perspective, America is now full. Many scientific experts agree that the nation's optimal carrying capacity is between 100 and 200 million37 - the number which will sustain the present generation while preserving resources for future generations.
Environmentalists need not apologize for acknowledging this demographic reality. To the contrary, environmentalists must not shy away from politically sensitive issues such as migration at the expense of the environment.
In 1989 the Sierra Club's own Population Committee came to the realization that high levels of immigration could not be allowed to destroy the environment the Club was founded to protect.
"The result of the committee's discussions was an interpretation of Club policy to cover immigration, the first time the Club has dealt with this issue in a quantitative way: Immigration to the U.S. should be no greater than that which will permit achievement of population stabilization in the U.S. This interpretation was confirmed by the Club's Conservation Coordinating Committee this past July."
-- Dr. Judy Kunofsky, Chair of the Population Committee
Unfortunately, the Sierra Club has abandoned its previous position for sustainable levels of immigration in favor of a less politically controversial policy that still threatens the environment.
Therefore, SUSPS calls for the Sierra Club to readopt its policy in favor of sustainable levels of immigration. SUSPS does not call for an end to immigration to the U.S. That would deny Americans the benefit of many talented immigrants who wish to contribute to our society. Instead, SUSPS calls for a return to sustainable levels of immigration.
By simply reducing legal immigration to traditional sustainable levels, the U.S. could achieve a stable population and stave off the population growth that we are witnessing. By also lowering fertility levels, the U.S. could eventually lower our population to reach an environmentally sustainable population.
Only by confronting both fertility and mass immigration as the root causes of unending U.S. population growth will we be able to ensure sustainability for future generations - of all species.
The legacy of U.S. overpopulation we are leaving to future generations does not have to happen if we recognize and address the causes of our population growth.
U.S. population numbers, graphs and explanations.
U.S. population growth.
U.S. birth rates and their relationship to population growth.
U.S. immigration and population growth.
Cites and notes for the overview section.
Population, Immigration, and Global Ethics, by Jonette Christian, 1999.
Intergenerational Justice, by Fred Elbel, The Social Contract, 2002.51
Author: Fred Elbel. Edited by Dick Schneider.